Why Captain America is Better than X-Men: First Class and Thor

Let me first go on the record to state that this is obviously going to be an opinion piece– I’m going to do my best to back up what I’m saying with what I’ve observed, but, in the end, whether or not something can be objectively quantified as “good” doesn’t necessarily have any real bearing on whether or not it is enjoyable. No judgment if you liked any or all of the movies I’m going to talk about.

I’m saying this because, as a Marvel fan, I have some very unpopular opinions at the moment. Try not to take them personally.

There will also be spoilers, of course.

I’ll start with X-Men: First Class, because if you’re going to stop reading this article once we disagree, I’d hate to waste your time. However, I will be opening up with praise, so you might want to stick around for a little bit before we get down to business.

I’ve read that the unfinished script for X-Men: Origins: Magneto, a project that’s since been trashed, had been integrated into the First Class storyline, and if that’s true, it’s fairly obvious. Erik Lensherr’s storyline is the gleaming crown jewel in the film, and Michael Fassbender shines in the role. Both his and James McAvoy’s chemistry with each other and the rest of the cast are worth seeing the movie for. Charles’s misguided optimism and inability to see past himself, despite being one of the world’s most powerful telepaths, and Erik’s determined descent into madness and corruption in pursuit of a revenge that he knows will burn him and everything it touches, are appropriately tragic and multilayered and morally complex. There are several nods to invisible disability and “passing” for a non-minority in the film.

The PG-13 rating allows for one F-bomb, used to spectacular effect in a well-placed cameo, which I always appreciate. The soundtrack was beautiful. The cinematography and lighting was dramatic and, at times, made impressive use of shadow, reflection, and color– going back to Magneto, even the evolution of his iconic costume is foreshadowed in Erik’s earlier appearances, because Lensherr is a man who knows the drama of presentation and color theory. All things considered, this should have been the movie of the summer for me.

What I found incredibly distracting is where X-Men is supposed to shine. There’s a quote I like about the X-Men, which is far more true than I always feel comfortable with: “X-Men is the story of black, gay, and disabled people, as told by white, straight, male characters.” Who are in turn generally written by middle-aged/elderly white, often conservative, men, to boot. At its best, X-Men has provided wry social commentary on systematic bigotry and the complexities therein, while making you care about its characters, who may have even represented you, a little bit. And the First Class lineup was impressive, and shook up the ranks of the canon-established X-teams. A movie with Sebastian Shaw, Charles Xavier, Magneto, Emma Frost, Mystique, Angel, Darwin, Havok, The Beast, Banshee ((American, for some reason)), Azazel, Riptide, and Moira MacTaggert (also American)? The first appearance of Cerebro, with teasers of other well-known characters? Be still, my heart!

The movie opened up strong, with Mystique as Xavier’s foster sister (which, I admit, made me wonder about The Juggernaut’s future in the series), and her issues with fitting in while having to remain disguised. She calls Xavier on his privilege– and then the film goes downhill from there. Despite the cast I just mentioned, the movie barely passes the Bechdel test. There are literally two lines where women are speaking directly to each other, without men interrupting (because both are group conversations) and without men being the topic. They went as follows:

Woman in bar: “What are you majoring in?”
Mystique, attempting to make her uncomfortable: “Waitressing.”

Angel, during a discussion about code names: “Well, Angel’s already my stage name…”
Mystique: “You can fly?!”

That is literally it. The most serious female-female conversation was between Angel and Mystique, later in the movie, where Angel says that she feels worse being stared at by government men “with [her] clothes on” than how they used to stare at her at her old job. Mystique corrects that the men are staring at “us,” instead of Angel’s “me,” singular. Angel doesn’t want to be a freak, and Mystique can sympathize, but the conversation is in the context of the male gaze, and lasts less than five seconds.

And speaking of Angel, she was treated very badly as a character in the movie. In her introduction, during Charles and Erik’s recruitment montage/road trip, she’s working as a stripper (hence, the “clothes on” line). When it’s revealed they’ve actually come for her non-disrobing-related abilities, she undoes her halter top (meaning it’s already backless), exposing her breasts, and in a shot from behind her, we see her tattoos are actually dragonfly-style wings that unfurl off her skin. Erik and Charles toast to her, or themselves, or the team-building effort. Or something. At that moment, I thought, “Huh, she’s going to need a custom uniform, I guess,” because how awkward, but later, in the headquarters MacTaggert secured for the as-yet-unnamed X-Men, Angel didn’t have any problems “winging-out” from under a backless, sleeveless turtleneck dress. …Huh.

She also is the group’s requisite traitor to the Dark Side. Darwin (the only other non-white character with a speaking role in the film– and I only saw one other non-white actor in the movie at all, and he played a valet in Las Vegas) tries to sabotage her betrayal/take away her agency to be… traitorous… by getting Sebastian Shaw & Co. in Havok’s line of fire while shielding Angel with his own hyper-evolution abilities. And he dies. Pretty horribly. Despite his powers being designed for him to not die in situations exactly like that. That’s what loyalty gets you. Unless Havok is just that much stronger than Darwin? The way it happened was that since Shaw can absorb and deflect impacts thrown against him (like the “Bide” attack in Pokemon), he took a concentrated fireball-thing of Havok’s hula-hoop attack and put it in Darwin’s mouth like a super-hot jawbreaker. It looks like everything’s going to be okay for a minute, because Darwin turns to some kind of metal, then some kind of stone, but turns back to his white comrades to meaningfully shake his head, turn back brown and fleshy for a moment, and then explode. Raven later laments that he’s dead and can’t even be buried.

This is a character who, in a previous scene, stuck his head in a fishtank and immediately grew gills to amuse his teammates, and grew scaly deposits across his back when he likewise had them hit him with furniture to show off how impenetrable his mutation made him.

So went the fates of Zoe Kravitz and Edi Gathegi in X-Men: First Class.

Moira MacTaggert, the cast’s main non-mutant, is a miniskirted (and thus, anachronistic and slightly unprofessional) C.I.A. agent who is investigating Shaw’s “Hellfire Club” and its influence on the Cold War, specifically in its instigation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. MUTANTS DID THIS TO US, you see. Footage of Kennedy is used and everything. Also, the institutional sexism that Moira faces is a repeated punchline throughout the movie, which makes me wonder, based on this movie’s popularity, if the more popular period television shows of late have featured the same kind of humor?

And since we’re on the subject of Mad Men, January Jones as Emma Frost is Shaw’s flunky, which is incredibly disappointing, even though I guess it’s in line with her character history or whatever. She has a scene in Shaw’s improbably roomy submarine where he tests out his anti-psychic helmet (which Erik later steals and has electroplated candy-apple-red, because, as I’ve said, he’s all about the drama).

“What am I thinking?” he says.

“I don’t know.” Shaw tells Emma he was thinking she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, and she smiles adoringly, as she’s meant to– and then, he adds, he was thinking his drink could use more ice, and go and fetch some, there’s a good girl. In the most passive-aggressive means of obtaining ice ever, Emma rolls her eyes, flounces through the entire length of the craft, goes up and out of the exit in the roof, turns her hand into diamond, and uses her fingernail to scratch off a chunk of iceberg into Shaw’s glass, sighing dramatically. Emma’s been hinted at as a potential power-player through a few scenes like this, her being theatrically tired of everyone’s mundaneness, and probably way cooler than anybody else present, though why she’s attached herself to Shaw, of all people, is anyone’s guess.

Regarding Mystique, I really, really wanted to like her. I know Jennifer Lawrence is an up-and-comer, a relatively new actress, and younger than me, but Mystique is played really, really, really young. I don’t know how much if this is Lawrence and how much of this was the decisions of the writing and directing team. But given the timeline projected in the film (a jump from 1944 to 1962), even assuming, generously, that Mystique was as young as eight in her introductory scene– which also goes against a later reveal that she ages at a much slower rate than us mere mortals, and would probably make her closer to twelve or thirteen at youngest– she would be at least 26 years old during the bulk of the movie. Except for the scene in which Shaw attacks the C.I.A. HQ the mutants are living and training at, in which Lawrence is allowed to/chooses to “ugly cry” in terror and trauma, which is incredibly rare in an industry where most women are told not to make facial expressions at all ever, Mystique’s lines are delivered flatly, and her intonation and mannerisms suggest the character as a teenager. I get that Lawrence is actually very young, but no one has Wolverine, who likewise doesn’t age, portrayed as an insecure twenty-something in any of the comics, cartoons, or movies that I’m aware of. Memo to the industry.

Mystique’s character arc is also uncomfortable for me because so much of her struggle with self-acceptance and self-worth is based on her perceived prettiness. She doesn’t seem to mind her natural blue form herself as much as she minds that other people, namely men, will find her repulsive. Rarely-to-never are women’s plots of self-acceptance and self-love about more than social acceptance, particularly agreed-upon attractiveness, but it would have been nice to have Mystique’s quest to fit in be more about being accepted in her entirety, her physical nature included in that– because excluding part of someone’s nature, or saying, “She’s pretty, for a mutant,” “She’s smart, for a mutant,” “She’s not like those other mutants,” can be both very hurtful and a complex thing to work out on one’s own.

This is where her romance plotline comes in, of course– shortly after she calls Charles on his own prejudices, mocking his pickup lines pointing out potential dates’ minor mutations (auburn hair, heterochromia, freckles, etc.) and the woman he was flirting with’s response of “Mutant and proud,” she asks him if he would date her. Without looking up, Charles says of course, she’s beautiful, any man would be lucky.

“Like this?” Mystique is blue and in a bathrobe, and Charles is suddenly uncomfortable, because, he says, she’s his sister and closest/only friend, don’t be so silly, Blue! I mean, Raven!

Later, the team encounters Hank McCoy, who, let it be known, I love, love, love– which means, like my love of Rogue, movie-makers have to strip those likeable characteristics from characters I relate to or am inspired by before they are fit for mass consumption. Alas. This Hank is ca. the actual first class of X-Men, which is to say, big-footed non-hairy white guy Hank, who is insecure about his feets, but is a super genius. Movie Hank is also a little bit of a whiner and tattle-tale, and isn’t the super-athlete of the comics, but that will come later. Mystique takes a liking to him, defending him from Alex Summers’s taunting (even though she won’t stand up for herself, or even just chill out in her natural form, which Erik calls her on with some highly amusing cockblocking)– and giving him her blood to try and make a mutation-disguising serum from.

The conversation they have about it is very sad, because by the time Hank’s developed a prototype drug that he assures her won’t affect their abilities, just their appearances (which is confusing, becaus Hank’s mutation is BIG FEET, not smartness), Mystique’s having second thoughts. She parrots both Angel and Erik, saying the two of them shouldn’t have to hide, even in plain sight, and the two of them back-and-forth about whether they should change to fit society or change society to include them. Hank thinks they can’t change anything; Mystique tells Hank he’s perfect just the way she is, and, having the epiphany that maybe she is, too, turns blue in front of him– again naked except for a bathrobe, because Raven craves male approval and sexytimes– but Hank hadn’t seen her like that before, and does not have the desired reaction.

“It behooves me to tell you,” Hank replies, his voice shaking, “but even if we save the world tomorrow, and mutants are accepted into society, my feet and your natural blue form will never be deemed beautiful.” Raven gasps and slips back behind her blonde mask in betrayal and hurt. “You look beautiful now.”

Mystique cries a little bit, takes a syringe from Hank and eventually tosses it into the fireplace in her room, which, I point out with some bitterness, is exactly what her future stepdaughter and biological son would do if the movies had reflected the comics a bit more accurately. She then turns up in Magneto’s room, now totally nude, in his bed– he tries to kick her out for being too young, and also because he and Charles have just had a little bit of a lover’s spat, but she responds by turning into Rebecca Romijn (HA). Erik immediately says he prefers the real Raven. When Mystique turns back into her young, blonde disguise, Erik repeats his request; and when Raven’s all blue and scaly, he’s into it, which makes her uncomfortable, because she’s really not as comfortable with herself as she tries to project. I thought it was a very real, well-written, and well-acted moment. Which lasts until Erik compares her to a tiger– a SEXY tiger– all stripy and naked, and then they have sex, meaning they kiss a little bit and the next shot is Mystique’s bare feet hitting the carpet in the next scene.

Still naked, she confronts Charles in a kitchen scene that mirrors her introduction, and establishes herself on Team Erik, aka Team Guy Who Thinks I Don’t Need to Conform So SUCK ON THAT, aka Team WE TOTALLY DID IT. Charles, in another example of this movie’s men crossing some lines to make decisions for women, says he would read her mind if he thought it would help him understand why she’s being so WEIRD, even though he promised he never would, but it’s sort of Mystique’s fault ANYWAY because he’s never had to before. Unlike with Darwin’s death scene, Charles is kind of portrayed as a dick in this instance, which plays into his greater character arc of Good Dude Who Learns Some Lessons, Has Family Dramas.

Hank, of course, takes the serum he’s concocted, with the predictable result that it doesn’t work at all, and instead turns him into a blue cat person. This is way less awesome than you’d think, since movie Hank isn’t very physical, so he’s not all jumping around and super-strong and stuff yet. He mostly uses his new abilities to brood, LOLcat-style, for the rest of the movie until the big climactic fight scene, and then to go back to feeling bad about himself afterwards like some sick Internet meme. See, you’re laughing now, you horrible people. You made a Hank kitten cry, weeping endlessly into the starry night, trailing a rainbow behind him.

This is a very weird scene/set of scenes for me, because what with the repeated “Mutant and proud” thing (“Mutant Pride” is either too militaristic with the Civil Rights metaphor, or too associated with the Gay Pride movement; though I tend to lean towards the Civil Rights issues since Xavier and Magneto are canonically stand-ins for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively), I found myself wondering how this would play out as a continued “passing” story. How would this scene play out if Hank had developed some kind of drug that made two already light-skinned characters develop straight blonde hair, light eyes, paler skin? If Mystique had unwrapped natural hair, and he told her she would never be beautiful, and how fucked up it would be that her immediate response would be to go to bed with the first guy who told her she was pretty? How crazy would it be if, instead of turning blue, the serum Hank developed darkened his skin and made a relaxer-proof afro, and while Mystique and Magneto cooed over how awesome it made him look, Hank wallowed in self-revulsion?

Okay, I know that’s totally ridiculous, but I’m just saying. These are plotlines that have been covered already, with varying degrees of success and sensitivity, and with characters who didn’t actually need a “cure” to disguise themselves in everyday society, who just wanted to not have to think about having to pass all the time– and who, in the X-Men’s 40-plus year history, have both had the “change yourself or change the world” internal struggle, and came out with a lot less crying in the end. I know Hank’s experimental serum, even outside of this film, is always what causes him to be a permanent outcast, a sort of Greek tragedy where he’s made his own fate by trying desperately to fit in– and the impetus for that has been, at different times, wanting to appear more “human,” wanting to suppress further mutation, and wanting to suppress “beastlike” impulses, in a sort of reverse Jekyll-Hyde, that he felt threatened himself and others. In most of these stories, with time, Hank learns to accept himself and the changes he’s gone through– including his appearance and how it ostracizes him. Hank’s aware there’s circles he can’t travel in, and that’s frustrating, but the solution is to eventually fight stereotypes and prejudice with positive action, and surround yourself with people who embrace you for who you are. The people who matter don’t mind, and the people who mind don’t matter. It’s a personal preference of mine that when the major driving angst is “I want to be pretty”/”I’m sad that I’m not pretty,” that story goes to the bottom of the stack, but that’s where I’m coming from.

All this kind of added up to a lukewarm response to the movie, and even though I’ve seen it three times now (as I’ve said, the ever-dapper McFassy interactions are well worth the cost of a DVD rental), every time the movie ends I’m disgruntled that it wasn’t better, or even really good beyond those two men’s storylines. I would watch a cut of this movie with just theirs and Kevin Bacon’s roles intact, and I would probably leave feeling a lot better than I felt watching the theatrical cut.

(The God of Thunder, Mighty) Thor I was much less personally invested in. I admit I was pretty grumpy when Thor: The Mighty Avenger, an all-ages comic, was cancelled, mostly because it was fun, cute, inoffensive, and made a point of acknowledging Norse mythology/Asatru ≠ comic canon in-story. Also, Jane Foster, who’s probably had more careers than Wonder Woman at this point, was a museum curator, and who doesn’t love museums? There’s been a lot written about the Thor movie already, including here at Hathor, so what I’ll say on the subject of the movie’s plot is that I think I’d like it better as a court drama sans mythological backdrop and comic-movie faux-seriousness. I laughed a lot at the jokes where I was meant to– but I also found myself laughing where I knew it wasn’t really a joke, which can be odd in something presented as serious whose subject matter is outlandish to begin with. Overall, I didn’t like the movie very well, and I’d guess a lot of that was pacing, since I didn’t care for most of the character tropes used, which meant large segments of plot time dedicated to unnecessary explanation kind of dragged.

The characters were sort of designed that way, though. Thor’s meant to be a childish jerk who grows into a man, Odin’s meant to be the old guy who’s a bit out of touch (but a good king!), and Loki is Loki is Loki. If he’s not a jerk, why bother? You’re doing it wrong. Actually… I liked Loki. I have a thing for Tricksters, what can I say? The Warriors Three + Sif spend a good chunk of the movie wondering how they can help their friend (“DO NOT MISTAKE MY APPETITE FOR APATHY!” Volstagg exclaims, eating his feelings when Bring Back Thor 1.0 fails), and Jane Foster and her coworkers spend a good chunk of the movie incredibly puzzled as to how Chris Hemsworth keeps getting in the way of their car, eating toaster pastry all the time and stuff. These aren’t people you aspire to be, or necessarily want deciding the fate of the universe. They’re just… people. It’s an interesting and humanizing take on, literally, godlike figures. Jane Foster desperately needs Thor to get back her entire thesis, since he’s the only other witness to a transdimensional cosmic event and can punch out the people who stole years of her research. That is years of her life, guys. Thor needs approval from his father, particularly after throwing a tantrum and getting kicked out for being a sass-mouth, and Loki needs it even more, to the point where he’s willing to tell the man he thought was his only brother that dad died thinking you didn’t love him, and mom says you can never come home. And your dog died. Of loneliness. If only you’d been here. Everyone else in the movie needs things not to go to shit around them, and are sort of working around Jane’s and Thor’s personal drama to try and get by while piecing the plot together.

However, Thor notoriously had some pretty cheesy dialogue and subpar acting. Which sucks– I felt Natalie Portman’s range was particularly underutilized, and that always gives me a sad. I’m reluctant to blame any of the actors for this– as with Jennifer Lawrence, who is also critically acclaimed, it strains credulity to declare that professionals who’ve done stellar work in the past (or so I hear; I’m not familiar with Lawrence’s other work, and I’m staying out of the Hunger Games debates until I’ve read the books) would spend a year-plus working on a film with mediocre results as a fluke. The reality of film production is that there are legions of creative staff working on editing before, during, and after shooting and production, and a script an actor or their representatives are given to draw them into a project may bear little-to-no resemblance to the finished product. Women’s roles, in particular, are often minimized or given little weight to begin with, a symptom of the Hollywood machine that relentlessly grinds away at the women who help drive it. A similar situation occurred in another comics-based summer blockbuster with Blake Lively in Green Lantern. She’s already having to battle the stigma of her involvement with Gossip Girl, which had the audacity to be a female-driven high-school drama, and her performance in GL was much-maligned; less-remarked-upon was her fantastic turn in Ben Affleck’s The Town, including her mastery of the highly difficult (to non-Bostonians) Southie accent/dialect. So know that when I say that the performances in Thor fell flat, I’m not singling out only Natalie Portman (though she may very well have been phoning it in, for all I know), I’m more focused on the executives who decided to splice together the weakest takes of the weakest lines that Natalie Portman was given, where she stares, shiny-eyed, at her Norse-by-way-of-Australia anachronism.

Despite this, and that both Thor’s team and Jane Foster’s team have at least one woman on each of them, the movie goes out of its way to not pass the Bechdel test. Jane’s friend/coworker Darcy provides comic relief and some much-needed sarcasm, but the closest she comes to having a non-male-related discussion with Jane is when they both lament their property having been stolen/”appropriated” by S.H.I.E.L.D.– which, as an organization, is theoretically without gender, but is presented as universally male– and the two women’s complaints are more focused around Agent Coulson, as well (who is a dude). When Sif asks for a word with Frigga, it’s to talk about Thor’s feelings regarding Odin as played by Anthony Hopkins, and Loki, who I thought Tom Hiddleston played more than adequately, all things considered. It’s just unfortunate. Blergh.

As well, the movie is kind of up-and-down with racial/ethnic diversity. On the positive side, Idris Elba’s casting as Heimdall was pretty spot-on, though a lot of people got butthurt over it, and I was over that well in advance. Generally speaking, when comics fans whine about adaptive diversity, it’s not because of change (see: X-Men: First Class), it’s because people with melanin and ovaries are horning in on their fun. Sam Jackson, of course, got his post-credits moment as Nick Fury, and I believe there may have been a few black people in the scene where all the truckers (hilariously) tailgate at the Mjolnir crater.

But Tadanobu Asano is absolutely shamefully wasted as Hogun, one of Thor’s Warriors Three, and as his only non-Aesir right-hand-man, the comedic opportunities were pretty glaringly neglected (though I admittedly have a strange sense of humor, and a samurai and several Aesir judgmentally not getting each others’ jokes might amuse only me). Hogun is your rather stereotypical Stoic Asian Warrior Dude who speaks rarely, but with gravitas, so everybody better listen up. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, but it smacked of tokenism just the same; I’ve read enough Thor comics to know that’s a pretty straightforward translation of the books, that Fandral and Volstagg are the big personalities, Sif is the Team Girl, and Hogun is Thor’s dash of the exotic, but of all the things to keep intact in a continuity that forges so much of its own path as it goes, I’d hoped expanding the roles of everyone not involved in an interstellar weekend romance would have been at least up for consideration.

The other thing is, the movie is cast in New Mexico. Have any of you been to New Mexico? I want anybody who’s seen this movie to try and remember if there were any Native or Hispanic actors in this piece, even as scene-fillers. Dakota Goyo doesn’t count, despite the name. …Go ahead, I’ll wait. It was definitely the whitest portrayal of New Mexico I’ve ever seen.

By the end, I didn’t really care very much about the characters, since so much of the movie’s journey was formulaic– I was ready for it to be over and to get to a sequel, hopefully a less-predictable one. My favorite part was the mineral-y fiber-optic-y Rainbow Bridge and the CGI Valhalla, though I watched the whole movie, which is more than I can say for Colombiana. So there’s that. Though Jane’s argument that magic is really only unexplained technology/science, which is therefore science fiction, which is science fact of the future, ergo, Norse mythology should be an awesome primary source for her theoretical astrophysics research, may have been more ridiculous than anything I’ve paid to hear all year.

Now, when it comes to Captain America: The First Avenger, it’s not that I am without complaint. This movie, like the others on this list, barely passes the Bechdel Test, in a scene with Peggy using coded language with a woman running an Allied safehouse/laboratory (imo much more badass than trolling your foster brother, but I digress). Peggy’s also the only “main” female character– every other woman in Captain America has a minor role, if she has lines at all. (It’s also the second movie of these three with Nazis.) Though, in my opinion, Peggy Carter is a stronger female character than any of the women in the other two films combined, and not just because in her first appearance she punches out a mouthy private. “Talk shit, get hit!” Peggy’s fist says as Private Backtalk hits the ground with a thud. Hayley Atwell, who plays Carter, added in a variation on a Ginger Rogers quote that Peggy “can do everything Captain America can do, but backwards and in high heels.”

Peggy’s unorthodox for what could have been a one-note love-interest character– she and Steve Rogers (the titular Captain) kiss only once, and it’s initiated by her; they never embrace, or have a sex scene, and flirt rarely. Rarely like once. While that’s also true for Thor, Peggy and Steve remain separated for much of the film, Peggy doing her job and Steve doing his. Their relationship also unfolds very naturally, which can come across as stiff in movies, thanks to a different set of standards on timelines (in comparison, X-Men: First Class takes place over maybe two weeks; Thor takes place in a quarter of that time), but it’s because Steve and Peggy start out with mutual respect, and then friendship. In fact, Steve looks up to Peggy– who gives him advice when he needs it and some pretty serious criticism when he needs that, too.

It makes them a couple I’d root for, even through their miscommunications; both Peggy and Steve get moments of jealousy, Steve because he doesn’t understand that when Howard Stark invites Peggy out for fondue that isn’t actually a euphemism, and Peggy because another woman kisses Steve and he doesn’t stop her. To be totally fair, though, when Peggy confronts Steve, his (wrong) response was, “How do I know you weren’t… fonduing?” Her incredulous reaction was pretty priceless, and even though she expresses her feelings with bullets, Peggy puts together that Steve might be kind of a dope and lets it go.

It also doesn’t hurt that Steve himself is inherently likeable. Though it was jarring at first to hear Chris Evans’s voice coming out of a CGI version of himself made even shorter than me, Steve Rogers had my heart pretty early on in. I knew about some of his other awesome moments before I saw the film, like his determination that he had no right to do less than enlist as long as others are laying their lives down to fight, and saying he didn’t want to kill Nazis, he just didn’t like bullies. The thing that got me was that Steve’s foot locker was pretty much just straight-up books when he went to boot camp, and that, without hesitation, he wrapped himself around a (fake) grenade to protect all the other privates at his basic training. “…Was that a test?” is all he asked when he was not at all exploded. Steve’s a guy whose first question, when given his signature shield, made of a super-rare lightweight impact-absorbing alloy, is why they aren’t standard issue.

He’s also a guy who, even when he allows himself to become complacent in a cushy role that opens up for the newly super-soldiered Captain America version of Steve Rogers– a PR position as living propaganda, performing domestically and overseas for America’s troops and children, punching out a fake Adolf Hitler, kissing babies, and flexing his super-muscles by lifting chorus girls on motorcycles– which is also an awesome shout-out to ’40s Marvel advertisements to recycle your Captain America comics, buy war bonds, and collect scrap metal– recognizes he’s become ridiculous, though he doesn’t seem to know what to do about it until Peggy sets him straight.

To understand how much of a sick burn she deals Steve, the thing you have to know about Peggy is that she is a person, in the 1940s, who is an English woman serving with the US Army, who is battle-trained and has taken her place in the front lines, because you can bet your ass no one was just going to put her there, and who, in what should have been Captain America’s first Big Action Scene, shoots at a car that is driving directly at her until she runs out of bullets. Twice. Steve, when they first met, was still a scrawny asthmatic with a gamut of health problems, who’d told her he got beaten up so much because once you start running, they’ll never let you stop– and Peggy could respect that. So when he appears in danger of losing himself on his new path as Captain America, Peggy shows up off-the-record to give Steve a talk.

Peggy, scathingly: “I understand you’re America’s new hope.
Steve: “Bond sales take a 10% bump in every state I visit–”
Peggy: “Is that Senator Brant I hear?”
Steve: “At least he’s got me doing this. Phillips woulda had me stuck in a lab.”
Peggy: “And these are your only two options. A lab rat– or a dancing monkey?”
Cut to Steve’s notebook, where he’s drawn himself as a circus ape riding a unicycle on a high wire.
Peggy: “You were meant for more than this, you know.”

Not to mention, the movie is set in 1943, and has more non-white characters (with speaking roles!) who are in on the action and survive the villains than the movies set in the 2000s and the 1960s. Okay, so not more– all three movies have Two Important Minorities (Plus Sam Jackson in this and Thor), but none of Cap’n A’s are traitors, murdered, or silent/stoic. Steve Rogers’s hand-selected squad, The Howling Commandos, is integrated. That blew my mind a little bit, and the scene Cap’s team is introduced in is likewise amazing. Steve has, with assistance from Howard Stark’s civilian pilot skillz and Peggy’s knack for Getting Shit Done, broken into a Nazi POW camp/weapons bunker to save his best friend, Sergeant “Bucky” Barnes, and captured soldiers from the 107th Infantry. Surprise! There are, like, 300+ guys up in there, from a whole mess of units, including British and French.

“What are we, taking everybody?” “Dum Dum” Dugan grumbles upon seeing a Japanese-American soldier in addition to everybody else.

“I’m from Fresno, ace,” is the soldier’s appropriately snarky response. I just called him Fresno for the rest of the movie, because daaaaaaaamn!, but the character’s name is Jim Morita. He burps and sings and drinks and asks people if they are sure they can handle magical Aryan weaponry, but if you can figure out how to blow stuff up, hey, okay. Fresno, ace!

Later, as the newly-freed soldiers just go absolutely apeshit on the place, attacking the Nazi/H.Y.D.R.A. compound with their own weapons, Dugan, along with his bombastic facial hair and a bowler hat, and Gabe Jones, a black soldier, steal a tank. Jones instructs Dum Dum on how to operate it by reading off labels on the various buttons and levers.

“I didn’t know you spoke German.”

“Three semesters at Howard, switched to French, girls’re much cuter!” he explains. No one has a problem with this. Yay!

Later, when Steve proposes that this lineup might have something going for them, and why not keep it together, Gabe Jones and Jacques Dernier, a French soldier, cackle at each other’s jokes in French while everyone else stares– until Gabe looks around and adds, in English, “We’re in.” I told you guys inside jokes are funny.

And I can’t reiterate enough that this Marvel Comics summer 2011 movie– that beat out Harry Potter’s finale, the end of a nearly 15-year pop-culture phenomenon, in its opening weekend– set in 1943 features an amazing female character and an integrated core cast. Without indulging in revisionist history (beyond, obviously, the existence of Captain America) or anti-German sentiment. One of Dr. Abraham Erskine’s lines the night before Steve Rogers undergoes the super-soldier procedure he designed is that “[s]o many people forget the first country the Nazis invaded was their own.” That is fantastic. Not only is it fantastic, all those things in combination, in one movie, are almost entirely without precedent in American cinema. I certainly have never heard of anything similar even being attempted.

Captain America is very much a movie about the choices people make, and trying to be a good person, which is pretty rare in mainstream cinema. It’s a movie where you cheer on the multiracial multiclassed multinational good guys, and not just because the bad guy is Hugo Weaving with a red skull for a face; and it’s a movie where, even though I’d have loved to see more take-no-prisoners women, I can be really happy with Peggy trying to shoot spies in New York. Captain America comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray October 25, and it’s definitely worth a rental if not an outright purchase.

Comments

  1. says

    Peggy’s character actually really irritated me because I thought she could have been so much more. Every time we got a glimpse of her as someone with a life outside the main character, she’d stuff it back in. The most blatant example is in the car, on the way to the experiment that will turn him into Captain America. Steve is talking about how hard he worked to join the Army, Peggy says something appropriately dry, he suddenly realizes that hey, a woman would have had to work much harder – and then it turns into a conversation about how bad he is at talking to women. A moment that could have had them bonding over joining the Army turns into a discussion of the main character’s flaws (and for bonus points, Peggy is assumed to represent all women).

    In the trailers, when she shoots at his shield to prove it works, I was rooting for her. She was badass in that scene. I get into the actual movie and it turns out she only did that because she was upset over smoochies with another women? And they weren’t even dating, so it wasn’t even cheating? It turned a badass moment into a passive-aggressive, bitches-be-crazy moment.

    I also disagree that the romance developed well. Every time the conversation turned to Peggy, she immediately deflected it back to Steve (most notably, in the car scene above). That is a defense mechanism used when someone is supremely uncomfortable talking to the other person. Not a good setup for a romance.

  2. Jenny Islander says

    There’s a fanfic I am falling in love with, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” which is basically the upcoming Avengers movie as imagined by a fan who can write really really well and has a great ear for dialogue. Steve Rogers discovers that he missed Peggy by two years, as he puts it. He also finds out that by the time she retired she was General Carter, and while he is still heartbroken that she’s dead, he is happy that she kept on breaking down doors. This I want to see in the actual movie.

    The fic is at Archive Of Our Own, BTW. It features explicit sex between two men, so probably best not read at work.

  3. puzzlehunter says

    I’m definitely reconsidering watching Captain America now. I saw Thor when it first came out in theaters and didn’t really like it for many of the reasons that you explained. I initially assumed that Captain America would share most of Thor’s flaws, but after reading your wonderfully detailed analysis and review, Captain America sounds like it will be worth renting when it comes out on DVD. So thanks for writing!

  4. says

    Aside:

    I don’t know how much if this is Lawrence and how much of this was the decisions of the writing and directing team.

    When it come to studio blockbusters, every decision is ultimately approved by the studio, who will go over it with a fine tooth comb, subject it to the dreaded test audience, and ultimately release whatever the fuck they want no matter who else on the movie team objects. So even if she brought this quality herself, it’s safe to assume that’s what the studio was after, and she was cast with that quality in mind.

    With smaller movies, sometimes the artists (actors, writers, directors) get some input because the studio isn’t investing enough to care. That’s why you’ll often see very mediocre performances from otherwise good actors in blockbusters a lot of the time.

  5. KLeecat says

    Well now I really regret not getting to see ‘Captain America’ in the movie theater, I tried but by the time I had the money for tix & snacks (i had to see HP7.2 twice after all) it was only showing at night in 3-d. I don’t do night movies, too pricey, nor am I interested in 3-d. It is heartening that at least one summer blockbuster got it right.

    I agree on XM:FC, that while it is so very watchable for the McFassy interactions, and the eye candy, it fails so badly when it comes to women. I’m not familiar with the comics history, but even I know Emma Frost is ‘more’ than what they gave us, a woman of power and presence. Regarding Charles, I don’t really have a problem with how his conversation with Raven (after she slept with Erik) was handled because I think its realistic. The film establishes pretty quickly that while Charles is brilliant, he is also a bit arrogant, definitely privileged and still in the process of balancing his emotional, intellectual and telepathic maturity. In other words, he’s a fairly young guy who certainly has not had to deal with the same trauma as Erik, or dealt with the same identity issues as Raven. Its testament to James McAvoy that Charles doesn’t come off as more of an asshat IMO. Despite its massive fail in regards to women, I loved XM:FC and will be buying it on dvd at some point because I’m shallow enough, and can disengage enough, to enjoy it for the McFassy show.

  6. Maria says

    KLeecat,

    It’s a realistic characterization of Charles, but not of Raven — as Gena’s pointing out above, Raven’s not a kid or an early twenty-something. She’s just written as being much younger than she would be chronologically. Plus, a moment that should be HERS as the character having the epiphany and narrative turning point becomes about Charles being a douchenozzle.

  7. Patrick McGraw says

    Still naked, she confronts Charles in a kitchen scene that mirrors her introduction, and establishes herself on Team Erik, aka Team Guy Who Thinks I Don’t Need to Conform So SUCK ON THAT, aka Team WE TOTALLY DID IT.

    I aspirated my drink on this line.

    I find it immensely frustrating that Charles and Magneto’s relationship has always been stuck with the romantic aspect as subtext, even when other characters that had to be written subtextually (like Mystique and Destiny) finally got to be officially acknowledged.

    I thought Captain America was only okay on my first viewing, but I gave it a second chance and my estimation of it went way up. I liked a lot of the same material you did, especially the Howling Commandos. Bonus points in that in a movie full of Nazi scientists using Asgardian technology, the lineup of the men found in the prison factory was historically plausible, and not “token integration” as some whiny fanboys have called it.

  8. says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    The way I interpreted Peggy’s deflection was that she was trying to maintain professionalism by not being the Girl With The Feelings. For example, in X-Men: First Class, after the big battles and everything, Charles kisses Moira and then wipes her memory. She explains that to the men at the C.I.A., who had already been judging her pretty hard for being a woman to begin with, and who figured she’d spectacularly screwed up by having her mind wiped due to generally sucking at her job– but then Moira trails off dreamily, staring into space, saying how she gets memory flashes, like patches of sky and light and ~a kiss~, and everyone present groans and grumbles that a woman should never have been sent to do a man’s job.

    So I kind of figured Peggy would be someone aware of those kind of prejudices working against her, and would try not to talk about herself or her feelings, or complain, and would try to be the first in line to do anything, because that’s how you make progress and get things done. It’s also why I thought it was interesting that she went out of her way to make it clear when she flirted with Steve that that was what was happening, out of uniform, but still having an appropriately professional fallback reason for having approached him that night in the first place. I saw Peggy as a character under intense pressure with stringent standards for herself who wasn’t willing to put herself at a disadvantage or make herself appear weak for someone she wasn’t sure was worth it– and that’s why she had to respect Steve before she started to let herself like him.

    Regarding her shooting at him, Peggy and Steve both had their ridiculous moment of jealousy, which is why I went out of the way to point out his issue with the fondue snafu. They weren’t dating, which is why both of their responses were absurd, even when Stark first mentioned going out for dinner and Steve got distracted from the mission at hand, and clearly thinking fondue might be something serious. Steve didn’t shoot at Peggy or anything, but I didn’t think that was necessarily a “bitches be crazy” moment (though it’s what Howard Stark seems to think, but I thought he came off a bit more clueless and less polished than his son, so I wouldn’t take that character’s advice at face value) so much as that’s just what Peggy does when she’s angry at someone’s stupid face. She shoots things. She doesn’t have a Howard Stark to chat to about boy problems, she just has a gun and a reputation to maintain.

  9. KLeecat says

    Maria,

    Oh I agree. sorry I was a bit unclear as I didn’t notice that a paragraph on Raven was cut in my edit. I agree that Raven’s characterization is problematic (in different ways than Emma) — she is written much too young, and while in moments it could be hand-waved as the character ‘acting’ that way purposefully, overall it can’t be justified. If I remember correctly, and I may not as I only saw the film once, when she shows up in Charles’s kitchen she is there to steal and has presumably been in hiding & on her own for awhile. That alone would age the character.

    Plus, a moment that should be HERS as the character having the epiphany and narrative turning point becomes about Charles being a douchenozzle.
    ::nods head:: Point. I was missing that in my first read of Gena’s review. I think in part because it didn’t surprise me that the moment became about Charles. After all [insert sarcastic reading] its all about Charles and Erik–their epic friendship and tragic ending. Everyone else, including the main villain, are instruments of their story.

  10. says

    KLeecat,

    Yeah, that’s Mystique’s first appearance. She’s broken into the Xavier mansion in WWII England to steal food, and to cover her tracks, disguises herself as Charles’s mother. That’s a whole variety of things that would suggest Mystique is way older, at least psychologically, than the eight years old I guessed by the actress, Morgan Lily’s, appearance– particularly accounting for the fact that she looked pretty healthy even though she’s scrounging to get by in 1944. By all accounts, she should look young and small for her age even without her handwaved anti-aging abilities.

    And IMDB lists Young Raven as ten years old, which also matches Lily’s real-life age at the time of filming. That would canonically put Mystique at 28.

    It’s all just very weird.

  11. says

    A quick note on the Howling Commandos–they were _always_ integrated. Speaking as a Merry Marvelite since the early 1960’s (for a few years, i actually owned Fantastic Four #1, it was about the Mole Man, I think), I also collected Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos, and Gabe was always a part of it from the very beginning. There was also a horrific story line going in those comics about Izzy’s relatives–you know, the kind who went to camps and didn’t come back. Later on, there was stuff about Sgt. Fury and Tarawa which was just plain silly, since it would have required teleportation for him to be in both theaters at once, but the comics in general really were Like That. There was even a bit where the Blond Kentucky Aryan Boy member of the squad had some adjusting to do with his atittude.

    So what you saw in Captain America about the Howling Commandos was early comic canon. Just thought you’d like to know.

  12. Patrick McGraw says

    Didn’t Fury’s Howling Commandos mainly serve in the European front? That’s where all the Nisei units served. Which is why in the CA movie, it made perfect sense for Jim Morita to be found in a prison camp in northern Italy.

  13. Juliana says

    On my first watch through, I totally missed implications of a sex-scene between Eric and Raven.

    What disappointed me about X-men First Class, though, was that Raven/Mystique could’ve been so much more awesome. We don’t even get a hint at why she’s breaking into houses and stealing food and then she kind of satellites around the other characters. I was more interested in that than some of the other backstory.

    Also she seemed to kick a lot of butt in X-1 and 2. I was expecting her to learn something like that in the training montage, but she kind of didn’t do anything.

    My other problem was that it didn’t really seem like Charles learned anything in the movie. I mean, he starts out self-centered and assuming he’s always right… and after the whole movie, that’s how he ends by erasing the CIA agent’s memory (he’s a telepath, so I assume they’d make it clear if she was lying when she said she’d never tell). It struck me as very pointless.

  14. Alara Rogers says

    I kind of agree about X-Men First Class. I *loved* the movie, but I have been shipping Charles and Erik since the very first X-Men comic I ever bought, even if I didn’t know I was doing it at the time. :-) But Mystique is my third favorite character in X-Men (or, at least, my third favorite of the “old people” guard; I also love Kitty, Illyana and Doug, but since two of them have spent much comic book time being dead and I could never get into the Warren Ellis run on Excalibur, I’ve read a lot more of Mystique than of them in the past twenty years.) I appreciated that she *had* a presence in this movie, that she has now been established as part of the old people guard, because as played by Rebecca Romijin, she was badass but almost utterly silent except when impersonating people, so there was no way to know that she wasn’t intended to be as young as she looked.

    But in the comics, Raven is a third power point, a leader of the Brotherhood in her own right, a direct analogue to Magneto (and one whose Charles Xavier equivalent is actually on her side, at least until Irene’s death… which was tragic but not quite as bad as the usual refrigeration of lesbians, because a, she died heroically and with total foreknowledge of what was coming, and b, she was in her 70’s so it wasn’t like we didn’t know she would most likely die before Mystique.) I didn’t like that she was relegated to Magneto’s sidekick and underling, as badass a sidekick/underling as she was, in the first set of movies, when in the comics her relationship with Magneto largely consists of her occasionally having to prove to sexist asshats that she’s a better leader of the Brotherhood than he ever was… they have no direct connection at all. (Though she’s kind of his informal mother-in-law right now, except that I think her daughter still thinks she’s dead.)

    In this movie, they make her not Erik’s sidekick… by making her Charles’ little sister. And Charles dominates her completely, until she runs off with Erik so that she can be her own person. It’s not that I don’t think that’s a realistic dynamic; my own brother was pretty much my sidekick until he basically rejected everything about me so he could go be his own person, and I never actually meant to do that to him… I just was older and had more force of personality, and all the times I thought I was helping him by speaking up for him, I was weakening his own voice.

    I know why Charles thought he was doing right by Raven, and I know why she comes across so young — even if you give Charles the benefit of the doubt and say he never mind-controlled or influenced her, his force of personality as a human being is enormous. Raven saw him as her savior, and Charles wanted a little sister. Raven, who knew how to take care of herself on the street, was offered the opportunity to live like a princess in a mansion, and all she had to do was let someone else make decisions for her and retreat into the childhood she hadn’t, at that point, ever had the chance to actually have. It’s neither surprising nor is it an indictment of her person that she took that deal and ran with it for twenty years. But taking that deal when she was 8 and Charles was 12 (I’m guessing; I have no idea how old anyone else) forced her into the role of Charles’ little sister, practically a teenager, a sheltered little princess who only ever had to worry about maintaining her control over her form… and the truth is, she’s not, but she lost herself in the role because Charles’ power of personality makes it so very easy to let him run your life for you. She had to run to Erik to escape because she needed an excuse to break free of Charles. Unlike Erik, who probably would have had a much happier life had he managed to *not* shoot his best friend/boyfriend in the spine and run off to conquer the world for mutantkind, Raven really did need to go.

    So I do actually understand the character, and I think she’s realistic. I am just kind of angry that they put *Raven* in that role. Again, glad that the movie establishes she is a contemporary of Charles and Erik, and I can see that it would be hard to get her into that position if she isn’t there in Charles’ life… because if she was CIA, she’d already be Mystique, and Mystique does not easily let anyone into her life. So movie logic would have made it a romance with Erik that has her break free of the CIA, because otherwise, why would she have allied with him rather than staying right where she was? And if she was one of Shaw’s flunkies, she’d have been changing sides for love. And if Charles and Erik recruited her on their trip, she would not be their equal in forty years. So the fact that she was there from the beginning is good. I just… I guess it’s good to see the power Charles has that he exerts without thinking, not the mental superpower but force of personality, and to recognize the degree to which he can be a douchebag, because of course the later movies present him as the kindly old mentor who can do no wrong, except to occasionally underestimate his enemies. But I would rather they did not sacrifice Raven to do it.

    In my ideal world, Raven leaves the Brotherhood in the next movie, possibly after having a baby with Azazel and some tragedy occurs that results in her losing the baby (literally losing, not him dying) and thinking he is dead, and then finds Irene, and returns to the Brotherhood as a badass with a powerful girlfriend, having taken the time to find herself as an independent person. But I’m pretty sure they don’t care enough about Raven’s story to do that.

  15. Lika says

    Wanted to say I LOVE your review on Captain America. It was one of the factors that made me check it out and I’m glad I did. Peggy Carter *kicked ass* and I love how it was her that got Steve on the path of being the hero he become (without having to die or be in distress). I alsp love that Steve Rogers was genuinely a sweet guy. As of now, it’s probably my favourite Marvel movie after The Avengers.

  16. Rosie says

    You probably got a lot of flack for this article. But you’ll get none from me. Although all three movies are flawed . . . I must admit that I enjoyed all of them very much. But I received the most satisfaction from “CAPTAIN AMERICA”, which I ranked higher than the other two on my “Favorite Movies of Summer 2011″ list. I think you pretty much explained why I loved that particular one the best.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.