Thus revealed, the creature buried its nose in the tire-tilled soil...
April 6, 2014
Thoughts on Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Category: Serious … TV, Film, & DVDs

So I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier last night. It was pretty enjoyable, though I think I agree with the reviewers who complain that it shines when it goes in for character moments but is mostly too focused on world-building and spectacle -- particularly the final action sequence, which is largely interchangeable with any of the explosive battles that superhero flicks tend to end with these days. (While I'm not the fan of The Dark Knight that everyone else is, I applaud that film for its comparatively quiet concluding confrontation.) In any case, those flaws aren't immediately apparent while one is caught up in the action onscreen -- they're the kinds of things that one ponders after one has left the theater. (They're also the kinds of things one ponders while reading negative reviews of a film, which I tend to do for most movies I see; I feel these reviews offer perhaps more balanced and interesting analyses than overzealous fanboy praise.)

What did occur to me while the movie was running was that holy heck is it long! It's 2 hours and 16 minutes, which is too long for my tastes (for a superhero flick, anyway) -- and it seemed even longer since I had to piss like a racehorse by the 80-minute mark. I sat there with my legs crossed and tried to hold it, since I figured the movie had been on long enough and would probably be over soon... and then it kept going, and going, and then there was an action sequence and then it still kept going... so finally I rushed off to the bathroom at what seemed like a quiet moment. (I'm informed that I picked probably the best time to go, since it sounds like I chose the longest stretch of nothing significant and/or amusing happening in the film.) It does seem like even action films these days are striving for "epic" lengths. Admittedly, these lengths do (artificially) imbue the films with a certain feeling of depth -- if only because 2+ hour runtimes used to be reserved for weightier material -- but I find myself missing the tighter, less ponderous, and more fun adventures of less recent years. (It's worth noting that, for a short while, Daredevil was actually my favorite superhero film. Sure, it's goofy as heck -- the titular hero's playground foreplay with Elektra never fails to send me into a fit of giggles -- but that is a movie that really keeps things moving.) Ah well.

Another thing that kinda bugged me about The Winter Soldier -- even while it was happening -- was the villains' master plan. Live-action superhero movies these days do quite a bit of work trying to translate the heroes of the comics to the "real" world: they replace the brightly colored spandex outfits with armor-plated tactical gear; they trade legit magic powers for super-advanced technological weaponry; they paint shades of grey over the black-and-white moral codes of the printed adventures (though the comics themselves have tended to do that in recent decades). And yet, in my view, they consistently drop the ball when it comes to the villains' schemes. Often, villains in these modern superhero films aren't completely evil or selfish. Sure, they're ruthless and somewhat insane, but their goals are noble: they commit atrocities because they feel these deeds are necessary to bring order and peace to the world. That, in itself, is sensible enough. Unfortunately -- because I guess that wouldn't be evil enough, and because in those instances the heroes might actually be forced to question their loyalties -- the filmmakers still stick the villains with endgames ripped from Saturday morning cartoons, which would be fine except these schemes don't at all mesh with their loftier ideals or support their ultimate goals. I won't spoil the particular issue in this movie, but I will reference Akasha's plan in Anne Rice's Queen of the Damned (the book; the movie actually avoided this problem -- and in doing so ended up being slightly better -- by not really having Akasha justify herself at all). Like so many villains in superhero films (and like God in the Old Testament), Akasha is horrified at how humanity conducts itself and develops a plan to purge the world of those responsible for humanity's moral decay. However, Akasha not only determines that the reason for humanity's decline is men -- itself a questionable conclusion -- but also schemes to salvage humanity by coercing the women of the world to rise up and murder their husbands and brothers and sons. So now, yes, you've cleansed the world of men (except for the small percentage kept alive for breeding purposes), but you've created a world of women who could murder their husbands and brothers and sons and presumably be okay with that. Good job, Akasha? (Even worse than that was that not one of Akasha's children was able to find fault with her plan from a sensible perspective -- and her progeny consisted of immortal geniuses philosophers and all manner of deep thinkers with thousands of years of experience thinking deep thoughts. That not one of them was able to do more than stammer, "B-but... that... would be wrong!" made Queen of the Damned one of the most insulting books I've ever read.) So, yeah, the villains' plan in The Winter Soldier is kinda like that. It's mad stupid.

There was one other thing that really bugged me about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though -- and it's kind of a minor point that requires a little explanation. (It's also the primary reason I decided to write this post, though I probably won't spend nearly as much time on it as I'd originally intended because I've written so much about the other issues with the movie! Oh well.) See, I saw the movie with a fellow collector from the toy forums I frequent. We'd hoped to get together a larger group, but most of the guys ended up having commitments with their significant others that prevented them from attending. In response, the one collector who did attend (who himself is married) commented that we're really bucking the stereotype of toy collectors not having girlfriends (etc.) -- to which I could only respond that I was holding down the stereotype fort for everyone. I'm 32 years old and I've never even been on so much as a date.

And, honestly, that's been kinda getting me down a bit lately -- or at least that and other things. If you know me, you might know some of the backstory, but that's a flashback we'll save for a later post -- no woman in whom I've been interested (and who was made aware of that fact) has ever responded favorably to me... and really, especially considering how outrageously women have reliably reacted to my affections, I don't expect that to change. So, as I get older, the understanding that I'll likely never have a romantic relationship bothers me more and more. Now, I've known people at times of their lives who have been super upset precisely because they didn't have girlfriends; that's not really and never has been me. I'm under no mistaken impression that having a girlfriend would instantly solve all of my problems -- I understand that relationships take work, cost money, demand trust, and in general require sacrifices that (from my admitted position of total ignorance) maybe don't sound especially desirable.

At the same time, however, it seems like so many people in my life -- and all of a sudden -- are delving into romantic relationships and building families that seem very likely to further distance them from me. I know several couples who've gotten married recently and are expecting or have had a child. I'm a member of a trivia team that competes in a weekly event, but it seems like so many of the members are already in relationships or have recently started arriving with new lovers: so much so that, for most of the last few competitions, I've ended up sitting at a side table by myself because there was no more room at the main table. Several of my long-distance friends have started dating or have entered into relationships, and I don't think it's a coincidence that I'm hearing from those friends less and less these days. (I'd reconnected with one friend from college, and we'd exchanged a few lengthy messages and had been making plans to catch up via a video phone call -- and then she took a weekend trip and shot me a brief note saying that, while she was away, she'd acquired a boyfriend. I haven't heard from her since; I think that was over a month ago.) Even my dad is apparently getting married. Recently I've been meeting with Dad at least once a month for dinner and drinks, and a about a year and a half ago the two of us took a week-long trip to Aruba. In any case, despite our occasional clashes and the fact that we're two very different people, I've enjoyed the opportunity to get to know who my dad really is from an adult's perspective. It's kind of sad to recognize that, once he's married, we probably won't be spending even the little time together that we currently do because he'll be off doing things with his new wife.

Anyway, I went into The Winter Soldier with this stuff brewing in the background -- and there's this one scene (not a huge spoiler at all; feel free to keep reading) where they're showing this museum exhibit on Captain America. In this scene, it notes that Caps pre-serum height -- that is, his height before he was physically enhanced by the super soldier serum (again, not really a spoiler; that happened in the first movie) -- was 5'4". Which is my height. And now I'm kind of annoyed with Captain America as a character, or at least in how he was presented because they put those damned numbers on a movie theater screen.

Yes, most superheroes represent some physical or intellectual ideal to which few of us can aspire, and I acknowledge that, in our society, being "short" is regarded as a handicap of sorts. But I bristle at the idea that being 5'4" makes one so inferior that one can't be deserving of our admiration in any respect until one gets improved via a chemical injection... and it's particularly upsetting since, of all of the reasons (some of them probably very good) that women have turned me away with open hostility, my height is the only one that they have explicitly mentioned in their sneering rejections. But those aren't the only occasions that I've been made to feel bad about my height. So I mentioned the trivia group earlier. There are (naturally) several women on the team, and occasionally they get to talking amongst themselves about girl things -- and, while I'm generally not an active participant in these conversations, I am very nearby... so I do tend to overhear their discussions. On more than one occasion, they've talked about dating -- particularly what they look for in a man. And I've noted that, in these conversations, the literal first thing that they've said about their ideal men is that they want him to be "tall." In fact, at one point, one of the ones who recently got married mentioned that, and I sort of interjected with, "Wait -- really?" And she replied (I'm paraphrasing), "Oh, yes -- I wouldn't like it at all if I had to bend down to kiss [my husband]," which suggested to me that she might not even have given him a chance if he had been shorter. Now, here's the thing -- I was at their wedding. I watched them profess their love for each other at length during the ceremony and in speeches during the reception that followed. (It really was a lovely affair.) So the suggestion that this woman's relationship with this man whom she clearly loves dearly might not even have taken place had he not been a tall guy kind of upset me. Granted, it's not unrealistic -- physical attraction is a big part of relationships, and it's probably true that so-called "soulmates" might not ever have been drawn to each other if one's appearance had been altered even slightly. But, after the fact and once people are deeply committed to each other, I kinda want to hear them say say that they'd have been drawn to their lovers no matter what because what called to them was more than just physical attraction. Call me a romantic.

On a lighter note, I have another friend who outright admitted that women can be very cruel and dismissive when it comes to height and that, if I didn't want to be perpetually alone, I should consider moving to China or Japan. Now, that friend has an odd sense of humor -- it can be difficult to tell when she's joking or not -- but I don't think she was being terribly sarcastic when she was talking about what she referred to as "heightism." In any case, while I would never move to China or Japan just to get a date, my actual experience does mesh very well with her extended observations on the subject. And in one of the several writing groups I attend, a woman submitted a piece about a character who spoke at length about her preference for tall men and literal hatred of short men (the character acknowledged that she viewed having great height as something under a man's control, so, to her, short men were basically deficient and undesirable slackers). I hated that character for a lot of reasons -- and obviously I'm not terribly inclined to take the rantings of a fictional character at face value -- but sometimes our characters' views do reflect how we feel about particular traits and issues, so I don't feel terribly ridiculous for reading a little bit into that character's words.

So obviously the explicit presentation of Cap's pre-serum height isn't something I'd fault the film for in a major way -- the film is, after all, a product of our culture, and our culture is one in which "heightism" is apparently a prejudice that is unabashedly espoused and even embraced. It was, however, just one more thing that annoyed me in a film that I was supposed to find inspiring, if only in an escapist sort of way... and, with the way I've been feeling lately, I was kinda looking forward to an escape along those lines. Alas.

-posted by Wes | 10:18 pm | Comments (2)
  • De says:

    Captain America: The First Avenger went to great lengths to explain that despite Steve's size, his integrity was flawless (aside from lying on a few enlistment forms). I won't pretend that "heightism" doesn't exist, but it works the other way too. I dated a 6-foot tall woman years ago who didn't do very much dating because most men weren't interested in a woman taller than they.

    As for the villain's motivations, that particular villain (or group of villains) has never really had sophisticated motives and are just plain evil. Not unlike the Nazis that Cap fought in the first film.

    • Wes says:

      I don't recall having much of a problem with that in the first movie -- but then, as you note, the first movie did more than just throw the numbers up on the screen without further comment. That said, in some ways, it's almost worse that Cap was a paragon of virtue even before the super serum in that it potentially suggests that, no matter how much integrity a man has, he is still inferior and unworthy of consideration (except for potentially dangerous attribute-enhancing experiments) if he's not 6'2" and ripped. Good point that "heightism" (such an odd term!) potentially works both ways.

      And I'd be inclined to agree about that group... except here the movie did so much work trying to bring things into the present day and reference a recurring conversation in politics today. (The first film, not so much -- in part because it was a period piece that strongly recalled war propaganda films really embraced its comic roots.) Don't want to get into details, but the real-world subtext here was unmistakable... and one could argue that the bad guys here really did have a point in their stated aims. Yet the plan for achieving said aims was ridiculous -- like Akasha's plan in Queen of the Damned, there's really no way it would have resulted in the positive utopia the bad guys apparently wanted to bring about (and since they never said, "SIKE! We really don't care," I have to take them at their word). And there really wouldn't have been any problem with that if several of the bad guys hadn't been made out to be incredibly smart -- so smart that they should have recognized some very obvious reasons the plan would have failed even if it had succeeded.

      We'll talk about it more once spoilers aren't an issue. 🙂

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