Saturday, April 5, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier / Some thoughts on Retro-Futuristic Cyberpunk & Characters Sticking to Their Alignments

I'd give it three and a half stars, and I'll explain why, but what I really want to do is talk about a few aspects of the movie beyond just reviewing it. So here's my quick and dirty review:

I went to this movie hoping there was some way that it would be a dieselpunk movie like Captain America: The First Avenger. I always avoid all trailers of movies I intend to see because I cannot abide having any part of a movie spoiled for me. The downside of this is that sometimes I go into a movie with expectations which are not met. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not a dieselpunk movie. So in that, I was disappointed. This was exacerbated by the fact that two of my husband's students told him the movie dealt with the World's Fair. There's an explanation for this; the short version is they were probably pranking him. He teaches history and uses The First Avenger as a way to address the World's Fairs and a lot of other aspects of history in the early 20th century. Anyway, so I went into this movie thinking they were going to have some kind of time travel happen or something. Nothing like that happens. The closest thing to dieselpunk is a scene in a bunker (?). It isn't dieselpunk in any way, though, it's actually a strange type of cyberpunk, and I'm going to talk about that in detail below. So really, this is a pretty basic action flick. It's biggest redeeming quality is the general morality of the story as well as the morality of the lead character, Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America. (Minor) SPOILER ALERT: When he talks to Nick Fury after getting a tour of a top secret operation, I had a hell yeah moment. At the start of the tour the camera lovingly reveals these huge weapons one after another. I know I come to this kind of movie with a different sort of mindset than most people do, so I had this icky feeling as I thought, "Yetch, are we supposed to be happy about this?" And then, basically, no, we're not. Rogers utters every objection that was going through my mind when I saw the big guns. So that was cool. (Much bigger) SPOILER ALERT: When Rodgers insists on dismantling SHIELD entirely, it was another hell yeah moment for me. I appreciated his unwillingness to compromise and I enjoyed how contrite Fury seemed in that moment. I also liked the interactions with Bucky. The film wasn't terribly rich in deeper emotional connections (it wasn't devoid of them, but let's face it, this is not a movie about feelings) so I liked how they worked with this one.

Anyway, there are two aspects I wanted to get into in more detail, and if you're worried about spoilers, and you've still managed to get this far, you really might want to stop reading now.

Retro-Futuristic Cyberpunk
This was a new one to me. Of course, I don't read cyberpunk or seek out cyberpunk fiction in any form, really, mostly because with the one novel I read, Mona Lisa Overdrive, I understood maybe a third of what I was reading. However, I understood enough of it to immediately recognize that Zola in the computers was like a big Gibson shout-out. The thing about it that struck me, though, was that these were what, 1960s computers? Maybe 1970s? They put me in mind of computers from old episodes of Wonder Woman so maybe 70s. Anyway, my point is that the scene was retro-futuristic. You have the retro-computers--huge ugly beasts that they are. But the tech is futuristic, what with Zola having downloaded his consciousness into them and all. As I understand it--and again, I am not a cyberpunk expert--one of the big differences between cyberpunk and all its derivative other-punks (those that I've encountered, anyway) is that cyberpunk is not retro-futuristic. It's just futuristic. By its nature, cyberpunk fiction is set in a near future, most often dystopian, where computers rule.

I haven't read the comics so I can't speak to the origin of this idea of combining a ghost in the machine with retro computers. If the movie makers came up with it, I'm impressed.

Checking the main page for "Cyber Punk" on TVTropes makes me think that that character of the Winter Soldier is also grounded in this aesthetic. There's an illustration on that page of a guy who could be the Winter Soldier himself, just with a shorter hair cut. On top of the physical similarities, the caption reads, "I never asked for this," which also fits.

Anyway, I thought the most interesting moment in the movie was the scene with cyber-Zola, and it was frustrating to me when the bunker was subsequently destroyed. Please, correct me if I'm wrong, but it looked to me like they did something new there, blending retro-futuristic with cyberpunk. I am such a sucker for retro-futuristic stuff, I got pretty excited about it. I'm going to have to give it some more thought, because that scene was just too short for me. I may have to come up with a way to do retro-futuristic cyberpunk in a novel. Maybe the third book in the City series.

Paladins, Ronin, and Alignment Shifts
Okay, so here's where I really fly my nerd flag, folks. If you've read my bio you may have caught the bit about how I played D&D for a while back when I lived in San Diego. It's actually not entirely accurate to say I played D&D. I did play some games set in worlds the D&D folks created, but I also played games and ran games set in worlds I created, and for several years tabletop RPG was a big part of my life (I miss it a lot). All this to say that I still see much of the fiction I encounter through the lens of D20 rules. It helps make me feel better when, say, a villain survives being pulverized when a huge flying helicarrier (I may be mistaken as to that term) crashes into the building he's in pretty much exactly at the level of the floor he's on. I think to myself, he's just that high level. His hit points are just that high. And I can go with it.

Another way I often wear RPG goggles when approaching fiction is with the nine alignments. In case you are unfamiliar with this concept, the short and dirty version is that all characters in D20 RPG, at least back when I was playing it, could be sorted on two spectrums. One was law versus chaos, the other was good versus evil. Here's a graphic:
I don't really agree with some of these choices for each category, but that's not the point here.

I've heard that the latest version of D&D does away with this system and has only five (?) alignments. This is unfathomable to me. I will not budge on this. The system of nine is the only way that will ever make sense to me, and even it has its limitations. ANYWAY. I've written three paragraphs here and I haven't even begun to get to the point. Yeesh.

Captain America, as you can see in the graphic, is Lawful Good. Unlike some of the choices in this graphic, he's really a great example of LG, because he's both genuinely good, and genuinely lawful. In Marvel's The Avengers he's actually fairly annoying about this. When I was watching The Winter Soldier and feeling disappointed about it not being a dieselpunk story, I realized something. I do like Rogers and his morality is a big part of that. But what made The First Avenger fun for me was the dieselpunk stuff. As a main character, Rogers just isn't a lot of fun. Not like, say, Tony Stark. Chaotic Good is just way more fun than Lawful Good. That's why there are so many stories about the rogue cop and the loose cannon and all the mavericks out there who shake things up and break all the rules in order to win the day.

Anyhoo, that's not my point. My point is that I think the biggest flaw in this movie is that Captain America doesn't stay true to his alignment.

Captain America is essentially a paladin. A paladin is your quintessential knight in shining armor. When you're a paladin, you are a warrior with a higher calling. Serving whoever or whatever it is you serve is your only aim in life. You are Lawful Good and you believe in order and hierarchy and following orders. Now, it is possible for a paladin to break with his or her faith or order or whatever, but this is a cataclysmic event in a the paladin's life. We're talking big angst here, and most likely an alignment shift, which is rare to impossible to achieve in a game, if you're playing with people who take their gaming seriously. Some paladins who go through this become evil, known as blackguards. Some become independent somehow. To be honest I don't remember how this works exactly. I have this vague memory of a paladin with a big red X over the arms on his shield and this wisp of an idea that suggests this was a character who broke with his faith for some reason but somehow managed to remain a kind of good paladin. Of course, in a fantasy setting based on feudal Japan, this would play out as a samurai who left the service of his lord and became a ronin.

In The Winter Soldier, Rogers goes from LG paladin to NG ronin* with nary a blink of a eye. I mean that almost literally. Chris Evans plays Rogers with such restraint that it's a good thing the camera can do close ups on his eyes, or we'd think he was totally wooden. I had to really puzzle over what moment constitutes the crisis point that causes Rogers to break with SHIELD. I think it's when Fury gets shot in Rogers' apartment. And honestly all the hinting about wanting to give up his service to SHIELD before that was really weird to me. I can see him disagreeing with Fury and having moral problems with the way they do things, but it doesn't add up to an LG paladin giving up his service. A Lawful Good character, even without actually being a paladin, would seek to remedy the problems of the organization from within, using the existing structure. They would not think going solo was the answer.

So that's really too bad, because the movie doesn't really work for me as a result. And you can't just forget that Rogers is LG because he does remind you of it several times throughout the movie, claiming he won't push someone off a building and that he's always honest. Basically he's forced into abandoning SHIELD when Fury gets shot, but then there's really no fallout for Rogers from having to do that. A well-written LG character, particularly a paladin like Rogers, would be pretty shattered by such a crisis. But this is a movie, with time limitations, as well as limitations on what the target audience is willing to put up with. I gather most people watching Captain America are going to think it's already angsty enough, what with the rather sad scene involving Peggy Carter as an elderly woman with Alzheimer's. They won't be entertained by Steve Rogers having a truly shattering existential crisis.

*Yes, I am aware of how problematic it is to appropriate words from actual Japanese feudal history to describe a fantasy character... give me an alternative and I'll edit this page. It can't be "rogue" though because in RPG terms, that's an entirely different thing, and since this whole section is rooted in RPG stuff, I can't start confusing things.