Friday, March 25, 2011

Heroes Hollywood Can Live With

Perhaps the most symbolic character in the superhero pantheon, Captain America has been, ever since his creation in 1941, an unabashed symbol of American patriotism.  So fans like me ought be rejoicing at the release of a new Captain America movie in July, right?  Well, mabye.  Last summer, director Joe Johnston had this to say about his protagonist :
He wants to serve his country, but he's not this jingoistic American flag-waver.  He's just a good person...It'll be interesting and fun to put a different spin on the character and one that the fans are really going to appreciate...the idea that this isn't so much about America as it is about the spirit of doing the right thing.  It's an international cast and an international story.  It's about what makes America great and what makes the rest of the world great too.
This treatment is consistent with what seems to be a recent and ongoing trend to take popular characters who in one way or another project American ideals, and alter or mute those qualities to better reflect their own world view.  A blogger over at Hot Air responds with an obvious question:
If you want to make a superhero movie, but you don't want to be troubled with the hair-raising spectacle of out-and-proud patriotism, why the hell would you choose Captain America?  Choose Aquaman instead and have him deliver the requisite lecture about fearing "The Other."
In 2006, director Bryan Singer saw fit to drop the "the American way" from his film Superman Returns, content with his hero fighting for "Truth and Justice."  Then in 2009, the popular 80s cartoon and comic book series G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was adapted to the big screen and transformed from an elite U.S. Special Forces team to a "Brussels-based outfit that stands for Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity, an international co-ed force of operatives who use hi-tech weapons to battle Cobra."  The result was a kind of CGI United Nations security force.

Filmmakers and studio execs maintain the reason for these changes are purely economic.  They say the changes are based on concerns of brand management and consumer awareness.  In other words, they are concerned about the success of their films in places where America is not popular.  Understandable, given that foreign movie receipts have surpassed domestic profits (two-thirds of income for major Hollywood studios come from overseas).  Movie critic Michael Medved points out "the growing importance of overseas fans plays into Hollywood's tendency to present a skeptical, and sometimes even hostile, motion picture attitude toward the U.S.A.."

The most recent victim of this "financial correctness" has to be the upcoming remake of the 80s Cold War classic Red Dawn.  The new film, about an invasion from Red China, is now being altered because MGM has decided it doesn't want to offend one of its biggest potential markets.  The studio has taken the extraordinary step of digitally erasing, from the already finished film, all references to China as the invading villains; substituting dialogue, removing images of Chinese flags and insignia.  Daniel Foster over at Nation Review sums up the absurdity of the studio's decision:
And who are the new invaders? North Korea. That’s right, the starving-to-death, massively brainwashed “Hermit Kingdom.” I imagine at this very moment, Hollywood script doctors are working on a revised first act in which Kim Jong Il decides it’s a good idea to let hundreds of thousands of his captive countrymen travel to America.
For similar reasons, Captain America: The First Avenger is being marketed simply as The First Avenger in Russia, South Korea and the Ukraine.

The problem with the economic argument is that it's largely based on market research and focus groups rather than box office receipts.  The evidence shows that American movies, even those with pro-American views make even more money overseas.  Another problem with the economic argument is that it doesn't explain why studios throw money at movies with explicitly anti-American/anti-military messages (Rendition, In The Valley of Elah, The Kingdom, and Redacted); movies that portray America as the bad guy or equate the American military to terrorists.  In other words, movies they know won't make money (and didn't). At the same time, they often block the production of pro-American/pro-military films.  Why?  Because in Hollywood, politics and the privilege to be invited to the right parties are every bit as powerful as profits.  Unfortunately, the cost of these compromises on the art of filmmaking appears to be lost on much of the Hollywood community.

Not convinced?  Any guess as to the top-grossing movie overseas going into this weekend?  No, not Paul or The Lincoln Lawyer.  It was the big, loud, thoroughly American, critically trashed, pro-military sci-fi action epic Battle: Los Angeles.

As far as Captain America is concerned, I'll reserve judgment until I actually see the film, but I can't help but think the director just doesn't get it when he says the movie is "about a guy who wants to do the right thing, and that transcends all nationalities and borders.  He's going to do the right thing no matter what flag is on his chest."  Wrong. Superman and Captain America have uniquely American values. They are a part of their nature, inseparable from their character, and the basis for their heroism. Writer/director Michael Wilson describes the attempt to globalize Superman like this:
The idea, I suppose, is to make the Man of Steel a savior for all the world, for the sake of being the savior for all the world.  What the people behind this shift in mythology fail to understand is that Superman serves humanity BECAUSE of "the American Way," not in spite of it.


Gunslinger said...

Ugh. It's like the theme in "Iron Man" to villainize Tony Stark because of his weapons program. Honestly though, I didn't read too many Iron Man comics, but I am pretty sure that Tony Stark was unapologetically American.

It really makes me angry and sad to see other Americans selling out their own country and values like this.

Jake Shore said...

You're right that in Iron Man, part of the story was to have Tony Stark question what he does for a living, but I didn't think it really villainized him. After all, he went on and produced the ultimate weapon and used it on Muslim radicals. But it did have a little anti-corporate slant. What struck me is how pro-military the movie is, Iron Man 2 even more so.

Anonymous said...

I have been worried about the handling of Captain America's patriotism since they announced a Captain America movie. I honestly cannot tell from the trailers I've seen so far just how they're going to treat it. The statement from the director you quoted doesn't give me a whole lot of hope.

If the director doesn't like where America is right now, fine. Whatever. Since Cap gets frozen (I'm assuming from the clues so far that we've seen in the Blu-Ray of Hulk and the bit with Cap's shield in Iron Man 2 that they're going with the freezing) just show your distaste for America through Steve Rogers' reaction as he suffers culture shock to America in 2011 vs. America in 1944. It's what they did in The Ultimates and I don't think it came off as too un-American.

I just don't understand wanting to make a movie about a guy who's freaking name is Captain America if you don't like America. How about growing a little chest hair and make your own character called AmericaIsEvil Man. He can run around righting wrongs caused by our prosperity. He can go to the UN and whine like a bitch. He can go into our public schools and indoctrinate our children to hate the system that provides an outlet for their hatred. He can bow down to foreign dictators to show he's respectful. He can steal from the rich and give to the poor. He can try to destroy America from the inside. Wait, I think we already have someone like him. Just make sure we seal his birth records.

Aside from Hollywood not having the balls to portray America in a positive light, how about asking what the hell has happened to movies based on Marvel characters?

The superhero genre was given a breath of life it had been missing for decades when the first X-Men movie hit screens in the late 1990's. With the first two X-Men movies and the first two Spiderman movies, like them or not, Marvel took what was essentially considered a joke of a movie genre and a waste of studio money (thanks for that, Batman movies) and turned it into a genre that is considered damn near a sure thing for a blockbuster.

Captain America is looking like it could go either way, and I'm scared it's going to go live in Suckville. Thor looks even worse. The Asgard sets look like leftovers from Krull (IMDB it, anyone under 30). And now a fourth Spiderman without any returning actors or production staff from the first three? And this X-Men first class shit? I'm sorry, it's looking more and more like Marvel has crapped the bed. And they're still talking of another Wolverine movie, a sequel/reboot of Ghost Rider and a sequel/reboot of Daredevil.

And don't even get me started on this garbage with the Red Dawn remake. This movie has been done and in the can for months. Now it looks like it's getting done in the can, har de har har. One of the many, many reasons that the first Red Dawn worked is that it made sense in the mid-80's that the Russians would try a punk-ass bullshit move like invading us using Cubans. Dirty commie pinkos! But North Korea? Invading the US? Really? How the hell is that going to happen? China I can believe, but freaking North Korea? Why not just change it all up and go for Algeria invading us. It's about as believable. Sure, Mr. Jong-Il, send over your army. They'll all just seek asylum and work in 7-11s.

Hollywood as an institution is inspirationally bankrupt. It wouldn't be so bad, except that it costs me at least $40 to go see one of their crappy movies with my wife. I hate to say it, but I'm probably going to go see both Captain America and Thor both. I'll pass on X-Men: First Class as it looks anything but. I'll probably RedBox it eventually, but don't count on it. Part of the problem is that if I go see a movie in spite of it's brow-beating me with views I disagree with, the film makers see it as an endorsement of those views and are only encouraged.