Unordered List

Wednesday 30 April 2014

Costuming and Design in Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- Steve & Bucky.

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. 
Part 4: The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes.
Part 5: Worldbuilding in the MCU.

The decision to set CATWS in Washington DC was a big departure from the visuals of the first Captain America movie. Compared to the sepia-toned beauty of The First Avenger, Steve's new life looks depressingly drab and grey. The car chases churn through DC traffic on concrete freeways, SHIELD headquarters looks like a cross between a multi-storey car park and an office block, and the Helicarriers are all cold, smooth glass and metal. The only hint of the warm colour-scheme of Steve's youth is when he goes to visit Sam Wilson at the VA, a comforting moment among the corporate cleanliness of the rest of DC.

Each Avengers movie has its own aesthetic, with Iron Man flitting between palaces of high-tech luxury, Thor living in a world of gold embossed armour and faux-historical alien weirdness, and Cap spending the entirety of his first movie surrounded by 1940s grime. CATWS was definitely the ugliest instalment in the franchise, which kind of worked in its favour because it highlighted Steve Rogers' isolation in 21st century DC.

Sunday 27 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Part 5 -- Worldbuilding in the MCU.

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. 
Part 4: The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes.

With a movie of this scale, I tend to fixate on what happens after the end credits roll. Not in an "I'm really looking forward to Sebastian Stan crying in the sequel!" way (although obviously that's a given), but in the sense of what impact Steve Rogers' actions will have on the rest of the world. I find it disappointing sequels focus purely on character development while hitting the reset button on the rest of the universe, as if the only people effected by a deadly supervillain/apocalypse are the hero and supporting cast. Luckily, the scope of the MCU gives us a better chance to see how the world changes and develops over time.

People love to point out the little details that link Marvel movies together, like Sitwell's offhand mention of Doctor Strange. But to be honest, that type of in-universe worldbuilding is pretty easy. The MCU's real strength is the way it portrays a world with a believable history and contemporary culture, rather than following the more familiar method of plopping a superhero into a city with no hints of influence from the outside world.

From the first Iron Man movie onwards, the existence of superheroes is something that has directly influenced everyday life in the MCU, from the legal ramifications of Tony Stark's unlicensed "prosthesis" to the way he markets himself as a celebrity hero, to his decision to move from weapons manufacturing to clean energy and robotics. By the time we reach Avengers, we've seen more than a glimpse of how the rest of the world is changing as a result. Agents of SHIELD was a stroke of genius because it shares more of the everyday nuts-and-bolts stuff that we're ever going to see in the actual movies. (Note to anyone who stopped watching after the first few episodes: AoS is so good now. Persevere.)

Captain America is the strongest strand in this worldbuilding web because in the MCU, he was the first publicly recognised superhero. He provides a historical link between the Red Skull in the 1940s, and the present-day world of SHIELD and the Avengers. Fittingly, CATWS was the first movie to give us a truly in-depth look at the non-superheroic side of the MCU.

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 popcorn flick that probably should've had more dialogue and fewer action sequences. But if you go by 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 and old audiences alike, 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 as a "failure," but there's clearly a gap between people who came into the movie already invested in Bucky Barnes, 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 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 swapped him with 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 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.

Giving CATWS an ensemble cast was a smart decision. Not only does it make sense to position Steve Rogers as a team leader rather than a solo hero, but it avoids the tired formula of superhero + love interest + villain, 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 in Die Hard to indestructible teflon droid in Live Free or Die Hard) that Cap's physical strength runs the risk of seeming unimpressive when compared to, say, Iron Man.

Instead, this movie is more about the importance 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 far too many 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 subtle when compared to her larger-than-life superhero counterparts. Characters like Tony Stark and Falcon are easy to understand on a superficial level, but Black Widow tends to get overlooked 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 legitimize 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. And, in many cases, without a clear-cut explanation for why they joined in the first place.

With a villain as wide-ranging as HYDRA, they had to give us a few entry characters to illustrate different aspects of the organization. Zola represented the cartoonishly evil Nazi backstory, while Alexander Pierce had a more pragmatic explanation for why he believed in HYDRA's goals. The weakest point was Agent Sitwell. Introduced as the "human" side of HYDRA, he was the evil equivalent of Coulson's benevolent middle-manager 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.

I've been enjoying the number of reviewers who smugly namechecked Edward Snowden while writing about this movie, but they do have a point. Captain America: The Winter Soldier 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 stereotypical ~gritty reboot~ atmosphere of the Dark Knight trilogy.

Whether or not you're a fan of Nolan's Batman movies, I think it's fair to say they were masterminded by someone who doesn't have much affection for the superhero genre -- which is funny when you consider 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 true 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.

He's the guy with the guts to go first when confronting everyone from schoolyard bullies to his own superior officers, and you can really understand why people rally behind him as a figurehead. He doesn't have the firepower of Thor or Iron Man or the political sway of Nick Fury, but he's the one trustworthy rock in the shifting moral sands of SHIELD and HYDRA.

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.