Why I Love Captain America

Why I Love Captain America

(Standard spoiler disclaimer for Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, and Captain America: Winter Soldier)

I am a cynical, contrarian broad.  I know, you’re so surprised.  But I’m hardly the only one out there, if the general love of the anti-hero is any indication.  These days, the Lawful Good character seems hopelessly quaint, something that can only be subverted or deconstructed because playing it straight just wouldn’t work.

But I love Captain America, more than just about anyone else in the MCU.  (And I’m strictly talking about the MCU, mind.  The few comics I read growing up were mainly DC.)  It surprises the hell out of me, because he never struck me as my kind of character, but I just can’t resist the charming bastard.  Naturally, I started trying to break down why, and discovered that he’s actually quite complex.

He’s humble

Screenshot 2015-02-09 at 13.55.26Have you ever played D&D with a paladin in the party?  Did they make you want to slap them repeatedly?  There’s an unfortunate tendency for the white knight character to lapse into annoying smugness, to make the leap from “I am good” to “You are not, therefore I am better.”

But we don’t get that with Cap.  It’s actually the major distinction between him and Red Skull: Schmidt is convinced that his abilities make him superior to mere humans, while Steve insists that he’s “just a kid from Brooklyn.”  (Because once upon a time, “Brooklyn” was shorthand for “poor and scrappy” rather than “hipster.”)  It’s rather telling that he only refers to himself as “Captain America” just the one time (during the rescue in Azzano); the rest of the time, he’s just Steve Rogers, even while in costume and kicking ass.

Speaking of Azzano, one of the best examples of Steve’s humility comes when he returns from his successful but unauthorized mission and turns himself over for discipline.  It’s the kind of thing you never see with other heroes; if they’re breaking the rules for the right reasons, that’s the end of it.  I mean, contrast that scene with the scene from Star Trek Into Darkness where Kirk seems utterly appalled that violating Starfleet directives can have consequences even if things more or less turn out okay.  (Infuriatingly, those consequences don’t really stick, but that’s another post.)  Steve knows that going AWOL to perform a daring rescue mission is still going AWOL, and he doesn’t hesitate to face whatever might come of that.

On that topic…

He’s decisive

Screenshot 2015-02-09 at 13.43.27I was rather shocked by the trailers for The First Avenger where Cap bursts into a room, pistol blazing.  See, as I said, growing up I didn’t really have access to or interest in comics, so my familiarity with those properties was mostly by way of the cartoons, where firearms were strictly verboten.  The idea of a superhero with a gun seemed inherently contradictory to me; guns represented that bright line that you simply did not cross.

You know that Doctor Who quote about how good men don’t need rules?  I think that’s the difference here.  A Superman without restrictions is a terrible alien god.  A Batman who uses guns looks a whole lot like a villain.  But Steve Rogers is a soldier in a war, and not only that, but he’s fighting Nazis.  It’s just not as problematic for him to use lethal force as it is for some rando in a cowl.

Consider the moment when Captain America and the Red Skull first meet face-to-face.  Steve throws a punch, and Schmidt throws one right back, a punch that’s so strong it nearly goes clean through Steve’s prop shield.  Steve responds by immediately reaching for his sidearm, in a cut so quick it took me several viewings to catch it.  He realizes that he’s dealing with someone who is his physical match or better, someone who represents a major threat to both himself personally and the Allied war effort, and he does not hesitate to put him down.  Or he would if the gun didn’t get knocked away, anyway.

An even better example of this occurs right after the super soldier transformation, when Steve is pursuing the Hydra spy through the streets.  The spy takes a kid hostage and throws him into the harbor as a distraction.  This is where you’d expect a bit of dithering and wangst from the hero, faced with the impossible choice between saving an innocent and pursuing justice for his fallen friend and mentor.  But nope, Steve goes without hesitation toward the child in danger, only continuing his pursuit after the kid confirms that he doesn’t need help.

Winter Soldier does introduce a bit more doubt and handwringing about what the right thing really is, but still, in our obsessively introspective culture, it’s rather refreshing to see someone who simply does what needs to be done, no fuss or whining.

He’s flawed

True, Cap doesn’t have any of your stock character flaws: no drinking problem, no dark secrets, no hidden vices.  But that doesn’t change the fact that our boy is a little fucked in the head.  The more appearances he makes, the clearer it becomes that Steve Rogers has a serious death wish.

Screenshot 2015-02-09 at 14.09.56Bucky calls him out on it when it’s still just a question of him trying to get into combat when he’s woefully unfit; the very first line they exchange is “Sometimes I think you like getting punched,” and later he cuts through Steve’s high-minded talk of service with, “Yeah, ‘cuz you got nothing to prove.”  Over and over Steve puts himself in the most direct and extreme danger without considering other less suicidal alternatives, from jumping on a (fake) grenade that doesn’t really present a danger since everyone is already clear, to his decision to crash the Valkyrie despite Peggy’s pleas to at least try finding another way.

This stance gets clarified a bit in The Avengers while everyone’s bickering in the Helicarrier’s lab.  He calls out Tony for being selfish and unwilling to sacrifice, which Tony doesn’t deny.  “Always a way out,” Steve says.  “You know, you may not be a threat, but you’d better stop pretending to be a hero.”  From this statement, it’s clear that Steve equates heroism with sacrifice.  As the skinny kid, he shows the desire to have his life mean something, and to that end he takes every opportunity possible to die for a cause, whether it’s necessary or not.

He’s a dork

I think this is a big part of Cap’s appeal for me.  Even after he becomes, as the Apple Store guy in Winter Soldier says, a specimen, he’s still that socially and physically awkward little guy inside, still the guy who brought a trunk full of books to basic training.  Thrown into a chase immediately after undergoing his transformation, he’s a newborn foal, constantly oversteering and crashing into things–and apologizing every step of the way.  One of my favorite moments in all of cinema occurs in The Avengers, where Steve gets excited about catching a cultural reference, then abashedly explains himself to the group.  It’s a brief exchange, but it perfectly encapsulates his character.

He’s also quite intelligent, especially when it comes to tactics.  It’s first evidenced when he outsmarts the flag challenge at Camp Lehigh, and eventually even the egomaniacal Iron Man defers to him during the Battle of New York.  It’s a minor point, but it really does help flesh out the character, and ensures that he’s the one driving the plot by actively figuring things out.

He’s funny

Honestly, much of what makes Cap wonderful is Chris Evans’s performance.  Yes, he’s got the All-American aw-shucks thing down pat, but he also uses his wry deadpan delivery to fantastic effect.  It’s the same understated comedy that made him so perfect as the straight man in Not Another Teen Movie.  So many heroes, especially of the paladin variety, are so goddamn humorless (I’m looking at you, Man of Steel) that it’s really a treat to see someone who’s always ready with a self-deprecating quip.

So really, it turns out that there’s quite a lot to like about Captain America, even for an unpatriotic and jaded sort like myself.  He’s a well-constructed and multifaceted character portrayed with skill and subtlety.  Marvel’s films have given us a lot of memorable characters, but Steve Rogers has a special place in my wrinkly, black heart.

Reclaiming Cinderella

Reclaiming Cinderella

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Cinderella)

The other day, my husband told me about a conversation he had with a woman who claimed not to like Disney’s Cinderella because she’s a feminist.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard such an argument, and I never cease to find it to be bullshit.  I wish I could have asked the woman when she had last watched the movie, because I’m guessing it hasn’t been since puberty.  So many of these knee-jerk dismissals of things like the classic Disney canon are based on vague recollections of movies the person half-watched decades ago, rather than the actual text.  (And the actual texts definitely merit a second look as an adult, if only for the frequent what-the-fuckery, like how Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio is a hobo who hits on every remotely feminine entity in the movie, up to and including wooden carvings and the fish.)  There’s this perception that Cinderella is a wholly passive character who just sits around and waits for a prince to rescue her, but that’s just not supported by the film itself.

For starters, Cinderella’s not going to the ball for the prince.  When the invitation arrives, her stepsisters are the ones who burble at the idea of seeing the prince, but Cinderella presses for her chance to go because, dammit, she was invited too.  She never equates her unspecified wishes and dreams with this invitation or implies that her whole world is riding on it; she simply wants to be treated like an equal, to have a night off and enjoy herself.  When it’s all over, she’s thrilled to have been left with the one glass slipper and the memory of a dance with a hottie.  The idea that he’s the prince, or that she could have a shot at marrying him, doesn’t even occur to her until the news gets out the next morning.  Hell, she didn’t even seek him out at the ball; he’s the one who came over to her, and never managed to introduce himself while they were dancing.

Fairy-Godmother-Scene-1Then there’s the tricky question of agency.  This is the image that detractors seem to point to as the essence of the issues with the story: Cinderella weeping while the Fairy Godmother comes out of nowhere to solve all her problems.  But that’s not quite what’s going on here.  When she appears, FG implies that Cinderella actually summoned her.  (“Nonsense, child.  If you’d lost all your faith, I couldn’t be here.”)  True, that would indicate a power that Cinderella doesn’t otherwise demonstrate–except when she’s singing.  She harmonizes with herself in multiple parts on “Sing, Sweet Nightingale”, and immediately before FG materializes, Cinderella is having a conversation with the background music.  Seriously, there’s no other way to explain her dialogue there.  A little later, she duets with the prince on “So This is Love” without either of them opening their mouths.  It’s not a direct correlation, but it’s enough unnatural shenanigans to underscore the repeated refrain that believing hard enough (not just possessing a belief, but the action of believing) will make a wish come true.

But that’s still passive, right?  She’s not actually doing anything, just bursts into tears and gives up.  Well, she did do something about going to the ball: she finished up an inhuman workload and found an outfit, which her menagerie did an extreme makeover on.  She earned her chance and then was fucking assaulted, forced to watch in horror while her dress, a memento of her dead mother and a gift from her only friends, was destroyed.  Of course she breaks down.  Holy shit, guys, give the girl a minute.  All FG is doing is restoring the balance, popping in like Sam Beckett to set right what just went wrong.

Of course, the dress was only presentable in the first place because of the mice and the birds.  So let’s talk about them for a second, shall we?  After all, the Tom and Jerry bullshit takes up over half the runtime (41 minutes out of 75, I shit you not; it is 23 sodding minutes before Lady Tremaine gets a line), and we meet two of the birds before we even meet Cinderella.  The animals, then, drive the bulk of the plot.  But this isn’t like Sleeping Beauty, where the supposed protagonists take a back seat to fairie face-offs.  See, while the mice are the main ones we see in action, they never act on their own behalf.  Ever.  The one time we see them doing something for their own benefit is when they go out seeking food, and who’s the one that provides it?  In addition to feeding them, Cinderella clothes them and teaches them to speak (which is something they value, apparently) and protects them from traps and the cat.  This has created a cult of personality, where the animals all happily sing to her tune as they perform incredible feats of engineering in her service.  Everything they do on-screen serves Cinderella’s interests, from acting as her lady’s maids in the morning to altering her dress to helping her escape her tower.  In short, she has a small army of devoted minions at her command, who prove by the end that they’re willing to risk their lives against a sadistic predator if she needs them to.  Do we say that the supervillain has no agency because he hangs out on his dark throne until the final battle, letting the underlings get their hands dirty until then?  (Am I calling Cinderella an evil mastermind?  Well, she has taken over a kingdom by the end credits.  Just saying.)

In summary, Cinderella is fighting for equal rights and a fair leave policy.  She is maybe a little bit psychic and can bend animals to her will.  I’m not claiming that she’s a perfect template for a protagonist, or that there’s not some problematic bullshit at work here.  (The love-at-first-sight thing is only part of a ludicrously compressed timeline; the entire story, barring the prologue, takes place in just over 24 hours, including the complete organization of a royal ball.)  But this incarnation of the fairy tale gives us a heroine who’s snarky, determined, and industrious at the very least, a woman who unfailingly approaches her situation on her own terms even if she’s not exactly fighting to change it.  She might not be a feminist icon, but she’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.