Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Superhero Snowflake

"Let SHIELD go!" - Elsa auditioning for Avengers 2

It occurs to me I never reviewed Captain America:  The First Avenger despite the scathing rebuke I had written about the director's plans for the character.  Suffice it to say, his first outing was actually a pleasant surprise that I rather enjoyed.

Now we’re into Phase 2 of Marvel’s plan for their movie world, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier continues the story of WW2 super soldier Steve Rogers following The Avengers (which was pretty awesome.)  It seems a common notion that The Winter Soldier has dethroned that movie as the best thing Marvel has done to date, and those folks do have a convincing argument.

While Iron Man is Marvel’s most consistently good movie (and my favorite) and The Avengers is the most fun ride, The Winter Soldier is the best story they’ve told.  Instead of your standard Guy Becomes Hero/Supervillain Needs Stopping movie, we have a man trying to hold on to the values of his time period while buffeted by the forces of an entirely new era. One part espionage mystery, one part social commentary, and one part superhero blockbuster, it manages to be both incredibly different from the previous Marvel films and yet still a solid sequel.

Unlike all the other Marvel heroes, Captain America really has no place to go after The Avengers, so he’s still involved with SHIELD almost by default. It’s clear that his reservations about all this covert double dealing going on with SHIELD have grown, and he not only starts questioning his orders, but the defining philosophy of his bosses as well.  SHIELD is looking to end threats before they become problems, but as Cap says, “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.”

There have been accusations that this is some kind of pro-Snowden propaganda, but I found a refreshing debate going on between the characters.  Cap is not treated as automatically right by virtue of being the hero, and we get a nice range of points of view, from the villains’ desire to control everyone to Nick Fury’s insistence that it’s necessary in a dangerous world.  After all, with all these aliens, gods, and Hulks, what happens if you don’t act and the next Iron Man uses his technology to commit genocide?  What risks are we willing to take for freedom?

Helping that work is some fantastic chemistry between the characters/actors.  Chris Evans really seems to have this character down, and Scarlett Johansson has stuff to do this time other than look hot.  Anthony Mackie is a fun new addition as the Falcon, and I found it refreshing that his character didn’t suffer from a stereotypical tragic past, forcing him into a buddy cop relationship with Cap.  Instead he’s a guy whose experiences allow him to relate to Steve, and he follows out of a sense of respect for both the man he comes to know and his hero persona. Even the namesake Winter Soldier feels suitably menacing without having nearly as much screen time or dialogue as the title would suggest.

Of course all of that is framed by some straight up superhero punchy goodness.  I was afraid at first the action was going to be frustrating due to some shaky cam at the beginning and some stupid hero-accepts-villain’s-challenge-for-a-1v1 stuff, but by the end I was delighted to see action sequences that were interesting to watch and not chock fill of dumb villain tropes.  When a villain has a shot, they take it. If somebody goes down, there’s an attempt to get a finisher in.  The heroes take damage and that damage is even enough to require stitches.  We top that off with just some incredibly creative usage for Cap’s signature round shield to keep him from being a total Bourne clone, and all around, it’s a fun time.

Henry Jackman turns in a fine score, which gives me the opportunity to correct an opinion I had in a previous review.  When I talked about his score for Wreck-It Ralph I think I seriously undervalued his contribution to that film.  Upon repeat viewings, I’ve found a new respect for that soundtrack.  Since I felt similarly about this one, I suspect I may come around to that opinion again after a few times with this film as well.

On the bad side, it’s pretty predictable how things are going to play out and there are some standard action/espionage movie tropes, including a couple of real eyerollers. (Seriously guys, can we just get rid of the countdown to one second thing?) In addition, if you’ve seen the trailers, they’ve managed to spoil just about all the best “holy crap” moments like they did to Iron Man 3.  Lastly, it does have the baggage of “so, where’s Hawkeye during all this?  Maybe call Stark?” that The Avengers has created for all these movies with the Falcon coming across a little bit like a low-budget Iron Man towards the end.

Fortunately, that just feels like nitpicking a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed, enough that if one of you hasn’t seen it and wants to go, I’d be liable to come with you.  Oh, since people still haven’t learned, there is in fact a second extra scene at the end of the credits, so stick around for it.

*this post cross-posted over at

Friday, April 4, 2014

Way Past Cool

I’ve written previously about why involvement in gaming culture is important and worked through an example of how video games can help us explain political concepts to the youth of America. Now let’s talk about how the video game industry can teach us how to fight the culture war directly.

The gaming world operates very much like our political system. Thanks to new technologies, the whole industry goes through cycles where consumers “re-elect” the existing brands/franchises or hop on board with the inevitable newcomers.  Instead of political parties and ballot boxes, rabid fans will line up along battle lines and try to drag moderates into their camps, and their vehemence makes hardcore Democrats and Republicans look like posers. After all, nothing quite compares with the stream of obscenities that can come from a 9 year-old that disagrees with your opinion of the latest Call of Duty game.  So if you want to learn about swaying entrenched supporters, there are few better places to look for examples.

For instance, just as progressives dominate today’s political landscape, back in the late 1980s Nintendo dominated the gaming one. After the video game crash of 1983, Nintendo had soared to total supremacy with what was then called the Famicom, or as it’s better known here, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). With it they reigned over the gaming world virtually uncontested until right about 1990. Then along came Sega.

Sega was a traditional coin-operated arcade game company that was nearly wiped out in the crash. They went through a few buyouts and management changes after that, and when they finally recovered, they jumped into the console market with the Sega Master System. It was largely a flop, but it did give them enough of a foothold to instigate a battle with Nintendo that would end up defining a generation of gamers. The ensuing 16-bit “election cycle” between the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) would become known as the first “console war”, and it was a fight in which Nintendo started with every advantage.

How did Sega keep from being squashed outright? Sega “did what Nintendon’t”they attacked Nintendo with a marketing campaign that cast Nintendo’s consoles as inferior hardware only little kids played.  Meanwhile, they built a brand for themselves as the place the cool, mature gamers went to play. Even their new mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, was designed to be everything Nintendo’s wasn’t.

While Mario leisurely romped along to save the princess over at Nintendo, Sonic tore off at blistering speed on a quest to ruin his bad guy Robotnik’s day.  Mario was happy go lucky and kind of goofy; Sonic had an attitude, cracking wise and tapping his foot with impatience to get moving.  On TV they did the Mario whereas Sonic was the fastest thing alive.

Sega understood that taking on a market leader requires distinguishing your product from theirs in a way that is simple and that resonates in everything you do. The GOP on the other hand thinks appealing to people outside the “base” means looking like a cheap knock off.  They believe appeal has to do with policy and votes and “tactics”, when in reality it’s about branding and marketing.  Put the right face on what you’re selling, and people will buy it.

Sega was all about being the newest, fastest, most badass thing around, and we would do well to imitate that strategy.  That means our mascot can’t be an old, white, rich, male, career politician like the John McCains and Mitt Romneys that go out there to rep for the GOP now.  Lock those guys in a closet and find the hottest young businesswomen and men you can instead.  I hate identity politics as much as the next guy, but the fact is you’re not going to convince anyone of anything if they stop listening because the person delivering the message fits a stereotype that makes them uninteresting or worse, untrustworthy.

Sega went right at Nintendo, and we need to send those new folks into enemy territory to do battle with the loudest opponents they can find. Dare to have the campaign events in the bluest districts in the country, and don’t fear the Jon Stewarts. Instead go on their shows and give their arguments the old “that’s so cute you still believe that”-style response you would for any five year-old’s naiveté about the world, because liberalism is for toddlers.

Toddlers can wander in and out of a “big tent”, but they can’t meander into the hottest nightclub in town.  Nothing attracts people faster than telling them they can’t get in someplace, especially when a few gorgeous famous faces walk in with ease.  If you can make admission convey a sense of adulthood too, young people will line up around the block. Once that happens, even Sonic the Hedgehog will stop by long enough to toss off a trademark “way past cool.”

And that’s really all what it all boils down to, isn’t it?  It’s time to be way past cool.