captain america – a film review and treatise on the fall of the superhero

The comic book movies are having a hard time these days, and understandably so – their audience is growing older.

While next generations are carefully considered by the producers and marketers of the recent glut of comic book movies, it is still the age group which grew up with those books that composes the largest slice of the pie, according to demographic studies.  This is interesting, since the chief ticket buyer of the age groups is the 16-24 year-old male.  The kind of moviegoer that grew up with Captain America, though, is older – he’s in his thirties.

How can I say this when Captain America first came out in 1941?  It wasn’t until the 1960s when the character was brought back into the main stream by Stan Lee in an issue of The Avengers.  And while the Captain’s history in comic books is labyrinthine, it is arguably the 1980s when the character became modernized (with issues of homophobia and methamphetamines introduced, and the villain “Red Skull” fleshed out) and during this time that the series gained the followers which are most targeted by the film version.

If you were to draw a graph depicting the releases of superhero comic book movies, you’d see a density in the late 90s and early 00s.  Starting with Superman: The Movie  in 1978, there’s really nothing for a while, save for the sequels.  The late 80s and early 90s saw a small rash of superhero movie flops – premature pics like The Fantastic Four and even Captain America himself which never made it to theaters or even video.  A couple squeezed through, like Dick Tracy and The Punisher (with Dolph Lundgren), which fared poorly.  It was still a niche genre struggling to find its way.  When Tim Burton began the Batman films in 1989, the realm of superhero movies began is arc.  As technology reached the demands of the superhero story (and expectation of the audience), Spider-man, The Incredible Hulk (in multiple incarnations), X-Men, and others emerged victorious, and a new, re-imagined Batman came again, spawning the gritty realism that seems to serve the genre the best (Nolan’s The Dark Knight has had one of the best opening box office weekend of any of the superhero films, as did Ironman, creating what I consider the apex, or culmination year – 2008).

It’s no accident that the success of the genre is concentrated in the early 00s, and that we’re beginning the descent down the other side. Ironman 2 was a throwaway, the “Greens” (Lantern and Hornet) both fell by the way side, and we’re actually seeing previews now, for, yes, another Spiderman franchise already.  These films have lacked the insight and compelling narrative to keep thinking audiences connected to them.  It’s as if, rather than being realized by film artists who bring something special to the table, the projects are now being churned out by a machine.  Captain America feels like it was directed by a robot programmed by a studio rather than an artist with a unique vision.

This is what happens.  There’s a law in the universe, called entropy, which states that all things tend towards sameness and disorder.  What begins with life – the organization of concepts, the uniqueness of character – tends to devolve towards homogenization.  No where else can we experience this phenomenon more acutely than in the American movie business.

During the “rise” of the superhero comic book movie, its principal target audience was in the prime demographic.  Born in the 70s, during the Silver Age of comic books, potential viewers were now in the 16-24 age range during the late 90s and early 00s.  By 2011, though, they have grown out of the range – and some of the suspension of disbelief that comes with youth has been molted.  In order to keep that prime group interested, films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man can succeed, with excellent storytelling, plenty of grit and accessibility to characters which, despite their obvious eccentricities, are more plausible.  Tossing to that group a character from the World War II era who fights against a one-note villain wielding weapons of the gods just isn’t the same.

But none of this really has to do with why Captain America fails as a film.  Why a film works or doesn’t work has nothing to do with the audience it attracts or doesn’t attract.  Attendance, translatable to dollars and cents, may be the mark of success for the Trades and the studio execs who read them, but from a filmmaking and storytelling point of view, it means nothing.  A film works because it touches a nerve, captivates the mind, presents relatable characters, and because it does that intangible something that good films do – each one does it differently, but the feeling produced is the same, the sort of drug that keeps discerning audiences coming back for more: it transports.

To be truly transportive, a film doesn’t need to be high-minded or clever for cleverness sake.  Alternatively, it shouldn’t be dumbed-down out of fear for alienating any potential audience.  Neither too specific nor too diluted, the transportive film expertly balances between smarts and thrills.  It begins without hackneyed flashbacks and unfurls its length without long bits of obvious exposition (monologs revealing key information about so-and-so or such-and-such).  At its core, as in, to examine the engine that powers it, a film is nothing more than an entertaining delivery of information.  Where the poor film fails is that the information gloms together into obvious bits of telling, only to advance the viewer along to the next gooey bit of action and thrill.  The better film succeeds by crafting a story that feels truthful by masking the fact that it is not.

Film producers have tried all sorts of ways to get around this hump.  The most obvious is the “true story” phenomenon which emerged in the 80s.  A film doesn’t even have to be “based” on a true story these days, it can simply be “inspired by” a true story (which means that someone thought about something that happened and then made a movie).  This is basically an ill-concealed attempt to goad the audience’s suspension of disbelief, and make the filmmaker’s goal easier, which is to be transportive.  Obviously, superhero comic book movies can’t tag their film upfront with the “true story” ruse.  Their work is cut out for them to make something for an aging audience transportive.  As we continue to shift towards a younger audience, and studios give up on those firm fans who grew up with the characters, the trend will continue towards hedging, machine-made films.  Entropy will reign.  Captain America, with its forgettable dialog, blah blah blah special effects and antiquated context is the perfect example of the end of an era, and the beginning of a new – the age when comic book movies are often about as exciting as the latest formula-based romantic comedy.

References:

http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/973034/5_worst_superhero_movies.html?cat=40

http://www.immagic.com/eLibrary/ARCHIVES/GENERAL/MPAA_US/M080415M.pdf

http://www.anomalousmaterial.com/movies/2010/03/mpaa-statistics-who-goes-to-the-movies/

http://www.thatmoviesucked.com/2010/07/the-evolution-of-the-superhero-movie/

domestic bliss: a bill prime tale

Bill Prime drew the match along the flint strip of the box and lit his first cigarette of the day.  He stood leaning against the side of his dented Ford Escort and watched as the struggling winter sun turned the morning around him a dull silver grey, and then he walked up to the house on 112 Margaret Street.  Five minutes, he thought, in and out in five minutes.  He pitched his cigarette away.

Inside it smelled of maple syrup – the cheap kind – and McCain French fries.  There was an ashtray on the chipped coffee table in front of the couch overflowing with cigarettes tipped pink-red with lipstick; the odor of old cigarettes hung cloying in the air like dirty laundry.  As Bill closed the door, the single-paned window facing the street rattled like it might shatter loose.  He stepped in closer to examine the coffee table and kicked an empty mountain dew bottle.  He winced.  He noticed for the first time that the coffee table was not a coffee table at all, but the bottom half of an entertainment center, the kind made from particle board.  The exposed back side bore a panel of warped cardboard on either end, tacked there with chintzy rivets, forming the backing for the shelves open-faced on the couch side.  Under the other smells in the house Bill could scent the baseboard electric heat – more, the odor of candle wax, crayon, or perhaps a plastic toy slowly melting.

“He grinds his teeth at night, have you noticed that?”  Francine stood in the doorway between the living room and one of the bedrooms. She wore a terrycloth pink robe and a pair of puffy wool socks on her feet.  She stuck a cigarette in her mouth.  A USA Gold Menthol Light 100, Bill knew.

“You smoke those in here?”  He looked from her to the overfilled ashtray and then back to her.

Around the cigarette between her lips she said, “Where else am I going to smoke them?”

Before Bill could say anything else, Troy emerged from the darkened doorway to the second bedroom.  His eyes were a bit swollen, Bill saw, either from sleep, from his allergies, from a cold, or from smoke.  Troy held something in his hands.  “I got my green tractor, daddy,” he said in a whisper-voice, “to dig sand with the scooper.”

Bill put on a smile and went to Troy to pick him up.  As he crossed the room he heard the brassy muffle of another’s voice coming from the room behind Francine.  Bill thought he could make out “Whoozat?  Izzee here?” and then the dull trumpet of a bedfart under covers.

Bill had slowed, but he kept his focus on Troy and continued to him and scooped him up.  Bill’s son, like his mother Francine, had notoriously bad morning breath, the kind that could strip paint or restart a dead engine.  “Daddy,” he said into Bill’s face with the sour-peaches breath, “are we going to your house now?”

Francine interrupted.  She had yet to light the cigarette, Bill saw.  She said, “Are you going to take him to work again?”

“You know I can’t afford a sitter right now,” Bill said, hearing the edge rise in his voice.  Five minutes, he thought.  Again from the room behind Francine came the nearly indiscernible bass voice.  Bill detected an edge in it, too, a kind of haughty, reprimanding tone.  Francine spun around.  She held up her hand, palm-out, fingers splayed, into the room.

“Let’s get your snow pants and jacket on, bud,” Bill said, carrying his son back across the room.

“I don’t like him hanging out with those freaks,” Francine said.  Bill shot her a look.  She was facing into the living room again.

“Is that you talking, or is that him?”  Bill said, and started to dress his son.

“I don’t even know how you call it work,” Francine went on.  “Why don’t you get a real job?  Then you can afford a sitter.”

Bill was squatting in the kitchen and Troy was stepping into his ripped snowpants.  Beside them were three white bags of trash, the kind with the built in red drawstrings.  Bill knew that they were near liquid at the bottom, gunk swimming there, rotting.  He felt the heat rise in the back of his neck.

“It is a real job, Francine,” he said, keeping his voice level.  “You have no idea.”

“Right,” she said, “sure.”  His back to her, Bill heard the flick of a lighter as Francine lit up.  He finished the snowpants, slipping the straps of the bibs over Troy’s shoulder, working around his son who was playing with the green tractor all the while.  Bill stood up.  He slowly turned.

“Put that out,” he said.

Francine blew out smoke.  Behind her came the voice for the third time.  To Bill, it sounded like something about “my house.”

It broke Bill.  He stuck his finger out.  “You shut your mouth in there, or I’m gonna come in there and beat you within an inch of your life.”

Francine’s eyes widened, though not in alarm, Bill saw, but with a kind of pleasure.  Bill heard the sound of bed springs creaking as the man in there got out of bed. “Fuck,” he muttered.  To Troy, over his shoulder, Bill said, “Put your jacket on, big guy.”

“Okay, daddy.  Fuck,” said Troy happily.

The man emerged in the doorway behind Francine, who took one step forward and to the side, as if rehearsed a dozen times.  The man was big, bigger than Bill Prime, well muscled, Bill saw, as he wore no shirt, and only a pair of grey sweatpants that looked too short for him.  He had a shock of greasy black hair piled on his head.  His eyes too were swollen.  They were streaked red.

“What did you say, you fucking fairy?”

Bill did his best to stand his ground.  He felt cold in the pit of his stomach; it was a disc of gelid rock.  The heat in his neck now radiated throughout his body, signaling all of his nerves, lighting him up, blood filling his heart, triphammering it.  “This is none of your business,” Bill said.

The man took a couple of steps out and stood.  The shitty coffee table was in between he and Bill, and a few feet of linoleum squares of the kitchenette floor.  “What do you, just walk in here?  What if I got my stash out?”

“Hush,” Francine said to him.  Bill couldn’t tell if her intention was diplomatic or because she was worried how Bill would interpret “stash.”  “I let him come in,” she told the man.  Then she added for Bill’s benefit, “He can come and get Troy and let us sleep, but he had to make a fucking racket.”

“You don’t want to see your son before he goes?”  Bill asked this, but had agreed months before with Francine that leaving the door open for him was best for all involved, so that Troy’s transition was smooth, but both of them had known it was so the two of them didn’t have to see each other, didn’t have to interact.

“You’re an idiot, Bill.  Get out of here to your bullshit job before Gary kicks your ass.”

“Don’t talk like that in front of Troy.”

Francine laughed.  “Yes and you’re so Mr. Clean-mouthed.”

Bill was checkmated.  He’d done it again – he’d let it happen to him again.  He turned and looked down at Troy, expecting his son to still be fiddling with his tractor, jacket forgotten beside him on the floor.  Instead his son was dressed, standing still as a statue, looking up at Bill, his face a blank.  Bill felt his heart flip in his chest.  His ears sang with blood.  Tentacles of nerves coursed electric up and down the side of his neck.  He felt nerves in his lips, in his eyelids, vibrating like hummingbird wings.

He turned back to Gary and Francine.

Bill moved quickly then, but awkwardly, using the coffee table as a kind of springboard, stepping up on it, feeling it sag beneath his weight.  He meant to leap, but instead toppled awkwardly onto Gary, who no more fell beneath Bill’s incomparable weight than caught him.

Bill flailed at Gary’s face and throat.  Gary pushed him off.

Bill was on the floor.  It took a moment to register – he was down before he knew what happened.  It came to him like a dream in reverse: he fell upwards, he reunioned with the blow that felt like a gallon of milk connecting with him on the jaw.

Now he lay there on the gritty threadbare carpet, stunned.  He heard, only as through cardboard over his ears, Francine say, “Oh Jesus, Gary, you broke his friggin’ jaw.”

He heard, “Daddy?”  Bill looked up and saw his son, upside down, standing over him, still holding the tractor.  “Daddy, are you asleep?”  He saw tears in Troy’s eyes.  Bill got to his feet.  Gary did not offer to help.  Neither did Francine.  Nor did she go to her son. She said only, “I can call the ambulance.”

Bill didn’t speak.  He managed to get to his feet and, back to she and Gary, shook his head.  His face burned on one side and felt cold at the same time.  He held his hands down in front of him and ushered Troy to the door.  He said thickly, “Go on, bud,” and felt fire crackle through his jaw.

Somehow, Bill got to the door.  He opened it, and he and Troy walked out into the cold, dull day.

They took the couple of cockeyed wooden steps off the porch and walked the uneven walkway to the street, and Bill’s car.  Troy walked like a little soldier, saying nothing.  When Bill settled him into the back of the Escort, Troy looked up with big, solemn eyes.

“Daddy,” he said.

Bill drew the belt across the car seat and clicked it home.  “Yeah.”

“You got hit.”

“I know.”

“Are we going to your job?”

“Yes.”

“To see ghosts?”

Bill pulled his head out of the car and stood upright.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “Maybe.  Daddy doesn’t always see ghosts.  I just try to help people figure things out that are going on in their lives, if I can.  Sometimes, it’s something like ghosts.  Not much, though.  Mostly it’s plumbing.”

Bill closed the back passenger door.  He looked up at the house.  Francine was in the door, just the shape of her, a silhouetted tendril of smoke rising.  She quickly disappeared.  Bill bent and opened the front passenger door.  He leaned in and opened the glove compartment and took out his gun. Tucking it quickly out of sight in his jacket, he said to Troy, “I’ll be right back.”

Slam, he shut the car door.  He headed back up the walkway to the house in long strides.  Halfway there, Gary’s big shape appeared in the doorway.  Bill pulled the gun out just as Gary started to open the door.  Bill saw him duck out if sight in a hurry, and Bill opened fire.

Blam, a shot through the front door window.  He took the steps two at a time onto the porch, then threw the door to the house open.

“What are you doing?  What the hell are you doing??”  Francine was hysterical, backing into the kitchen.  Gary, Bill saw, was pitched out on the floor, looking up, his hands in front of his face.

Bill started popping off rounds.  He shot through the walls and the ceiling.  He emptied the clip – 16 shots all together, leaving one in the chamber.

The gunfire had been incredibly loud, so when he answered Francine, he had to shout over the ringing in his ears.  She sat trembling in the kitchen doorway, her mouth open, lip quivering, USA Gold cigarette pinched in the crotch of her fingers, smoldering.

“Ventilation,” Bill said.

He left the house.

He walked back down to the Escort.  In a moment he could see Troy’s face, looking out the back window.  Bill waved, and Troy waved back, smiling.

*   *   *

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“Domestic Bliss” is a part of the short story collection “Furious Angels”
Available on Amazon Kindle and in paperback on Lulu.com