Drove back from a friend’s wedding on Whidbey Island this morning. Very romantic occasion! Sometimes I just need a wedding, and people going on and on about their feelings for each other, and reading vows, and singing each other songs, and dancing, and feeding each other cake, to restore my faith that romance, the kind I write about, is real. Congratulations, guys!
This afternoon, Sonia and I went to Captain America. Overall, I loved it. Two big pluses and a small minus:
1+) This was a movie that really lived by “Show, don’t tell.” A lot of stories tell me that the hero is the hero because he’s a good person, and that the villain is the villain because he’s evil, all the way to the bone.
I’ve been rereading some of the later Harry Potter books, for instance. I adore the books, don’t get me wrong, but they’re very eager to tell me that Harry can defeat Voldemort because unlike Voldemort, he loves deeply. The problem is, when Harry is actually described feeling an emotion, it is almost consistently anger, hatred, or a desire for revenge. I don’t object to that per se, but it doesn’t sell the story I’m being told.
In this telling of Steve Rogers’s origin story, he was chosen to be Captain America because he’s a good man. Because he puts others first, because he always tries to do what’s right, because he hates bullying, because he never gives up. Because he cares, deeply. And we are shown that again and again.
He isn’t just decent when it’s time for the big things: in every interaction Steve has, right down to his first scene–an interaction with a disrespectful movie patron–he shows that same decency, courage, and willingness to put himself on the line for others. And it’s clearly shown that it’s his history of being a good guy when it comes to the small stuff that makes him able to be a good guy when it comes to the big stuff.
We’re also shown the Red Skull consistently, in every interaction, being arrogant, selfish, greedy, and pointlessly cruel. So when we got to the big power moment where the Red Skull says, “What have you got that I don’t?” and Captain America says, “I’m nobody special”…I was cheering! Because I had been shown exactly what the Cap had that the Red Skull didn’t.
2+) A lot of superhero movies focus on the single superhero whose name appears in the title, and his personal heroism. The same goes for action movies in general–there’s a tendency to focus on one man, and his ability to single-handedly defeat much greater opponents. Captain America has a team! And friends, and superior officers, and allies from other Allied countries…the list goes on.
Captain America is a symbol. He has the ability to inspire others, to bring out the best in people. In almost every shot that featured him doing something amazing, his team was right behind him, backing him up, making what he did possible. He’s a leader, but not a lone wolf.
This movie was full of heroes of all kinds: not just the Cap, but his best friend Bucky, his army unit, the scientists who modified his genes, every Allied soldier who volunteered to fight the Nazis, the women who bought war bonds, the girls who entertained the troops…every single character in this movie who wasn’t a Nazi, the Red Skull or one of his men was a hero in their own way.
Even the little kid taken hostage by a Hydra agent for Captain America’s good behavior and then thrown off a dock was a hero: “Go get him!” the kid yells. “I can swim!”
3-) The romance. Why can’t action movies seem to get romance right? I loved Agent Carter, don’t get me wrong. She was a great character. But the romance was definitely a weak link in an otherwise very strong movie. First they trotted out some tired “I’ve never talked to a woman before” clichés. Then they ignored several opportunities to have the Cap and Agent Carter discuss potential real connections between them (for example, they both had to struggle to be allowed to do their part for the war effort, him because of his physical weakness and her because she’s an attractive woman) in favor of run-of-the-mill flirtation. They threw in some meaningful looks, and then they told me that it was a betrayal for him to kiss another woman and that their love was epic.
I want to think, “Man, if they can plan an attack on a mountain fortress this well together, imagine what they’d be like in bed!” Instead, most of the time, all I’m given is “Wouldn’t they be good in bed?” If you want the romance to work, if you want me to really believe that these people love each other deeply and belong together, the relationship has to have other things besides romance in it.
So often the relationships in action movies that really sell me are the ones between the hero and his best friend or sidekick. They have a history. I see them understanding how each other thinks, working together to solve problems. I see them risking their lives for each other, trusting each other absolutely in a tight spot. I see them giving each other strength. I even see them hanging out, sharing private jokes, enjoying each other’s company.
Of course, sometimes the relationship that sells me is between the hero and his nemesis. They have a history. They can’t focus on anything but each other when they’re in the same room. They define who each other is, motivate each other to be the best and the worst they can be.
I believe that those relationships mean something to the characters.
But when it comes to the hero and his girlfriend, most of the time all there is is the romance. Those speaking glances, snappy comebacks, and sizzling attraction are the only thing drawing the characters together.
Obviously there’s nothing wrong with a relationship that starts with casual attraction, moves to dating, and builds from there. It happens all the time and it’s great. But if you want me to believe that when the hero thinks he’s going to die, the person he wants to spend his last moments talking to is the heroine, even though they only met a few months before–then you have to do better.
Which is why I love romance, of course. Because it gives me the whole package.
Have you seen the Captain America movie? Did you like it? And what’s your favorite full, complex h/h relationship?