Thursday, June 12, 2014

#20: Soldiers of Future Past: Marvel superheroes vs. American security measures

Posters by Paolo Rivera and Ben Whitesell.

"This isn't freedom. This is fear."

Two of this year's movies with Marvel superheroes feature men displaced from their time, fighting against extreme preventive security systems: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Marvel Studios) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (20th Century Fox). The former hearkens to the paranoid mood of '70's conspiracy thrillers (furthered by casting Robert Redford in a key role), while the latter actually travels between 1973 and a bleak near-future. Both adapt older comic book storylines and feature a destructive climax set right in Washington, D.C (including major occurrences in the Potomac). Though blockbusters (like all other groups of movies) vary in cinematic merit, they often respond to popular needs for escapism and hope while confronting more-or-less disguised modern fears. The conflicted mood of the American 1970's lives on in these speculative struggles for hearts and minds.

Steve "Captain America" Rogers, a symbol of WWII's "Greatest Generation," slept in ice through that war's aftermath, and through the ensuing Cold War and the "hot" Korea, Vietnam, and First Gulf wars. Post-WWII decisions and conflicts were responsible for pushing the modern American military-industrial complex into motion. The character name and title "Winter Soldier" calls back to the actual Winter Soldier hearings held for American military atrocities committed during the Vietnam War and the Afghan and Iraq wars (information via problematize). In the film, the Captain and his allies have to stop the mobilization of a product of those escalated tensions and arms races: a roving security system named Project Insight, operating as a tool of the homeland defense organization SHIELD, that would immediately assassinate any person considered a threat.

Wolverine is sent to the last day of the Vietnam War, in which the United States is unabashedly declared the loser. Mystique rescues several mutants serving in the US Army from medical experimentation, recalling historical experiments performed upon soldiers and prisoners. Those experiments, carried out within government tents and camps, are the secret projects of the Trask corporation. Mystique's rescue effort is one part of her mission: to kill genius industrialist Bolivar Trask as revenge for the deadly experiments he ordered upon members of her species. Yet the whole plot of Days of Future Past concerns the prevention of Mystique's assassination of Trask, which in one timeline triggers the sale of mutant-killing Sentinel security robots to the US government.

Both films center on convincing others of the truth of one's cause. Those fighting alongside Captain America can only guess at the devastation of Project Insight, and choose to object based on principle. Wolverine, however, has lived through the nightmare Sentinel future and can speak not just through ideals or comparison to previous horrors but through personal testimony. In contrast to these appeals to individuals, the "threats" targeted by these systems are determined by groups: genetics in X-Men, or any hint of activity deemed subversive in Captain America. Even The Hulk, Bruce Banner, is considered a target. One could say that at least the Sentinels stick to a set program of killing all mutants and mutant-spawning humans regardless of personal opinion; while names fed to Insight can be added or withdrawn depending on the wishes of those in power. Once in operation, Project Insight and the Sentinels are automated systems that shoot upon suspicion, taking no prisoners. They lack the will to allow a target to prove non-threatening or redemptive intentions.

Characters are also turned into weapons against their will. Mystique unwittingly brings about the termination of her species, not just through her action of killing Trask, but through the capture of her body, whose shapeshifting ability is used to make the Sentinels adaptable to any attack. The Winter Soldier, in turn, is brainwashed and physically transformed, frozen when not in use as a destructive tool to "shape the century." His memories and sense of self are repeatedly erased to maintain his status as an emotionless weapon, so much so that he attacks people he previously recognized and cared about.

In my opinion Winter Soldier is the better film, and it better distributes character agency. Characters Nick Fury and Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff have more definite arcs for their stories, and the film shows more than tells when portraying relationships such as the friendship between Steve and Sam "Falcon" Wilson. Days of Future Past relies more on declarations of relations and scraps of cast chemistry moments. The film gives the appearance that Mystique has a stronger individual role. Her mission is her own, not commanded by Xavier or Magneto. Their quest to stop her harmful misstep, however, arguably crosses over into physical and mental coercion. Kitty Pryde, the heroine of the source story in the comics, spends nearly all of the movie in one position to guide Wolverine's journey. Previous major character Storm and other female X-Men get scant lines and a few bursts of action before dying. Keeping in a deleted scene with Rogue might have slightly improved matters, but I think the core story could have been told with more significant female presence and less obvious plotholes. I agree with this discussion of the erasure of female agency in the film, although I consider the romantic triangle to be Magneto-Mystique-Beast and the ideological triangle to be Magneto-Mystique-and (Raven's adoptive brother) Charles. Winter Soldier also has meaningful roles for more than one woman (though, among other things, Maria Hill's ambiguous heritage isn't portrayed), and has two African-American men in leading roles. Days of Future Past, which places a stronger emphasis on the variation of possibilities in humans and mutants, has one major female role restricted to sedentary support, while the other's agency is curtailed. The mutants in the future may be diverse, but are sacrificed --sometimes twice-- before the white leads.

SHIELD director Nick Fury may not reveal all the motives of his orders to his operatives in The Winter Soldier, but this spy necessities vs. transparency conflict is discussed during the film. Captain America and his friends only use violence when necessary, setting their words forward when possible to try and convince others to choose a side or get to safety. For example, in one scene, Steve asks his potential attackers if they wish to leave the elevator before he starts fighting. Even unnamed SHIELD agent extras are allowed to make choices of their own free will, a contrast to the psychological binding of the Winter Soldier. Charles Xavier, on the other hand, invades people's minds in order to push into Mystique's mind. What could have been clear choices on Mystique's part become ambiguous, since Charles' actions appear more like forcing her hand than simply persuading through suggestion. Yes, the fate of the world is at stake. For a time, Charles actively suppresses his powers with drugs, because the bombardment of others' thoughts and experiences compounds his emotional pain at the loss of students. However, more demonstrated awareness of the invasive nature of Charles' powers upon others would have been welcome.

While The Winter Soldier sets its imaginary homeland security organization versus an imaginary Nazi offshoot, Days of Future Past paints the actual American military and Nixon administration complicit in the villainous scheme. Winter Soldier's infiltration is run with the primary purpose for "peaceful," all-controlling reign of a master "race," though it may use business interests and physical coercion for those carrying out its tasks. Within the Marvel Universe, SHIELD's infiltration is shocking, for while SHIELD was portrayed as a morally gray organization, it often aided and recruited the superheroes we root for. Outside the Marvel Universe, Trask courts the US government's dollars for both business and personal conviction, selling security through fear of a mutant master race. Days of Future Past may place this at the feet of those working under an unpopular president, but it doesn't allude to real world implications and then sidestep them through fictional quasi-government bodies.  Still, these are mainstream films in which any intended or unintended critique of the real world is masked, allocated a safe minimum of space, or balanced for popular tastes and/or status quo. Mystique's rage must be stopped, with relatively little punishment for humans who have or might have been involved with mutant deaths. Steve Rodgers' rage fuels the campaign for a complete takedown of any connections with the possibility of corruption, but while a few Congressmen fall, the CIA is shown in a positive manner in the concluding montage.

A surprising note from both films is that, at crucial moments, the heroes choose to become vulnerable. At times when they could have continued to use lethal force, they realize that major aggressors have been defeated or kept at bay. Final victorious beatdowns or shootouts, the displays of dominance celebrated in most action films, are shunned.  The heroes choose to lay down arms, giving what remains of the opposing party an opportunity for agency they might have been denied (the Winter Soldier) or denied (those trapped with Nixon)-- the chance to decide what happens next.  

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