Captain America: The Winter Soldier revisited or When is it appropriate to cry at movies?

Yesterday, I bought Captain America: The Winter Soldier on DVD – on release day actually, which was coincidence, because I happened to be out shopping anyway. And I didn’t even have to wait for it because of the current slapfight between Amazon and Disney, since I got it at Media Markt, a big brick and mortar electronics chain.

My Mom happened to be with me – she doesn’t drive anymore and so I have to take her grocery shopping, when my Dad isn’t home – so I said, “Hey, do you want to watch this tonight?” So we ended up watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier last night.

Now my Mom is a bit ambivalent about superhero movies (“You don’t want to watch that, do you?” she sometimes asks with reference to pretty dreadful fare like the Fantastic Four movies or Green Lantern), but she really enjoys the Marvel Avengerverse movies. So far she’s seen all three Iron Man movies (she’s a big fan of Robert Downey Jr.), the two Thor movies (took a bit of persuading, but she liked them) and The Avengers (Robert Downey Jr. and Thor and Loki and – oh, just watch it already, will you?). She hasn’t seen the first Captain America movie (I offered, but she didn’t want to watch it – WWII settings not being attractive for people who actually lived through it) nor The Incredible Hulk (because it’s not very good). Coincidentally, she has also expressed interest in watching Guardians of the Galaxy or “that movie with the raccoon and the tree”, as she calls it. Nonetheless, she mainly knows Captain America as “that superhero you don’t like” as well as from what she’s seen of him in The Avengers.

I gave her a bit of catch-up information regarding what had happened to Steve and who Bucky and Peggy were. I also had to explain easter eggs and throwaway references to her such as that Bruce Banner who was sometimes mentioned was Hulk, that Tony Stark was Iron Man and Howard Stark his Dad, who Stephen Strange was, who Baron von Strucker was and who the twins in the mid-credits sequence were. And of course, I had to point out the Stan Lee cameo, for while Mom knows who Stan Lee is, she isn’t primed to recognize him as soon as he shows up.

Nonetheless, the Avengersverse movies are really, really good at being comprehensible even to people who have never read the comics nor seen any of the previous movies. Of course, you get more out of them if you have seen previous movies or read the comics, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the films. In fact that very reason why these movies are so fantastically successful is that they appeal to the average viewer as much as to the hardcore fan.

Since she didn’t follow the comics and isn’t plugged into the geeksphere like I am, my Mom was also probably the only person in the known universe who didn’t know who the Winter Soldier was. In fact, whenever he was in screen, she said, “Why doesn’t he take the mask of? Why do they never show his face?”

“Because it’s meant to be a surprise”, I said, “And if you don’t know it, then I’m not going to spoil it for you.”

In fact – and I didn’t notice this myself until watching the movie with someone who had no idea about the true identity of the Winter Soldier – the movie does a very good job keeping his face either hidden behind his mask or – in the scene where he visits Alexander Pierce (Mom: “Oh my! That’s really Robert Redford.”) at home – keeping it in the shadow, so the audience never fully gets to see his face until Steve does. Besides, the Winter Soldier’s hairstyle is completely different from that of 1940s Bucky Barnes, so someone who went into the movie unspoiled had no chance of figuring out the true identity of the Winter Soldier before Steve.

And indeed once the mask came of, my Mom said, “Okay, so he’s really handsome. But who was he supposed to be again?”

Talking of handsome, one thing my Mom noticed was how very many handsome young men there were in the movie. She explicitly mentioned Steve, Bucky (though she claimed he had weird ears), Brock Rumlow, Jasper Sitwell, though her personal favourite was Sam Wilson a.k.a. Falcon.

In fact, one thing that’s notable about the Avengersverse movies is how much they cater to the female gaze. Not only are they chock full of handsome men (and handsome men of various races at that, though the leads are still overwhelmingly white), the camera also spends a lot of time lingering on their impressive muscles, while the plot finds reasons to have them take their shirts off. The Thor movies are the most blatant in this regard, since Thor pretty much blinds Jane and Darcy with his impressive physique (and in a total reversal of the usual gender roles of Golden Age SF, Jane is the brilliant astrophysic and Thor is her hot alien trophy boyfriend). But you get similar female gaze scenes in all the Avengersverse movies. Just note how we first see the newly muscular (and shirtless) Steve through Peggy Carter’s eyes. And even Tony Stark spends a surprising amount of time either completely shirtless or in sleeveless shirts to show off his rather impressive muscles (particularly considering Robert Downey Jr. is pushing fifty by now).

Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson, Cobie Smulders, Emily VanCamp and Hayley Atwell are all very attractive women (ditto for Gwynneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman in the other movies), but the film does not sexualize them. We do see Black Widow in a plain black undershirt at one point and of course she wears her signature black leather catsuit, but the usual cleavage and butt shots are almost entirely absent (whereas we get butt shots of Steve, Bucky and Falcon) and Natasha spends most of the movie in a shapeless hoodie instead. And while my Mom commented on how handsome many of the men were, her remarks on the women mostly focussed on how much they kicked arse (though she did say that Cobie Smulders and Hayley Atwell were both very pretty).

So in case anybody is wondering why the audience of the Marvel movies is almost 50% female, the fact that they cater to the female gaze and do not unnecessarily sexualize the women and give us a lot of different and impressive women in general probably has a lot to do with it. And there are still enough fights and explosions and car chases to keep men of all ages and 12-year-olds of every gender happy.

Talking of car chases – and The Winter Soldier has quite a few of them – for a couple of years now, my personal gold standard for action scenes in general and car chases in particular has been the German cop show Alarm für Cobra 11 (Alarm for Cobra 11), which has the best car chases on TV (Don’t believe me? Watch it online here). My Mom and I both agreed that the various car chases and action scenes in The Winter Soldier could absolutely compare with those in Alarm für Cobra 11. However, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a Hollywood blockbuster with a budget of approximately 170 million US-dollar, whereas Alarm für Cobra 11 is a TV series with a budget of maybe one million Euro for the more elaborate episodes. Even more bizarre is that Alarm für Cobra 11 was originally intended as a homegrown replacement for car chase and explosion heavy US-shows like The A-Team and Knight Rider, on which the network RTL had built its success in the 1980s. And now some twenty years later, the German copy is the gold standard for action scenes, whereas the US no longer shoots such scenes at all (very few US TV shows have car chases these days, let alone on a regular basis) and needs a triple digit million budget to do it properly.

In general, I have been very impressed with both Captain America movies and I’m saying this as someone who doesn’t even like the character and used to refer to him as “Captain Nationalism”. However, Marvel manages to incorporate the problematic ultra patriotism that has been a vital part of the character since the beginning and yet never turns Steve in “Captain Nationalism”. Instead, the movies show that while Captain America started out as a propaganda icon, this is a role that was thrust upon Steve, not one he chooses for himself. And indeed he casts it off at the first opportunity and instead focusses on what lies at the heart of all superhero movies, namely how to be a good person. Interestingly – and I’m not sure if the narrative is fully aware of this – the movies also show Steve and Bucky as victims of the very same propaganda for which they were both utilized (because the Winter Soldier is as much a propaganda figure as Captain America). Propaganda induces both Steve and Bucky to volunteer for WWII (even though Steve didn’t have to go and Bucky didn’t have to go so soon) and in the end it costs them both dearly, when they lose decades of their lives only to find themselves in a world neither of them recognizes. Steve at least gets to define his role for himself, Bucky doesn’t even get that. He does get his identity back in the post-credits scene at the Smithsonian, but the Bucky he reads about is Bucky the Howling Commando and propaganda figure, not the Bucky who was Steve’s best friend. We’ll have to wait until 2016 to get that Bucky back.

Now The Winter Soldier has something of a reputation as a tearjerker and indeed it is the most depressing of the Marvel movies (though The First Avengers is also pretty depressing, which makes for an interesting pattern). And my Mom is one of those people who unfailingly cries at movies, even if she has seen the film before, if it’s not very good and/or manipulative as hell and if she knows the outcome already. I vividly remember her crying her eyes out at the execution of Anne Boleyn in (I think) The Tudors. “Why the hell are you crying?”, I asked her at the time, “You knew from the beginning that this was going to happen.”

Since The Winter Soldier actually is a tearjerker – unlike Anne Boleyn getting beheaded on screen for the twentieth time – I expected my Mom to cry. However, to my infinite surprise she didn’t. I actually asked her about this the next day and she said, “Oh, but there was way too much action and excitement to cry.” A bit doubtfully she added, “That’s a notorious tearjerker? Really?”

“Probably the second biggest tearjerker of the year after The Fault in Our Stars“, I said, followed by an explanation of what The Fault in Our Stars was [“That sounds absolutely horrible”, my Mom said].

“So what was I supposed to cry about? The death of Nick Fury?”

“Maybe that, too”, I said, “But mostly about Bucky and Steve and how absolutely horrible it is what was done to Bucky.”

Now I honestly wonder why my Mom, who cries at anything included the totally expected execution of Anne Boleyn in a bad historical drama, was not moved by the Bucky/Steve relationship which has drowned most of Tumblr in a sea of tears. I guess it’s partly a generational difference and partly that has a non-comic reader and someone who hasn’t seen The First Avenger, she doesn’t fully get how important Bucky was to Steve. But then, a lot of Tumblr fandom has never read the comics either.

Indeed, her remark that “there was too much action to cry” also made me reflect on when it is considered culturally appropriate to cry at movies in general. For starters, it’s not true that my Mom doesn’t cry at action films, because I have seen her cry at Alarm für Cobra 11 more than once. Of course, she probably was more invested in the characters of a long running TV series than in people she’s only seen in a handful of movies.

But in general, action films are not considered appropriate to cry. Unless they are disaster movies, then it suddenly is appropriate to cry at the noble sacrificial death du jour. Witness Titanic and all of the crappy tearjerky disaster flicks that followed like Armageddon or Pearl Harbour. Hell, you can even go back to the disaster movies of the 1970s, which usually have at least one Hollywood veteran (often a woman) nobly sacrificing her life.

Science fiction, fantasy and superhero movies are also not considered suitable for crying outside fandom, though inside fandom several SF, fantasy and superhero films are known for notorious tearjerker scenes. Unlike my Mom, I have never been one to cry at movies, but when I do, it’s mostly at SF and fantasy movies, whereas mainstream tearjerkers like Titanic or Love Story or Doctor Zhivago or Out of Africa or The Champ leave me totally cold, probably because they are either blatantly manipulative (Love Story, The Champ) or the characters and their personal dramas are so boring that I can’t bring myself to care what happens to them (all of the above, really). I’m also not entirely sure just why some films are considered tearjerkers by mainstream audiences. It can’t be the realism aspect, because The Champ and Love Story are not remotely realistic, even though they are theoretically set in the real world. It might be that the blatant emotional manipulation pays off with mainstream audiences, but then genre cinema can be just as manipulative as mainstream cinema (looking at you, Joss Whedon) and yet Titanic or Love Story or The Champ are considered tearjerkers, whereas Serenity is not. Or maybe it’s that genre audiences generally go into a movie already emotionally invested in the characters and their world and thus cry at Serenity or The Winter Soldier, whereas mainstream audiences first need to develop emotional investment, which often happens via blatant manipulation. Now a lot of the time this manipulation is simply too blatant to work for me (The Champ is particularly bad about this) or the characters are simply too dull, annoying or downright stupid for me to get invested in them (Titanic is a particularly bad offender, but also Love Story).

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