Thursday, July 31, 2014

Strength... or maybe Dignity


"Strength and dignity are her clothing."

It's a dichotomy seen in both our perception of male and of female roles: there are two kinds of men, the macho and the gentleman, and never the twain shall meet; there are two kinds of women, the manly superwoman and the gentle and quiet "priestess of the house."

Yet Scripture puts strength and dignity together. Adventure racing, antarctic journeys, and getting lost in the woods on purpose with nothing but a pocketknife and dental floss may not be everyone's cup of tea, nor is it less Spiritual for a man or a woman to be passionate about things other than mud and blood and sweat. But every Christian is called to be ready to do hard things for the Kingdom of God. 

I might step on some toes, here, but I think we in modern America have classified some things in the category of "rugged manliness" that should not at all be male-only qualities.

It seems a normal, standing joke that guys may like going camping out in the woods without running water, but that to ask a lady to do that is laughable.

Sacagawea, the women of the Mayflower, the brides who went west, and missionary wives like Elisabeth Elliot might have something to say about that.

Civilization is a wonderful thing, but sterility is not. If a broken air-conditioner or a cold shower is a heavy trial, how will we be prepared to take on greater refinements dealt by the Hand of God and consider it joy?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I've heard almost incessant raving reviews of this film (I think I heard one person say they didn't get what all the hubbub was about), but I have some trust issues when it comes to movies.  And films like this are pretty much why.  I think our culture has become a little too lactose-tolerant in our media diet.

Now, I enjoyed this film quite a bit; I think it was one of Marvel's best.  But until we all collectively admit that that's not saying very much, we will remain the cheese addicts that continue to fund these comical comic-book films and their exploits into Cheeseland.

Be forewarned that some stuff might get spoiled for you in this review.  Including cheese.  Lots of spoiled cheese.

The Good

The Worldview

Let's start with the good- and there was a lot of good to appreciate in this film.  When it comes to worldview goodies, this was one of the most message-on-its-sleeve films I've seen in a long time, and, contrary to the standard "follow your heart" hogwash, this film had a message worth sending: the dangers of liberty are far sweeter than the chains of security.  The Captain's refusal to abandon old-fashioned notions of liberty in the face of the ripped-from-the-headlines police-state methods of SHIELD and the peace-through-power methods of Hydra- and the fact that his stand is portrayed in the film as a good thing- makes this one of the most relevant sermons on liberty in the 21st century that I've watched in a loooong time.  As usual, Hollywood was able to preach their sermon without taking people out of the story; as not-so-usual, the sermon was a good one!  But the moral to this movie was not hidden in cryptic sophisms and symbols in the background; the message was clear, and has never been more relevant to Americans than it is today.  For this reason, and even if only for this reason, this film deserves a hearty round of applause from Americans who agree with Benjamin Franklin that those who are willing to give up liberty for security deserve neither.

"This isn't freedom. This is fear."
Captain America is my favorite "superhero" because, out of all of the others, he is the one man of strong moral character who does what is right because it is right and cares not what the consequences are.  Conversely, he doesn't pragmatically do bad things to achieve good ends, and he stands in the way of those who try- even if those who try are the "good guys." Of course, other heroes do these things, to some extent or another, but none of them do it for the same reasons and with the same conviction.

The scene where the nerdy computer tech says "I'm not going to launch those ships."  That was awesome.  We need more scenes and more films where regular people do not capitulate in the face of adversity.

In lots of action movies, the heroes steal cars (and everything else) and cause mass destruction and mayhem in the process, all without any apparent twinge of guilt, and certainly without repercussions.  This isn't heroic conduct.  Plenty of it still went on in this film, but a comparatively small amount of it was at the hands of the Captain, who, when he did hijack a car, told Natasha Romanoff to take her feet off the dash because they were borrowing it.  And with Steve Rogers, you can tell he actually means it.  I'd like to see more of this in modern action films!

The Art

Speaking of action.

This film has it.  Lots of it, and some of the best I've ever seen.  As usual with "superhero" movies, there was lots of CGI and plenty of explosions and crashes and yaddayaddayadda.  But this film featured more hand-to-hand, intensely choreographed, martial-arts-driven combat scenes than any Marvel film to date, and they were excellent.  Better than any I have ever seen before, in any film ever.  I'm now inspired to learn how to do a kip-up.

Even better, the martial-arts scenes didn't feel out of place (I'm looking at you, Taken 2), but flowed naturally with the story and in-between exchanges of gunfire.

And the Nick Fury car chase sequence was just as good or better than anything the Bourne films ever did, which is saying a lot.

Some of the acting was very good.  Nick Fury was much less of a source of corn than in The Avengers; less over-epic, more human and likable.  Whether this was a Samuel L. Jackson thing or a scripting and directing thing, I don't know, but it was a big improvement.

Robert Redford was stellar; by far my favorite performance of the film.

The music was very effective; while I didn't much care for Henry Jackman's score listening to it on its own, in the context of the film it drove the action very well.  I am not a fan of film sequels that switch composers, but I was so, SO happy that at least the main theme from the first film made one very clear statement at the beginning of the film.  Also, Jackman's chilling motif for "the Winter Soldier" was perfect.

The graphics and sets were outstanding and sometimes breathtaking; it was difficult to distinguish between CGI and reality throughout the film, and the interaction between the two was mind-blowing.

I really, really enjoyed the directors' style; sweeping, grand, colorful- the film was truly beautiful.

The comedy is also worth mentioning.  The comic moments throughout the film were made up of smart, believable, good humor, and they not only served to make the cheesy moments a bit more palatable but also made the whole thing more enjoyable and the people more relatable.  

"Don't look at me. I do the same thing he does, only slower."
The Bad

The Worldview

Total egalitarianism- no distinctions between the roles of men and women- is one of the strongest, most clear sermons that this film preaches, and it preaches it by example. 

The main female characters in the film only retain one aspect of femininity- their sexuality, which is played up and emphasized and used by them for their own advantage.  Beyond that, they are judged on their ability to, more or less, act like men.  It's not degrading to say that women and men were created for different purposes.  It is degrading to say that the things women were created to do are worth less than the things the men were created to do- and that's exactly what we see modeled in films like this.

This film has plenty of females in it, but very few ladies.  (The ladies I'm referring to are the extras in the crowd scenes.)

If there's a room full of people being tyrannized over by a group of big tough bad guys, 99 times out of 100 it will be a girl who whips out the gun and the ninja moves, breaks the spine of evil, and coaxes the whimpering men out from behind their desks, gently using her pink camo handkerchief to wipe the tears from their eyes.

Seriously, it's getting rather old, Marvel.

We're raising a generation of guys who no longer see it as their duty and know it as their instinct to step up and protect the innocent.  Should women do this too?  Of course!  But the role of defender is primarily a male role in Scripture (Nehemiah 4:14).  It should be normal and expected that if a bad guy needs taken down, any and every man standing in the near vicinity is ready to do the taking down.

There is a huge opportunity for Christian storytellers to resurrect this lost idea of manhood and womanhood being two different things.  We have to construct an alternative culture.  We have to present the beauty of the right way.  If all anyone ever knows is the wrong way to do things, we cannot be surprised when that is what their actions- and art- reflect.  It's harder to tell stories that show the power and beauty of a Godly, visionary woman of character- a wife, a mom, a homemaker, an Abigail Adams or Elisabeth Elliot- than it is to clothe an athletic woman in tights, choreograph an intense fight scene, and make audiences say "wow, she's awesome!"  But those are stories that need to be told.  American young ladies today need to hear about real women of strength, and look up to them, and realize the power that comes from living in such a way that others will say "wow, her God is awesome!"  Our stories must provide that influence.

The immodest, skin-tight garb that the women wear is old hat for superhero movies, but The Winter Soldier took it to another level, with a couple of shots slid in which were obviously framed for the sole purpose of drawing attention to the heroine's body.  Reducing her to her shape.  This is so degrading to women (not to mention it's certainly not edifying for men).

I thought it was disappointing and a bit out of character that they scripted a few swear words in for the Captain.

The whole relationship between Natasha and the Captain was a little ambiguous... not sure where they're going with that.

There was certainly a lot of violence, mostly of the comic-film sort.

Speaking of comic-films, there is a worldview issue that I would like to hear discussed more when it comes to any and all films of this genre.  What, exactly, is communicated by films like this, where "normal people" are passed over in favor of "superheroes"?  Are we in some way denying God's reality?  Is this a way to escape from the constraints that The Master Storyteller has put upon us and turn ourselves, for two hours, at least, into Batman, or Superman, or Ironman- someone invincible, all powerful, and amazingly good-looking in Spandex?

What are the edifying benefits of having these superhuman heroes, as opposed to telling the stories of real men and women doing real and amazing things for the glory and by the grace of God?  It's a lot more inspiring- and inspiring in a deeper, more soul-changing way- to read about Shackleton's voyage than to see Superman hold up an oil rig.  So are these comic-films fueling a modern-day flight from God's reality?  If the medium is the message, is the medium of fantastical super-films headed in the right or the wrong direction?

Overall, though, the worldview of the film was much better than most Hollywood productions.

The Art

The feminism that saturated the worldview of the film also damaged its artistic value. The women in this film are a steady source of cheese because they are just.  So.  AWESUM.  Favorite feminicheese moment was when two guys broke down the door on Agent Hill, maybe 30 yards away from where she was, and she didn't hardly look in their direction, fired off two rounds from her little handgun, and went right on with her business, never breaking a sweat or showing a twinge of emotion on her "I am the coolness" face.  If it had been a bad guy making that shot, and two good guys coming into the room, the bad guy could have had two fully-automatic shotguns and a bazooka and he still would have missed.  If it had been a more believable actor making that shot as a good guy, he or she would have had a startled reaction, ducked behind cover, and fired until making sure the threat was nullified.    Not Agent Hill.  She's too cool for, you know, realism.  She's a machine.  The same is true, of course, of Natasha Romanoff, and even of the blonde girl who, at the end of the film, is shown hitting bullseye after bullseye before we pan up to a shot of her facial expression.  Which was also "I am the coolness."  Corn-E.

But this is all true of the guys, too, and I'll get to that in a minute; the bad art here specifically related to feminism is that it's just not realistic.  There's a reason special forces only take male applicants. 

That said... this film contained enough cheese to feed an army of super mice, and that was definitely not just the ladies' fault.   Like this guy:

Epic bad guy pose.
I like to call him The Winter Cheese.  Everything was an epic moment with him.  Standing up was an epic moment with him.  Slowly he rose from the asphalt, never raising his head from behind the veil of hair until his body was fully erect, presumably to preserve chiropractic form and awesomeness.

Seriously?!?  A normal person wouldn't do that.  Therefore, cheese.

Cool face-covering mask.  That's epic, except that it apparently serves no purpose (like Bane's did) except to delay the plot twist for a little while.  Normal people don't wear face masks for no reason.  Helmet, yes.  Face mask, no.  Therefore, cheese.

Another issue de la corn was the invincibility of everyone.  (Though I'll grant you that it was far better than Man of Steel.)  Falling from buildings, getting shot and stabbed and beaten and going through car wrecks and nobody ever has any long-term negative health problems resulting.  Nick Fury even dies and he's still not dead.  

Marvel has only successfully managed to kill off one primary character in all of the mass mayhem they've orchestrated in their films.  And that was by being stabbed... once?  Poor Agent Phil.  He didn't get the SHIELD invincibility memo.  Of course, he's probably still alive in some underground cave and will come out of cryo-freeze in a future Marvel film.  "Agent Phil: The Summer Civilian."

Constantly denying realistic consequences not only gets old; it cheapens the film, because the storytellers are not willing to force the audience to deal with deeper emotions, and eventually it becomes "the boy who cried wolf."  "Oh, sure, Captain America has been shot 18 times, stabbed, burned, crushed, and thrown out of an airplane, but... it's a Marvel movie.  He'll be OK somehow."

That really makes it hard to get emotionally involved in the struggles of the heroes.

I thought they were going to let us really be sad and feel the loss of Nick Fury, and for the period of time where he was dead, the film was more powerful for it.  But no, we have to stay superficial, and just when we were about to really pull on those heartstrings, the movie says "just kidding."

There were holes in the story big enough to fly a helicarrier through.

For example... Natasha Romanoff disguises herself as a diplomat to go to a meeting.  Only problem is... what happened to the actual diplomat?

Or how about Nick Fury, who has just been through a car chase involving multiple collisions and an explosion which flipped his car upside-down, but he's able to use some laser-digging thing to dig through the roof of the car, through the pavement, and make a tunnel into the ground, at a pace so fast that apparently The Winter Cheese figured it wasn't worth pursuing him (even though Fury would be trapped in there and one hand-grenade dropped down the opening would finish the thing), and without having to actually move any dirt (apparently he vaporized it, or something).

That's pretty impressive.  Or maybe it's just...

Speaking of aged dairy deliciousness, Marvel's got a big problem on the horizon.  They cannot keep up this raising-of-the-stakes forever.  In Hulk, a monster in the streets.  In Thor, an invasion by aliens. Captain America, Hydra's invincible army.  Iron Man- well, they've kept those stakes pretty believable, thankfully.  The Avengers, more and badder aliens and a helicarrier.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier- three helicarriers, each armed with weapons designed for mass extermination, by the command of the same dudes he beat in the last movie!!! 

And then in the easter egg scene, we see the same dudes that he's beaten in both movies... WITH THE ALIEN'S STICK!!!  And the guy says "this isn't the age of heroes... it's the age of miracles!"  OH NO!!!

That sums up Marvel's problem.  "Not just heroes, but superheroes.  Not just superheroes, but aliens.  Not just aliens, but miracles.  Not just miracles, but..."

It's already starting to get ridiculous.  I think this is probably tied to my question about the value of comic-films.  Once we leave the boundaries of reality and start to find satisfaction in the super-real, I think the long run effect is similar to that of drugs, sin, and adrenaline rushes.  It always has to be more, bigger, better.  Films like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Saving Mr. Banks find their meaning and the emotional impact of the story by taking us on a journey within the reality that God has placed us in and giving us another look at it, taking us a bit deeper into it, getting us a little more excited about it, giving us a greater appreciation for it.  But with movies like The Winter Soldier, where the satisfaction seems in some ways to be derived from how unreal and fantastical the story is- if every one has to get more unreal, more far-fetched, even broader in scope- if that is our standard of measure, we will reach a point where the only way a sequel can be better than the prequel is if it is also worse.  Because we aren't connecting with hearts and minds anymore- only bodies.  It's only a physical rush.  Kinda like rock music over against classical music.

OK, moving on from that, the bad guys are amazingly skilled in the million ways they find to miss the simplest targets.  It's really quite impressive.  I couldn't miss that shot if I tried.

I thought the film was too long by about four scenes; there were multiple points where it could have ended satisfyingly and powerfully, leaving the viewer wanting more, but instead they went with the "give the audience everything" approach.  I think a couple of good points for the film to end would have been:

- on the shot of Captain America laying on the shore where he had been dragged by The Winter Cheese

- after the Captain said "on your left" in the hospital room

Either of those would have concluded the story well, but left the audience saying "NOOOOO!!! It can't be over yet! Give me more!"

Which is always a good thing.

In Conclusion

If you like superhero movies, action flicks, and cheese, this is about as good as it gets.  I enjoyed the film a lot, and look forward to seeing it again, but while it's one of Marvel's best efforts it did not transcend the stereotypical limitations of the comic film and give us a story that takes us on a real and deep emotional journey.  Lots of fun, lots of flash-bang, a good message, but, unfortunately, not much more than that.

I will say, though, that if I ever pass you when I'm out running, it will most likely be...

"On your left."