Friday, July 22, 2011

Marvel, get your hand out of my wallet

Marvel is not doing itself any favors by releasing the same three movies every summer. Yes, they have different names — like Iron Man, Thor and now Captain America — even though the films are fuzzy clones of each other.

Oh, am I a stick in the mud? Raining on your parade? Sorry, dear reader, but I must. Last week I received an email with words I can’t reprint from a reader who was upset that I didn’t praise Transformers: Dark of the Moon — because, you know, I was the only person in the world who hated it. I imagine Captain America fans know some better words that are also unfit for publication. So before you fire off a cowardly anonymous email, let me reassure you with this: Captain America: The First Avenger was a spirited romp amid all the proto-typical comic clichés. It’s not the greatest comic adaptation, and it’s not the worst. It’s slightly and cheerfully above average.

So there.

I save most of the vitriol and frustration to the movie economy that allows films like Captain America to continue to propagate, and for Marvel, the comic company that has triggered the moral decay of creativity at the cinema. What was once a trickle of comic films has now turned into an inescapable flash-flood at the movie theater, a place that funnels audiences from one auditorium to another, all of them playing the same banal feature attraction: unlikely hero emerges with superpowers, hero fights bad guys, hero returns for sequel. I’ve oversimplified it for sure, but where am I wrong?

Captain America follows this formula like it’s pre-programmed in its DNA — because it is. We’re given fresh-faced Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a 4F weakling who wants to enlist to fight the Nazis and their occult division HYDRA, which means stormtroopers get to say, “Heil HYDRA.” Roger’s is too short, so he steps into a machine belonging to Iron Man’s father. The machine’s purpose is to apparently make abs glisten, and to turn Rogers into super soldier Captain America, who then rips through a steampunk version of World War II to fight a villain so boring his name is flatly Red Skull. The villain's henchman look like leather fetishists with clunky respirators and they wear these sleeve guns that probably contributed to their defeat. The movie has everything the formula dictates: a girl to fall in love with, a gruff character who barks orders (a scene-stealing Tommy Lee Jones), lots of cheesy German accents, a close friend who will undoubtedly perish, explosions and gunfights, and a big climax with even more explosions and gunfights. Like a good Marvel conformist, all the pieces of the formula are in Captain America.

But I’m done pretending that I’ve not seen this movie a dozen times before. And I’m done justifying that a purely mediocre movie is somehow “pretty good for a comic movie,” as if the entire genre had a golf handicap. The bar has been raised by better comic films, like the Shakespearean drama of The Dark Knight or by the rich and fantastical Hellboy films. To best those pictures Marvel will have to change its formula, and stop presuming that audiences will tolerate clones of the same films longer than me. Besides, how many comic films can one person sustain before growing bored? My guess is we’re reaching that limit; I know I have.

There’s a bit in the film where Captain America, drenched in a layer of patriotism so thick it encumbers his movement — like the GOP, zing! — talks about defending the underdogs of the world from those big bullies who stomp around the schoolyard. It’s a chivalrous idea, but coming from a Marvel Comics creation it’s a little disingenuous. Don’t be misled: Marvel is the bully. It stomps through theaters and shoves better films out of the way, devours box office records, clones its movie formula over each of its brands, and then pretends that what it’s doing is in the best interests of the cinema. I’m sorry but the cinema needs less Captain Americas and more films like Terri, a movie you haven’t heard of because it’s more sophisticated, more thoughtful and more intelligent than anything Marvel could set on fire for 120 minutes.

Marvel’s best interests are bottom lines, which is why Spider-Man is being remade less than five years since the last one was released, and why the Incredible Hulk has been rebooted three times, and why X-Men begat only more X-Men and why Thor, Iron-Man and Captain America are all teasers for next summer’s all-star macho-fest The Avengers. Marvel wants your money really bad, and Stan Lee and his geeks are prepared to resurrect every comic in its archive all the way down to Banana Peeling Man to get you to remove cash from your wallet and deposit it in theirs. If that means making the same movie a thousand times then so be it.

Indeed, movies are supposed to make money. But they are also supposed to inspire us, make us think, touch us and empower our spirits. Marvel is fonder of thumping viewers on their skulls, red or otherwise. Captain America is a great example of that with its dumbed-down version of WWII, absurd highlight reels of action effects, that laughable costume (with boomerang shield) and its serialized ending that only teases at the real ending to come next summer after you plunk down another $9 on yet another ticket. (I did enjoy the rather brilliant war bonds sequence with Captain America funding the war via song and dance.)

So what is Captain America? It’s a decent film that is awash in Marvel’s cynical Hollywood commercialism. With its green-screened phoniness and digital superstructure it is not half the adventure of another film directed by Joe Johnston, The Rocketeer, a movie with characters and special effects that feel wholesome and pure compared to the clinical, fluorescent and germ-free world of Captain America. It also reminds me a lot of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a wonderful film that does everything Captain America does, but with a key distinction — no man in tights.