Friday, November 21, 2014

Managed Expectations: Captain America: Civil War

Marvel Studios finally revealed their elusive plans for much debated phase three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the closing months of 2014. Ever since the success of The Avengers, the world has been abuzz with what characters the comic titan Marvel would bring to screen next. Naturally, eyes turned to some of the more exotic and diverse characters. Rumors of films starring strong characters like Carol Danvers' Captain Marvel and Black Panther immediately began to swirl. Fortunately with Marvel Studios press event many of these rumors have been confirmed and thus brought warm fuzzy feelings to many a fan, myself included. After the surprising success of Guardians of the Galaxy (and thanks to my managed expectations, roll credits) many of us out here in the void are excited to see many of Marvel's more interesting characters realized on the silver screen. Heck, after they name dropped Man-Thing on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D  I have been constantly pondering about how interested I would be in a modern interpretation of the face melting monster. However, of all the announcements the one I find myself reeling on is Captain America: Civil War.

I remember the first time I heard the rumor at first I jumped at the idea. After all, the Civil War was the first comic book event that I engaged with all of the current book tie-ins. I had a poster of McNiven's spread cover across the wall of my last college apartment (I was with Captain America, much to many people's protest).
However, the more I began thinking about it, I started to realize that many of the things that made Civil War an interesting piece of storytelling in the comic medium are not available to the Cinematic Universe.

As I stated there are several pieces from the original story line that made Civil War such an impactful story and many of these elements have no correlation with the current state of the Cinematic Universe. Perhaps the most meaningful is that the story itself was the culmination of a huge chain of brand wide events starting with the Disassembled and House of M storylines. Disassembled featured prominent characters within the Marvel 616 continuity experience moments that really removed them from the pristine images in the wake of Marvel's soft reboot with Heroes Reborn and sought to further delve into character studies of the brands most iconic individuals and teams. This was a radical departure from most Marvels stories up until that time because it earnestly tried to ground the world and characters with experiences that could stage the characters in the modern world and cater to a maturing fan base. Of the stories within the event most notable was Scarlet Witch and her learning that she had lost twin boys in childbirth and that other Avengers had blocked the memory from her. In the wake of the knowledge of this betrayal many characters who had been staples of the Marvel universe died at the hands of Wanda leading to a fracturing in relationships between the Avengers and the X-Men groups. Disassembled then gave way to The House of M another brand wide event which further sought to explore Marvel's characters this time through a reality shift. With recent losses heavy on their minds, the remaining Avengers and other figures of the Marvel Universe meet to try to decide what to do with Scarlet Witch. In order to protect her from death at the hands of former teammates, her brother Pietro (Quicksilver) convinces her to create a world in which Magneto's family are global ruling dynastic empire with mutants instead of humans as the dominate species of humanity. In order to prevent anyone from questioning this new reality every hero is given what they have always longed for. However, this leads to two individuals, Wolverine and a mutant Lyla Miller to being able to remember the previous reality. After awakening many heroes to the truth, many are left scarred by their new lives they seek to confront the House of M and restore reality to it's proper state. It was after this confrontation that Scarlet Witch uttered the words that would change the Marvel Universe even up until the present day, "No More Mutants" the result was a depowering of 99% of all mutants on the planet. In this tumultuous environment birthed the Illumanati, a group consisting of top Marvel characters who would attempt to preemptively combat catastrophic world ending events. Their actions led to the Hulk being shot into deep space in an effort to contain and offer him peace after the destruction of Las Vegas at his hands. Contention over this decision re-kindling Namor's disdain for the surface world and Atlantian isolation, and Tony Stark becoming more and more consumed with morally ambiguous decisions in an effort to control the world stage. So when the actions of young superheroes on a reality television show caused an explosion that annihilated a school full of children and half of the small town of Stamford, the world of Civil War was primed for conflict. This conflict felt earned by those who had been reading stories since 2005 and as such lead to huge praise from the comic community of the event.

With the current state of the Cinematic Universe this long standing history  does not exist. The stakes aren't nearly as high and honestly the announcement of a Civil War centric movie just sounds like a brand grab. The concept of Civil War has long been exploited by Marvel in other media, specifically in games. This makes sense as people love to debate which characters could beat up each other, and it means that you don't have to farm the weird lists of villains. With heroes fighting each other everyone is recognizable. However, in all of these cases the games were met with mediocre success at best and were never able to fully explore the implications because of a lack of history and usually they ended with bizarre adaptations. Specifically this could be seen in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, which end with Nano machines or some other weirdness causing the whole thing instead of more realistic political environment defining the conflict between heroes. It is examples like MUA 2 and it's poor adaptation of Civil War that lead me to be skeptical of the Cinematic Universe's approach at the story. A Civil War story must be an earned experience and even with all the  films there is still not as much history to fully challenge the status quo of the Cinematic Universe. Heck, right before Captain America: Civil War the Avengers as a team will have only met twice never mind the fact that many of them lack meaningful relationships to each other. They still never call each other in their own movies, even though doing so would prevent many challenges from becoming unmanageable. Age of Ultron would have to do a lot to develop this tense environment if it is even remotely going to be believable as a story.  But even if it does what is the point? We already know that there is a third Avengers movie (in two parts no less) so with all the characters kissing and making up (or being brought back to life as some rumors have stated, ICK) then there while tensions and potential ramifications of a Civil War style story are lessened. In this I am referring directly to the death of Steve Rogers. This event was monumental when it happened and the character and political backdrop of it only emphasized the state of the Marvel universe as one which was heading into a time in which

Alongside this lack of history is the lack of major content from what made Civil War such an interesting. Specifically I am referring to eight concepts from the comic story line:

1.The Stamford Incident (which I have already discussed in length)
2. Seeing which B and C list heroes choose which side of the debate
3.The development and use of 42, a superhero prison inside the Negative Zone, by Tony Stark and Reed Richards
4.Captian America as a fugitive and the formation of The Secret Avengers
5.The creation of Ragnorok, a cybernetic clone of Thor after Original Thor's death, by Hank Pym, Tony Stark, and Reed Richards and his killing of the hero Goliath
6. The Reveal of Spiderman's secret identity on national news and his subsequent
7. Tony Stark's initiative to use technologically advanced SHIELD agents AND super villains to hunt down other heroes
8. Atlantis and Namor's Invasion of the surface which turns the tide in the final battle

 Lets address some broad strokes before getting into other details. Marvel Studios does not own the rights to any of the Fantastic 4 or Namor licenses. This means 42, the negative zone, and any of Reed Richards involvement, and the Atlantean invasion is negated. Fox still owns the rights to all the X-Men which means that the Mutant involvement in the Stamford event and in the Secret Avengers(anti-registration) is negated. In the relatively new MCU there are not enough B and C list characters (Punisher, She Hulk, and even mutants like Cable) and super villains (Taskmaster, Bullseye, and Venom for example) to make the debate and the divide between the two camps meaningful. We have already seen Cap as a fugitive and to do it again in his stand alone film sounds boring. Again without the B and C listers the Secret Avengers are not really a thing. Alright lets dive deeper.
Though recently revealed that while Sony still owns, distributes, and maintains final creative control, the company will be working with Marvel producer Kevin Fiege to work on "a bold new direction for the character". If this means that Spider-Man can appear in MCU films, the reveal of his identity on national television out of the gate in this film would feel like a cash grab at fans and not an natural story arc for the character yet to be established in the universe. As stated by Linda Ge a Sony exec, "First appearance in MCU, then solo film." What this appearance is we don't know but in order to give the character justice it needs to be something small like the Steven Strange name drop or a quick peek like Cosmo, in Gaurdians of the Galaxy. Ultimately it needs to be something that doesn't cannibalize the rest of the film. We saw this happen with Deadpool, Cyclops, and Emma Frost in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Norman and Harry Osborn in Amazing Spider-Man 2 and where "establishing characters" trades pacing and main character development for fan wanking. The best part of the MCU is that so far it has left story front and center allowing characters to develop and viewers to enjoy watching them grow and change. As Sony said Spider-Man is a  4 billion dollar franchise, in order for that brand to pay off they need to rebuild trust with the fan community and deliver a compelling and meaningful Spider-Man especially if he is going to have to exist longevity of the MCU. We don't want another Hulk fiasco.

Until Ant-Man is released in July we will not know Hank Pym status in the MCU thus speculating on what he can offer a Civil War story is meaningless. At this point there are not enough super geniuses in the MCU to make all the crazy stuff that happens with the emotional impact that some of these stories have in comic stories, especially without Reed Richards. I already have reservations about Ultron's origin being a Chitauri AI recovered by Stark and Banner and tinkered with. It seems to lack the Oedipal complex at the heart of the Pym/Ultron story from 616. Thus placing every science thing on the shoulders of Tony Stark turns him into a character with too much to do and ultimate dilutes the character to "Science Guy" instead of the very human character we saw in Iron Man. This lack of geniuses mean s that Raganrok's creation can't really happen. This coupled with obvious fact that Thor will not be dead (if he does die in his third film Ragnarok) and thus no reason to clone/cyborg him and his killing of another hero removes a very twisted moment from the comics that defined Cap's blind determination to stop Tony. This also detracts from Tony's and the other's blindness to breaking moral codes to impose their views on others. Ultimately this concept and to an extent, the event as a whole was an allegory to the moral lines the U.S. was willing to cross to protect freedom in a post 9/11 world. As with the fugitive Cap thing, this is a theme that has already been played out in Winter Soldier and would be boring to watch again. Without these themes then what is a Civil War story? It sounds as I said earlier it sounds more like a cash grab at a brand then a meaningful story driven by well written characters.

Granted there is still a lot we don't know and the release of Age of Ultron may hold some answers.  We do not know what will be the exact point of contention between Cap and Stark to start a "Civil War".There are many theories about the exact nature of the conflict and what Age of Ultron will do to address that. As such we have to assume that much like Winter Solider was a fairly faithful adaptation of the comic story we must assume with Civil War, that film will be the similar in theme if not identical in all plot points to it's comic counterpart. Without the backstory and the content due to current state of the MCU both as a creative entity and as business, I find myself looking to Captain America: Civil War with managed expectations.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron releases in theaters on May 1 2015, followed by Ant-Man on July 17 2015, Captain America: Civil War on May 6 2016

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Thoughts of Popped Corn

Popular culture seems to be a big buzz word these days. No work is more representative of this the The Big Bang Theory. A unique amalgamation of ideas and concepts that has produced a 10 season series that remains highly prevalent in people minds. It's a situation comedy, with characters who drink deeply from the various pools of popular culture. The boys Sheldon, Howard, Raj, and Leonard constantly refer to various films, television series video game, comic books, and animation. Interestingly enough this is very much a picture of popular culture as it was 20 years ago not of what popular culture is today.

I am of a generation that was still young when pop culture was a heavily segmented thing. Cultural elements did mix together but usually only along few isolated lines. Animation spawned toy lines, films had video game tie ins, these types of limited spreads. This lead to culture being much like a series of lakes and rivers. The organisms of ideas were limited to lakes of culture and to those who could access and drive to seek them out. The lakes of culture then feed to others through small channels, leading to proliferation within the various bodies. Every once in a while, a river would meet the ocean of culture, and an idea organism was allowed to reproduce and expand in the minds of the masses. Much of this was due to technological constraints. Computers were not as sophisticated as they are today and they were certainly not as readily available. The internet existed but was still obtuse to society at large and as such ideas and culture had fewer outlets to reach mass audience. As a collective body we were limited in the types of images, sounds, and ideas that we could bring to life and business sought to contain these ideas in the various pools for their own gain. This truly came into focus for me while recent watching Jodorowsky's Dune, a stunning documentary which looked into the mind of a man who dreamed of images which was limited by the bound of his cultural lake. But now, as the internet continues to spread and gain acceptance, the land between the lakes, rivers, and the ocean have all but eroded away. Unlike the popular culture of The Big Bang Theory, now we are in an era of incredible cultural evolution.

With the erosion complete ideas now freely mingle between individuals at an incredible rate. One could liken it to the Cambrian era, where life exploded it to multicellular life. Within the new mega ocean of culture, idea organisms are meiotic. They are combining, reshaping and producing mutations good, bad, and curious. It is truly stunning what ideas and images are evolving in the ocean of culture.  In today's cultural ocean the images Alejandro Jodorowsky dreamed could be easily realized in a variety of mediums. Culture is evolving right before my eyes and while I look at it in awe I cant help but look in wonder and with a critical eye. I look back at where I have been and I believe attending Art school, working as an artist in the entertainment industry, and a long time patron of various aspect of popular culture has given me a unique perspective on these things. Ironcially that "unique voice" is now but a small drop in the cultural ocean and while much of what I say here may go unheard, like an organism I am compelled to let my written thoughts reproduce in the cultural ocean. I am but a small piece of popped corn in a larger bucket.