Sunday, May 8, 2016

On Captain America: Civil War, continued

The Covered Wagon, a 1923 Hollywood Western, is sympathetic to its Indian antagonists. When the film introduces them, they stand stone-faced and mad and complain about the theft of their lands. These aren't simple savages. The movie acknowledges their legitimate complaint. We tend to mark the beginnings of the revisionist western -- the western which called into question the genre's celebration of racial purity, violence, and Manichaeism -- in the 1950s, with movies like The Searchers. But you can find hints of such self-awareness before that if you look hard enough.

Superhero comics have been mildly self-critical about their politics for a long time. In the late 1970s, it was clear that a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam Captain America had to break his ties with the U.S. government. But we tend to think that Watchmen, which came out in 1986, was the true beginning of the ultraviolet revisionist superhero comic. In Watchmen, the heroes are sexually frustrated. They are willing tools of America's military industrial complex. They enjoy violence. In the climax, a superhero is arrogant enough to believe he can save the world by killing 3 million people. He succeeds and suffers no consequences. 

There followed many decades of self-questioning in the DC and Marvel Universes. Marvel had a comic about an agency tasked with cleaning up the wreckage from superhero fights. Marvel comics writers, aware that real American bombs had killed quite a few people in the 20th century, started thinking more about the many civilians their superheroes might have failed to save and may have accidentally killed. Superhero writers in story after story indulged their inner J. Jonah Jameson to the point where they seemed to hate their own fantasies and themselves for valorizing characters who in the real world would be considered monsters.

The superhero movies started posing these moral dilemmas in the mid-2000s with Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, which amounted to almost 8 hours of screen time with maybe 20 minutes of tedious action action sequences. It had some macabre jokes, but the best one was unintentional, namely Christian Bale's impression of a worldweary drag queen. Man of Steel was joyless. I haven't seen Batman v. Superman and I won't, but from the reviews I know that it too attempts to face the hard questions a superhero film must face in the era of 9/11 and Iraq. 

I wrote yesterday about the incompetent politics of Captain America: Civil War, which also tried to face the important hard questions. I suggested yesterday that the movie works in spite of its own bullshit and its unwillingness to go the full Watchmen. These heroes like to play. Their fight scenes are close to what Scott Bukatman wants them to be, musical numbers. If Paul Rudd's Ant-Man running through Iron Man's armor and telling Tony Stark that he's the voice of his conscience doesn't make you smile, I don't know what will. I was a little annoyed with Tom Holland's Spider-Man, but I did like his barely out of puberty voice, and it was hilarious seeing him ejaculate over and over again. Captain America has what should be a boring superpower, but, for the first time, it was interesting to watch Chris Evans figure out how to use his shield. 

But I'd like to amend what I wrote yesterday, in that I think Civil War actually works because of its half-assed revisionism. If you think of superhero movies as carnivalesque orgies -- and I do -- than this movie is brilliant. Our heroes are facing extinction-threatening crises, and they are treating the violence they must commit with uninhibited joy. They are laughing and fucking in the face of armageddon. Fellini loved Marvel Comics. Imagine what the director of Fellini Satyricon could have done with this material.

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