Cap vs. Thor: A Lesson in Epics

When Marvel first dreamed of bringing their vast Avengers / Phase I scheme to the big screen, they had two rather formidable obstacles in their way, namely Captain America and Thor.

In the beloved comics, both men not only are rooted in times long past, but are so squeaky clean as to be unrelatable (the same problem that recent adaptations of Superman faced, with varying degrees of success).  Blonde, beautiful, and beefcake-y, these mythic giants are possessed of an ethos that is so pure, so lofty that we may aspire to it but never fully expect to achieve it.

Eight years and billions of dollars later, we are in the dawn of Phase 3 with several more installations to come (not to mention an undetermined number of future phases!) and no ceiling for success in sight.  As for the “problem” of Cap and Thor, it would seem the Marvel geniuses solved it with aplomb.  The characters have enjoyed approximately equal success with one another both in the box office and in fan response, and are just as established and beloved as anchor members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s Avengers as their original print counterparts.

Yet I personally continue to be far less satisfied with the Thor adaptations than with Cap’s, and it wasn’t until the credits rolled for 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier that I could fully articulate why:

Thor makes me root for him to overcome and be better, as every standard hero should. 
Captain America makes me want to make myself better.

This is not to disparage Thor as a character, nor his value in the Marvel machine.  He is a perfectly likable protagonist and follows the hero’s journey structure well.  An incorruptible paragon of virtue, he never shies away from conflict or personal sacrifice in order to protect the realms and loves of his life.  He was also brilliantly set up by Joss Whedon as the only true match / neutralizer for Hulk, a major feat and pivotal role.

gifHe’s just so distractableThe big mistake they made in adapting Thor’s story was overemphasizing his romantic affections (even going so far as to create an insulting love triangle in Thor: The Dark World that only served to diminish Lady Sif and make Thor wishy-washy).  In truth, Thor’s weaknesses have only ever been arrogance and, of course, Loki.  (Thank God for Tom Hiddleston, the clear anchor of Thor’s whole franchise and without whom, Thor might devolve into an inconsistent, incoherent action figure.)

Meanwhile, Captain America is so firmly grounded in honor and truth that his greatest weakness is not having enough of himself to go around – the fact that he is, actually, mortal.  Yet when I look at Cap, I do not see an impossible standard.  I see who I wish I were, who I want to become.

CA gifCap’s heroics aren’t limited to combat and shield-wielding and running thirteen miles in thirty minutes (although those are all supremely fun to watch).  He also protects the innocent and confronts injustice and takes care of old ladies and throws himself between his team and harm.  Most of all, he is always the one who says, in the midst of the most horrific and lonely and hurtful of circumstances, “I’m not leaving you!”

This inevitably reminds me of Someone else I studied this weekend, One who took the worst I had to offer and still threw Himself between me and certain death.  And after He did so, He assured me that I can accomplish even greater feats when I allow myself to believe and try.

Thor shows me who I am.  Cap shows me who I want to be.  Lord, help my unbelief!

superpower of choice

It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. -J.K. Rowling

Comic-Con International is coming up this week and I am irrationally, inordinately, ridiculously SUPER-pumped for it…especially for some one who’s not even going.

I don’t know how it is that I’ve never been.  Comic-Con is a shining beacon of and for nerdom around the world. Teeming masses of fans, friends, artists, cosplay exhibitionists, geeks, gamers, and not a few of the just-curious descend upon San Diego every year to get the scoop on what’s coming up in all things story-related or comics-inspired.

It used to be overlooked at best and derided at worst twenty years ago; now a Comic-Con panel is THE place to unveil any project that wants to be cool (or at least, wants to make tons of money).  As with any gathering of thousands united around a single cause or idea, it definitely attracts its fair share of nutcases and extremists, but at heart Comic-Con is a giant, fearless celebration of imagination.

I LOVE IT.

I keep thinking to myself, I wonder what Joss Whedon is doing right now?! – because you just know there’s something awesome on deck for the Avengers panel.  I also wonder how many of the attendees are rushing around in a tizzie trying to get their costumes together, how the convention center staff feels about it (anticipation or dread?), and how Zack Snyder can sleep after choosing to enter no presentation at all for Superman vs. Batman.  I am mystified by the games arena (haven’t played a video game regularly since Q*bert) and in awe of the vast array of panels open to the public.  As you can easily surmise, attending Comic-Con someday, somehow is way up there on my bucket list.

Naturally, all of this has me contemplating superhero stories yet again, and how they have grown so rapidly in resonance over the last decade or two.  When I was in high school, fanboys were fodder for bullies and snark, and fangirls were rare, mysterious creatures on par with unicorns.  Now, nearly everyone in the general population of America has a favorite superhero, and every personality quiz will at some point ask what super power you would choose if you could.  We have absorbed the stories (if not yet the fanboys) into mainstream culture and filter many of our own stories through their lens.

It doesn’t take a psychology degree to assess why super powers are so appealing; the answer is all in the origin stories.  A young, bullied nerd becomes an agile, cool, smart-mouthed defender of the defenseless.  A mega-rich, genius inventor of weapons is humbled and dons his armor to end war instead of equip it.  Two orphans – each alone in precise and excruciating ways – derive purpose and power in the very sources of their alienation; one finds the human connection that he craves, the other the isolation that soothes his scars.  It’s easy to find ourselves and fuel our ambitions in their narratives.

In this, the “real” world, I have decided that there is only one visible super power, and every human being on earth has been equipped with it from the first day they entered the atmosphere.  It is the power of Choice.

Choice is everything.  It determines the quality of my every day and the direction of my journey.  It gives me the power to soar over my circumstances or be crushed beneath them, to overpower resistance or be driven by it, to join the battle with the rest of the called or shrink and hide and lose both the struggle and the victory.

Choice determines the course of my adventures and whether they will even BE adventures, or merely an accidental series of unappreciated moments carelessly toppling over each other.

As with any super power, Choice can be used for good or for evil.  It can be mutated to generate toxicity in the form of Judgmentalism, which is the choice to condemn the way others use their power.  The only thing it can’t do is be eliminated, for even doing nothing is itself an act of Choice.

Choice is the greatest power in the world; all others are merely its fruit.

hunger

“Destroying things is much easier than making them.”

I was a bookseller at Barnes & Noble when I first rejoined the work force, and it was a glorious time in my life.  What better occupation for me than to be literally surrounded by the written word and movies, and sometimes even the written word about movies?  Retail hours, sore feet, Black Friday…I genuinely loved every minute of it.

My first day on the job, they assigned me to the children’s section, and I resented it considerably at first. Just because I’m a mom, I protested to faceless authorities within the safe confines of my imagination, does that automatically mean that I like children’s books?  Or even children?

Within the week I got over myself, however.  Turns out that the children’s section was a veritable treasure trove of entertainment.  I became reacquainted with old loves such as the Pevensie children and Yertle the Turtle, and I brought home new family friends like Bad Kitty and Harry Potter.  I may literally have frolicked among the pages upon occasion.

Then came the day I was assigned to “zone” the teen section, located just outside of the main children’s annex.  (Tangent Alert: I loved zoning.  Zoning is the process wherein you go to each bookcase with a scanner and make sure that every book is in its proper place.  For this brand new divorcee and single mom, it was intensely therapeutic to be able to seize one little portion of my world and wrestle it into perfect order.  I highly recommend it.)

Of course, it’s impossible for me to lay hands on any book without perusing its contents, and while I am not known to be prudish or innocent (anymore), I was floored by the percentage of – and I am being kind here – absolute smut on those shelves. In one afternoon, I was exposed to violence, meanness, glorified bullying, pain and suffering, gleeful embrace of promiscuity…and that was in the Gossip Girl series alone!

Even more terrifying was observing how blithely detached parents were from their children’s reading habits.   Kids would come in, grab some random abomination off the shelf, and ask their grown-up in attendance (if there even WAS one) to buy it for them…and the grown up would just throw it in the basket without even a glance.  The one time I inquired of a mother if she had read the books, her puzzled eyes darted toward the door and she immediately checked out.

Ever since that day, I have been a firm believer in reading what my kids are reading.  So when my oldest came home from school touting The Hunger Games and crowing about how her book club was going to read it and see the movie, I set aside my Dave Barry collection and hunkered down for what was my new assignment as well.  Here’s what I found.

My first thought, not to be mean, was that Stephenie Meyer and a host of other YA authors should take notes.  Suzanne Collins has an economy with words that generates volumes of imagery from the simplest phrases.  Her style is therefore highly engaging; starry-eyed teens and seasoned adults alike find themselves surprisingly invested after the first chapter.

Next I had to address the violence because that is the number one concern of us concerned parents who just want to know if we should be concerned or not.  My vote is: not.  Is it really all that violent?  Oh, yeah.  It definitely is, but there is nothing gratuitous about it.

It may have helped if she had stated it sooner, but Suzanne Collins explains at the end of the third book that the story came in honor of her parents, who – having lived through it themselves – made it a point to educate their children about war.  Taken in this context, the violence has meaning and is vital.  You’re supposed to cringe when the children are bleeding and the oppressed are powerless and the authorities are making sport of it all.  The book is not bandying atrocities about lightly; rather, it’s bringing them to light for a new generation to see and understand.  War, injustice, propaganda…these are all heavy and unpleasant topics, but very real and happening today, and therefore worthy of exposition.

Finally there are the the characters themselves.  They are strong and vivid, and watching them traverse their painful landscapes is appropriately difficult but enthralling.  I like the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, the most in this book of the three, yet I found her almost too realistic.  I wanted her to be unflappable and pure like Superman, fueled only by a desire to right injustice, while instead she is often more reluctant and bent on survival.  Yet the choices she makes in the face of her reservations are precisely what make her a hero.

It is inexplicably common for The Hunger Games trilogy to be deemed a girls’ saga simply based on the fact that the protagonist is a girl.  I find this viewpoint dated and mildly offensive; after all, no one claims that Harry Potter and Percy Jackson belong to the boys.  And while The Hunger Games is not for everyone, it is certainly not limited in its relevance by gender application.  When the movie releases later this month, hopefully girls and boys alike will light up not only their social media with their thoughts, but also their living rooms and dinner tables.

oscar open

“So tonight, enjoy yourselves because nothing can take the sting out of the world’s economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues.” ~Billy Crystal

Dear Academy,

It pains me to say this, but there is a growing rift between us.  I love movies, and I have been a staunch defender of you and your eccentric ways.  I publicly support your broadcasts and your sometimes brilliant, sometimes barely tolerable efforts to draw in viewers via opulence and voyeurism. I have even thrown parties in your honor.

This year, however, you have excluded me in such a brazenly ignorant fashion that I must finally speak my heart and the first question I must ask is this:  No Alan Rickman?  NO Alan Rickman?  Are you freaking kidding me?!  Okay, you may see the Harry Potter films as somewhat beneath you (and we’ll get to that in a minute), but this is a man who went far above playing a role to perfection.  He actively informed the source material.  J.K. Rowling shaped the way she herself, the creator and original voice of a whole unseen world, saw and wrote Severus Snape based on the dimension Alan Rickman gave him.  How can that not be worthy of even the tiniest bone you could throw?

As egregious as this is, I believe it is symptomatic of a greater problem: You think you care about me, and you want me to believe it too, but deep down we both know it’s just an illusion.  Oh sure, your public persona is very affectionate towards me.  Every year you make a big display of trying to appeal to me through your choice of hosts and directors, your red carpet interviews, and your behind-the-scenes specials.  But the truth is that you only want me for my money.

That is the worst part, really.  You make millions and millions of dollars off of me.  You endlessly analyze and lament how much I’m spending and on what movies every week, and you compare it to years past, seeing what is trending well with me and trying to get me to spend more.    In fact, your entire industry depends on me, yet when it comes to the self-proclaimed highest honor that you can bestow, you not only disregard my input; you actively use financial success as a pall over any material’s artistic value.  On top of that, the films you do applaud are those to which I have little if any access to see for myself.

Not everything you do is wrong of course.  You finally got around to nominating Gary Oldman, although most of his performances and especially his brilliant turn as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved were no less deserving.  You expanded the category of Best Picture to be more inclusive of voting numbers – allowing that sometimes it seems most likely as a way of kissing up to your favorite directors.  And nominating Viola Davis and Rooney Mara this year almost makes up for your irresistible compulsion to list Meryl Streep (I swear, the woman could appear as herself in a documentary and you’d find a way to qualify it).

You may argue that you are the expert and you can assert your freedom as such to recognize or not any films and actors that you well choose.  I agree!  But if that is to be your stance, please stop pretending to care what I think.  Stop wondering why each year’s broadcast viewership is down; in fact, stop broadcasting it at all.  Just rent out the Kodak theater for yourselves and spend every February worshiping each other in private and leave us alone to watch what we choose – probably a comedy or a popcorn flick, or anything with Alan Rickman in it.