Arts and Culture

Capital and Captain America

World domination update: ruthless oligarchs plan Marvel hero movies to 2028.

By Dorothy Woodend 19 Apr 2014 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

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'Captain America: Winter Soldier': at the Cineplex, when the corporate ads start up, just smile and say, 'Heil Hydra!'

Sometimes the biggest things hide in plain sight.

This thought occurred to me in the midst of Captain America: Winter Soldier, a long, overblown and distinctly uninteresting piece of work. It resembles a giant colouring book more than a film. The outlines are already there, all you need to do is fill them in.

The film trots about doing just that, in rote repetition, just like the many comic book film adaptations before and after it. They are lined up like planes on a runway at the moment: The X-Men Again Already, Spider-Man 11, Defenders of the Galaxy, Transformers 2.0, Godzilla Gets Stompy, etcetera. The only thing that sets Winter Soldier apart from the rest of the ilk is the whiff of conspiracy theory that attends the plot.

Captain America, a weirdly blank Chris Evans, does his gee-golly best to embody American pluck from a bygone era in this second franchise iteration, or more correctly, the third, if you count The Avengers. I had forgotten most of the plot of the first Captain America, but the sequel kindly reminded me with bits and pieces of the first film stitched in here and there to refresh one's memory. The basic gist of it is that a scrawny 90-pound weakling named Steve Rogers and his buddy Bucky Barnes join the army to fight the Nazis. Steve, a nice enough little guy with a good heart and frail frame, has no patience for bullies and just wants the chance to do his part.

A bit of science experimentation, courtesy of Uncle Sam's new military research department, and hello Nurse! This stick insect of a man is turned into a strapping hero, one Captain America, embellished with the good old red, white and blue. He is sent off to the front line to battle the bad guys. This is all fine and good and the Great War ballyhoo of routing Nazi bastards gets off to a rousing finale with a showdown between the Red Skull, leader of Hydra, and the Cap and his All-American platoon.

In The Avengers Captain America was rescued from the bottom of the sea, and restored to life in the dawn of the 21st century. Adapting to the modern way of doing things sent the poor chump into a bit of a tale spin. Modern manners, modern women and the new fashion for murdering people with machine guns just didn't sit right with the Cap, who was, and still is, more apt to clap people over the head with the giant pot-lid he wears on his back. He's just an old-fashioned kind of guy I guess.

The Avengers featured an all-star cast of new model superhero wisenheimers, with murky pasts and even muddier morals. The posse included Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and poor old Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, all presided over by Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. There was the usual Sturm und drang of giant squiddy things and Teutonic overlords, rocketing in from outer space to wreck New York. Add in epic battle sequences and the occasional bit of superhero infighting and backbiting, and the film's profits added up to more than $530 million worldwide.

Heil Hydra!

At least, I think that was the first film, or perhaps it was the second? In all honesty, they start to blend together. That may be intentional on the part of the studios that created this cabal of movies, as each separate comic book universe (Marvel, DC) begins to connect at some point. Perhaps future films will feature Superman boffing Batman while Spider-Man looks on, which all sounds vaguely pornographic.

Back to the most recent outing for a moment...

In Winter Soldier, most of the Our Gang of Avengers are off doing other things, so it's up to the Captain and the Black Widow (a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff) to save the day. The world needs saving, this time, from the very folks charged with keeping it safe. S.H.I.E.L.D, the organization that employs the Captain, has some wild notion about setting up a global defence system of hovering shelves that will destroy all badness in the world and keep everyone safe. Or, at least, that's what they say will happen. There is a worm at the centre of things, one Alexander Pierce played by Robert Redford and his hair. Before you can shout, "Oh, S.H.E.I.L.D, thou art sick!" there are assassination attempts, explosions and the usual evil oligarchs trying to take over and run the show.

The Captain and Natasha are forced to go on the lam, while their former employers set out to kill them. Whiz, bang, pop and the Captain must undertake a showdown with someone from his past. Cue the grand orchestral finale and insert explosions here and here.

Really, the only thing that seems to incite much excitement about the film is how much money it is making. There was a half-hearted attempt to create controversy around the idea that the plot was a thinly veiled allusion to Obama's kill list, but no one seemed to care very much about that, and eventually the entire thing wafted away like a bad smell.

The film's big twist, which I feel I can reveal at this point, is that the Nazis never went away, they simply got better at hiding in plain sight. The film's tagline of "Heil Hydra!" has already entered the pop lexicon. It emerges throughout the plot, as various politicians and S.H.I.E.L.D bigwigs whisper the phrase to each other and are revealed to be part of a grand scheme to control the world.

It always comes down to a secret group of men who want to rule everything. In the case of Captain America, the film, it's the Nazis. In the case of Captain America, the business franchise, it's the Walt Disney corporation. Either way, it is always a group of rich and powerful men running the show. In Winter Soldier, the conspiracy at the heart of things is revealed as innate evil, but in the real world it's just good business.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this, except to be a little bit creeped out by the fact that a certain tiny sliver of the population controls the means of wealth, and also runs the culture at the same time. That the two things are so incestuously intertwined is even creepier. Bloomberg Businessweek's recent profile of Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige revealed the long-range plan at work in the world of superhero movies:

"Much of Marvel's success can be attributed to Feige. He has a special understanding of comics, fans, superheroes and narrative. He concedes that Marvel won't recover the film rights to Spider-Man or the X-Men anytime soon but says Marvel has something more valuable: a universe of thousands of characters it controls entirely. That means Feige can produce an unlimited number of films with interweaving story lines and characters, creating a vast audience for almost any Marvel movie. People might show up for The Avengers, meet the Black Widow, and come back for her movie, too. There's a map of films reaching far into the next decade on the wall of Feige's office. It's like looking through the Hubble telescope. You go, 'What's happening back there? I can sort of see it,'" he laughs. "They printed out a new one recently that went to 2028."

Eight superhero movies a year... forever?

Marvel is not the only studio to be investing in a veritable ream of superhero movies. According to a recent article in Forbes Magazine, the banner box office of superhero films means that they will continue, unabated for years to come.

The Forbes piece states: "Marvel, Warner Bros., Fox and Sony all plan on releasing multiple solo franchises that exist with each studio's larger superhero cinematic universes. In 2016, for example, there are five superhero sequels releasing within the 10-weekend span from May 6th through July 8th. Four of those release in just a six-weekend span, in fact. Imagine what the summer schedule is going to look like when the Spider-Man spinoff movies arrive, when the Fantastic Four/X-Men shared universe starts to take shape, and when Warner begins releasing Batman, Wonder Woman and other superhero franchise films. We could be seeing eight superhero movies every summer on an almost yearly basis."

If the idea that we will be seeing comic book films until 2028 makes you to feel a little bleary, I feel your pain. How much can we take of this before we simply snap and run around rending our hair and skin and screaming, "Godard, why hast thou forsaken us?"

Again, I feel compelled to note that most of the talk about Winter Soldier isn't about its merit as film, it's all about the money -- some $500 million, and counting.

What does this all mean, you may ask? I'm still muddling through it all, but even the most cursory perusal of industry coverage comes down to a certain faction of studio heads, let's call them white dudes for simplicity's sake, getting extremely wealthy, as they recreate their boyhood comic book obsessions over and over again. That's icky enough, but the more you think about it, the ickier it gets.

Mainstream movies are intimately tied in with capitalism. They are designed to make money. That's a clearly established truth. The weird part, at least for me, is that the films themselves are about righting wrongs and battling inequality, but they are created by a system that is fundamentally dedicated to maintaining inequity. Insert schism here and here.

'The apparently unstoppable rise of the tiny elite'

A new book called Capital in the Twenty-first Century from a French economist named Thomas Piketty is making the rounds at the moment. I just read bits of it, so I cannot yet report on the entire text (all 700 pages), but at the heart of it all is a rather straightforward, almost obvious statement. Capitalism pretty much blows, folks! At least for most people. But there are a few souls for whom the benefits of the system are huge and manifested in vast, seemingly unending tidal waves of cash.

A recent number of profiles in the New Yorker and the Guardian lay out Piketty's thesis, which is interesting to consider in light of the movie business. Says the Guardian: "In recent weeks and months the book has, however, set off fierce debates in the United States about the dynamics of capitalism, and especially the apparently unstoppable rise of the tiny elite that controls more and more of the world's wealth. In non-specialist blogs and websites across America, it has ignited arguments about power and money, questioning the myth at the very heart of American life -- that capitalism improves the quality of life for everyone. This is just not so, says Piketty, and he makes his case in a clear and rigorous manner that debunks everything that capitalists believe about the ethical status of making money."

The word 'myth' here is interesting, seeing as so many comic book films trade in archetypes and mythology, grand notions about right, wrong and the American way. In fact, I think Captain America says as much a few times.

The article goes on to quote Piketty at length: "When I began, simply collecting data, I was genuinely surprised by what I found, which was that inequality is growing so fast and that capitalism cannot apparently solve it. Many economists begin the other way around, by asking questions about poverty, but I wanted to understand how wealth, or super-wealth, is working to increase the inequality gap. And what I found, as I said before, is that the speed at which the inequality gap is growing is getting faster and faster. You have to ask what does this mean for ordinary people, who are not billionaires and who will never be billionaires. Well, I think it means a deterioration in the first instance of the economic well-being of the collective, in other words the degradation of the public sector.... There is a fundamentalist belief by capitalists that capital will save the world, and it just isn't so. Not because of what Marx said about the contradictions of capitalism, because, as I discovered, capital is an end in itself and no more."

So, what does this have to do with watching a film like Winter Soldier in the Scotiabank Theatre?

Just that in so doing, you're part of and party to the greater system, in which we all find ourselves permanently stuck. Nothing makes this more apparent than the actual experience of seeing a film at the Cineplex. It is about as unpleasant as a proctology appointment. The plasticity of the experience is such that you feel almost abused, sitting there, wanly eating your popcorn, while cell phone ads and tar sands pipeline propaganda expand exponentially before the start of the film.

So, what to do? You can opt out, refuse to pay money to see anything that emerges from corporations, although the Hydra tentacles of the Disney corporation are so intertwined and intermeshed with modern culture they are hard to peel off.

Are there any places you truly escape the coils of capitalism? Perhaps a few. In Vancouver, for example, there certainly are many films to see in small theatres like The Cinematheque or Vancity, and the range of film choices online is vast and encompassing. The legions of filmmakers toiling away is enormous, but no one working in independent film is in it for the money.

A friend of mine maintains that ultimately all culture should be free. Or at least, freed from the red skull of corporate control.

Piketty's book ends on a radical note, by stating unequivocally: "If democracy is some day to regain control of capitalism, it must start by recognizing that the concrete institutions in which democracy and capitalism are embodied need to be reinvented again and again."

Maybe we could start by reinventing some better movies. Or maybe better heroes.  [Tyee]

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