Friday, 11 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes

Part 1: "Trust No One" -- How Captain America became the "gritty" superhero we never knew we wanted.
Part 2: HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.
Part 3: Black Widow and Falcon.

Bucky's role in this movie is the point where Marvel nerd and non-nerd audiences part ways. Going by the reactions I've seen from film critics and my non-fan friends, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was an entertaining superhero movie that probably should've had more dialogue and fewer action sequences. But if you go by Marvel/Captain America fandom, EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS FILM WAS AGONY AND LIFE IS A WORTHLESS HELLSCAPE UNTIL STEVE AND BUCKY CAN BE TOGETHER AGAIN.

Needless to say, I fall into the latter camp. If you want to preserve the illusion of this blog as an impartial source of pop culture analysis, stop reading this post and wait for the next part of the review, because I have A Lot Of Feelings about Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes.

Marvel Studios movies are very good at making everything equally engaging for new audiences and people who are familiar with the comics, but I suspect that Winter Soldier was their first stumbling block. CATWS has inspired an overwhelmingly positive audience response so I wouldn't describe this issue to be a "failure," but there's clearly a gap between people who came into the movie already invested in the Winter Soldier's backstory, and people who didn't. It's kind of like if someone made a movie about Sherlock Holmes' return from the dead, but half the audience were only familiar with Watson and therefore didn't really understand why everyone was freaking out over the dead guy who reappeared an hour and a half into the movie.

I saw several reviews that pointed out the Winter Soldier had very little screentime for a title character -- in fact, that the film more or less could've stood up without him. And from a plot perspective, I suppose it could. They could've just subbed in any old assassin character, and the plot would've worked out just fine. Except this fails to take into account the fact that Bucky is the emotional core of the Captain America story thus far. To fully understand this, we need to go right back to the beginning of the first Cap movie, when Steve and Bucky were growing up together in Brooklyn.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier review, Part 3 -- Black Widow & Falcon

Part 1: "Trust No One" -- How Captain America became the "gritty" superhero we never knew we wanted.
Part 2: Hydra, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.

Making Captain America: The Winter Soldier an ensemble cast movie was a smart decision. Not only does it make sense to position Steve as a team leader rather than a solo hero, but it avoids the somewhat tired formula of superhero + love interest + supervillain, plus supporting cast of sidekicks and parental figures. Steve may still take the central role, but characters like Nick Fury and Black Widow certainly don't fall into any of those categories. As Marvel Studios slowly begins to explore other genres (Thor as an operatic fantasy, Guardians of the Galaxy as a space epic...), they can branch out into building characters with more depth and ambiguity than the traditional superhero formula allows.


I already discussed this in the first part of my review, but basically it would've been a mistake to try and build a typical 21st century superhero story around Steve Rogers. After all, his "superpowers" pretty much boil down to enhanced strength and healing abilities. There are already so many action movies about supposedly "normal" humans performing superhuman stunts (think of John McClane's progression from middle-aged everyman to indestructable teflon droid in Live Free or Die Hard) that Cap's physical strength runs the risk of seeming unimpressive when measured alongside someone like Iron Man.

Instead, this movie is more about the metaphorical strength of teamwork and good leadership: a perfect development for a character who went from standing up to schoolyard bullies to selling American military propaganda to leading a close-knit group of commandos into Nazi-occupied Europe. Captain America's image as a hero is more about personality and symbolism than it is about Steve Rogers' ability to fall 50 feet without breaking his knees. 

Black Widow

There are a lot of misconceptions about Black Widow's role in the Avengers franchise, either caused by people's existing prejudices (i.e. the assumption that any woman in a "catsuit" is just there for sex appeal), or because her characterization is relatively subtle when compared to larger-than-life heroes like Thor. The writers and actors at Marvel Studios put a lot of thought into every character, but obviously the majority of viewers are not nerds who analyse everything in excruciating detail. Characters like Tony Stark and Falcon are easy to understand on a superficial level, but Black Widow tends to fall by the wayside because her emotions and motivations are often so obscure.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Part 2 -- HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe

Previously: Part 1: "Trust No One" -- Steve Rogers as the ~gritty superhero America deserves.

When it came to using HYDRA as the antagonist once again, Winter Soldier's writers were caught between a rock and a hard place. At face value, the concept of an evil organization infiltrating SHIELD is perfect for the Winter Soldier storyline ("You shaped the century.") and can be linked in with real-world concerns about PRISM and drone strikes. Unfortunately, the filmmakers couldn't really create a new, more plausible evil conspiracy when they already had HYDRA ready and waiting in the sidelines of the Captain America mythos. This meant they then had to try and legitimise a scenario where thousands of SHIELD agents decided to join a blatantly evil secret society with roots in a Nazi cult -- without ever being detected.
With a villain as wide-ranging as HYDRA, they had to give us a few entry characters to illustrate various aspects of the organization. Zola represented the cartoonishly evil Nazi backstory, while Alexander Pierce had a far more pragmatic explanation for why he believed in HYDRA's goals. The weakest point was definitely Sitwell, as he was seemingly introduced as the "human" side, kind of like the supervillain equivalent of Coulson's benevolent middle-management schtick in Avengers.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Part 1 -- Trust No One.

Previously: The costumes and characters of The Avengers -- Captain America.

SPOILERS throughout. You have been warned.

I've been rather entertained by the number of reviewers who smugly namechecked Edward Snowden while writing about this movie, but they do have a point. CATWS is about as "realistic" as you're going to get in the superhero genre, in a way that I found far more satisfying than the stereotypically ~gritty reboot~ atmosphere of the Dark Knight trilogy. Whether you or not you're a fan of Nolan's Batman movies, I think it's fair to say that they were masterminded by someone who doesn't have much affection for the comicbook superhero genre, which is quite funny considering the overt silliness of The Dark Knight Rises. CATWS provided an excellent balance between a relatively realistic concept (SHIELD's PRISM-inspired surveillance helicarriers), and the inherently optimistic nature of Captain America as a character.
Steve Rogers may do a lot of punching in this movie (perhaps too much punching, dare I even say it), but his real "superpower" is his status as a role model and leader. In the end, it's Steve who decides that SHIELD is beyond salvation, Steve who inspires Falcon to join the fight, and Steve who persuades SHIELD agents to ignore direct orders because it's the right thing to do. As with Bucky and the Howling Commandos, he's the guy with the guts to go first when confronting everything from schoolyard bullies to the guys giving him his orders, and as a result you can really understand why people want to rally behind him as a figurehead. He may not have the firepower of Thor or Iron Man or the political sway of Fury and the top brass at SHIELD, but he's the one trustworthy rock in the shifting moral sands of SHIELD and HYDRA, and that's what makes him important.

Pre-Winter Soldier Marvel article roundup

I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier last week, but have been holding off on posting a review until it's out in the US. That hideously long review will be up either tonight or tomorrow, but until then, here are some Marvel superhero articles I've recently written elsewhere!

Wolverine Fatigue -- Has Wolverine outstayed his welcome at the head of the X-Men franchise? (Hint: the answer is yes. Please hand the reins of this political oppression allegory over to someone who isn't a white hetero dude.)

Captain America as a modern-day hero of equal rights -- One of the reasons why I'm so fond of Cap fanfic, TBH.

Chris Evans and the gilded cage of Marvel movie contracts -- Chris Evans has said on multiple occasions that he wants to step away from acting, but is locked into a six-movie contract with Marvel. This article is a look at the various Marvel actors who have signed up for a decade of superhero movies, and may now be regretting it.

Why do film critics still think Black Widow is an eye candy role? -- I took a look at the reviews from film critics in well-respected newspapers and magazines, both for Avengers in 2012 and the earlier UK reviews for CATWS. A depressing number of of (male) reviewers described Black Widow almost exclusively in terms of her looks, even in CATWS, where she has second billing to Captain America. Bear in mind that Cap's outfits are just as tight and "sexy" as hers, and that Thor, Cap and Bucky have all now had relatively gratuitous shirtless scenes in each of their movies, probably putting them ahead of Black Widow in the eye candy stakes. It's really quite incredible how many professional film critics failed to comprehend Black Widow's true role in these movies, but instead interpreted her as a pouting, "leather-clad" badass -- a hilariously inaccurate summation of a woman who is specifically characterized as the most cerebral Avenger (i.e. beating Loki at his own game), and doesn't even wear a leather costume.

OK, that's all for now. If you haven't seen CATWS yet, here's my non-spoilery advice for what to look out for when you see it for the first time. If you've seen it already, check back later for my review, which will be approximately the same length as the Encyclopedia Britannica. My other Marvel movie reviews, including costume design analysis, can all be found on my Marvel tag.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Costuming and design in Hannibal: Bella Crawford, between life and death.

Previously: Costuming and design in Hannibal, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 (Hannibal's wrist watch.), Part 4 (Abigail Hobbs).

I already mentioned in my first Hannibal costuming post that the FBI team dress like characters in a crime procedural drama, while people like Hannibal and Bedelia du Maurier seem to come from another universe entirely. The main visual difference between the FBI lab team and your average CSI character is that they wear vanishingly few monochrome outfits.
Compared to a show like Person of Interest, where two or three main characters can be wearing all-black outfits in any one episode, Hannibal's crime-fighters look positively colourful. Beverley Katz has at least three different maroon jackets, Jack Crawford loves his dark blue and purple jewel tones, and even Price and Zeller mostly wear neutral colours like navy blue or beige. (Price is characterized by his slouchy dad outfits and cardigans, while Zeller's clothes are more youthful and flattering.)
The only character in the show who habitually wears black and white is Bella Crawford. In her first appearance in "Coquilles," she's wearing a pure white dress to a dinner party with Hannibal and her husband. In the darkness of Hannibal's dining room, she stands out immediately, and the draped style of the dress makes Gina Torres look like some kind of ancient Greek deity.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Costuming and design in NBC's Hannibal: Abigail Hobbs

Previously: Costuming and design in Hannibal, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 (Hannibal's wrist watch.)

While Hannibal Lecter's suits are undoubtedly the most eyecatching costumes on the show, I found myself really warming to Abigail's costuming when rewatching season 1. Her clothes in "Potage" are particularly interesting, because they were bought for her by Alana Bloom. This means that rather than wearing her own clothes, she's actually dressed in Alana's interpretation of Abigail-clothes.

Abigail may be an emotionally fragile 17/18-year-old girl, but I'm glad to say that she's neither dressed up like a TV teen (which wouldn't remotely fit in with the overall tone of Hannibal), or styled to look more childlike and therefore ~vulnerable. Like the adult characters, she has a very specific dress sense and colour palette, which in her case is very "outdoorsy". Either she's wearing sensible hunting clothes to spend time in the forest with her father, or she's dressed in green and brown, often surrounded by natural imagery of plants and flowers. While Hannibal is a Francis Bacon painting and Will is an Edward Hopper, I think Abigail is a botanical illustration.
Screencaps via screencapped.net
Abigail's hospital room is very serene, with her butterfly-patterned nightdress matching the pale blue-green bed linen, furniture and patterned wallpaper. This delicate floral motif is directly at odds with Freddie Lounds, who shows up wearing a leopard print dress, a red-lined cape and gloves. Freddie looks practically Disney villainesque in her predatory role as Abigail's unwelcome visitor, and is the one central character in the episode who isn't wearing an outfit that fits in with Abigail's colour palette.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Costuming & design in NBC's Hannibal: Hannibal Lecter's wristwatch.

As part of my ongoing series on costume and design in Hannibal, I'm going to post my first guest blog with contributions from an outside writer. My brother is a watchmaker and an avid fan of Hannibal, and recently mentioned to me that he had some thoughts on Hannibal's watch in the show (a $176,300 white gold Patek Phillippe 5270G Chronograph, apparently). Here's what he had to say:
via weartherude
Patek Phillippe are generally seen by most watch people as the big brand leaders. They have an extremely prestigious rep, although reputation is very, very weird with watches. It doesn't just vary by brand but also by model. The Rolex worn by a particular James Bond in a particular Bond movie may be seen as some amazing piece of art, but a gold-cased Rolex of the same model but a different year could be trash. To give you an idea of Patek Phillippe's marketing brand, here's a recent advert: