Sunday, May 17, 2015

7 Days in May | Who’s strong and brave; here to save the American Way?

Hellboy (2004)

Last week, I got sidetracked from a Marvel re-watch by Red Skull's Raiders of the Lost Ark reference in Captain America: The First Avenger. This week I followed that up with more treasure-hunting Nazis in Hellboy, even though they don't really drive the plot of that movie. Since most of the action takes place in the present, the Nazis are a distant memory with only a few mad villains carrying on their schemes for personal reasons. In First Avenger, Hydra is differentiated from other Nazis too, but their style is similar and they're operating during WWII, so it feels a lot more like Nazis than Hellboy does.

I still like Hellboy, but eleven years later I'm over the initial thrill of having him brought to life on screen, which means I'm less forgiving of some of the changes the movie makes. I don't mind putting Hellboy and Liz Sherman into a romantic relationship, but I do mind Hellboy's pining over her. And while I love Jeffrey Tambor as Tom Manning - and even enjoy that the character is kind of a dick - I think his animosity towards Hellboy is overplayed. These aren't things that ruin the movie for me by any means. In fact, I used to defend them as valid choices to introduce some needed drama to the BPRD team. But a lot has happened with superhero movies in the last decade and I now think it would possible to bring Hellboy to the screen in a way that keeps more of the comics version intact. I want to see that movie.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Having finished my detour, I also came back and finished up First Avenger. I don't have a lot to say about it except that it's still awesome with great action, funny dialogue (especially from Tommy Lee Jones), and has a romantic subplot that I get totally invested in every time I watch it. And Chris Evans is still perfectly believable as an altruistic, no-nonsense character who isn't boring. It can be done, Man of Steel.

One of the reasons I want to rewatch the Marvel films is to keep track of the Infinity Stones, but they aren't actually mentioned in First Avenger. We'll find out later that the Tesseract has one in it - and that's foreshadowed when Red Skull touches it and it opens a hole in space at the end, just like it does in The Avengers - but so far all we know about the Tesseract is that it's a power source for Arnim Zola's weapons.

Agent Carter

Rewatching The First Avenger also got me excited to go back and finish Agent Carter. We started it as a family for a few weeks when it started, but got distracted, probably by catching up on Parks and Rec. That happens a lot in our house.

Agent Carter is awesome. It picks up right after the events of First Avenger with Peggy Carter's still grieving over Steve Rogers while also trying to prove her worth in the postwar SSR. Howard Stark is back in the private sector and the SSR is no longer a military operation. It's totally G-Man, with the emphasis on "man." Superspy Carter is now serving coffee and taking lunch orders, because that's all that the men in charge trust her to do. So when some of Howard  Stark's most horrifying inventions begin turning up on the black market and Stark is investigated for treason, Carter relieves her frustration by launching her own investigation to prove Stark's innocence.

It's a great spy story with lots of connections to the Marvel movies, but it's also much more than that. It comments on the way women were perceived in the mid-20th century and challenges perceptions that may still be holding on from that era. That's a major undercurrent of the story, but the series isn't strident about the way it communicates its ideas. Everything is done through plot and some really excellent characters, including the men. In the first episodes, the men of the SSR appear to be stereotypical and flat. Most of them are chauvinists, except for a handful who seem to respect Carter and her abilities. But as the eight episodes progress, the series reveals more and I came to admire some of the men I hated at the beginning. And some who appeared open-minded and heroic at first are proven to be far more complicated. None of the characters are lazily written; everyone has been carefully considered. Cannot wait for Season Two.

Captain America (1944)

I also got curious about the 1944 serial adventures of Captain America. I'm a little less than halfway through the 15 chapters, but so far I'm disappointed. That's mostly because of how little the serial cares about the character it's based on. Instead of super soldier Steve Rogers, Captain America is a generic vigilante, the alter-ego of District Attorney Grant Gardner, who puts on the costume to fight crime in a way he can't legally in his day job. Cap doesn't even carry a shield.

The villain is generic too if you're familiar with serials or other stories from that time period. He's played by Lionel Atwill, so that's cool, but his motivations and methods are standard. He's irritated about being underappreciated by his peers, so he takes revenge by murdering them and stealing their inventions. One thing is different though. Unlike most serials, the villain's identity is known right from the first chapter. That may be to give Atwill more screen time, which is nice because I like him, but it also robs the story of one of the more fun serial tropes: a mysterious, masked mastermind who is revealed at the end to be one of the supporting characters.

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

Finally, unrelated to the other stuff I watched this week, I got out to see Pitch Perfect 2. I was pleasantly surprised when the first one turned out to be legitimately, truly good instead of just the amusing diversion I expected. It has some characters that I genuinely care about, the music is awesome, and I laughed out loud a lot.

I wasn't sure the sequel could repeat that. And frankly, I still wasn't sure about twenty minutes into the new one. A lot of the early jokes are lame, one of the new characters is an uncomfortable stereotype, and some of the situations seem trite. The way the team is disgraced at the beginning is a forced, obvious move so that we can watch them climb back up again. And I always like Hailee Steinfeld, but for too long her character is just a way to bring some awkwardness to the otherwise polished and comfortable group.

The movie quickly outgrows this early shakiness though. It gets funnier fast, for one thing, but it also gets more complex and interesting. In the first movie, Anna Kendrick's character wanted a career as a music producer and Pitch Perfect 2 uses that to explore the potential conflict between finding your own artistic voice and just adapting and riffing on other people's stuff. Those sound like mutually exclusive ideas, but the movie argues that they're not. It makes a subtle comparison between a capella covers and a producer's collaboration with an artist. Or any collaboration, really. Having an artistic voice doesn't mean that you have to be the only one heard in an artistic endeavor. It just means that you do need to be heard. You need to have something to say.

And it's wonderful that what could have been an easy, cash-grab sequel does in fact have something to say, too.


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

The Hellboy movies feel much more big and punchy than the comics which have more of a slow burn pace and emphasis on atmosphere much like an episode of "Samurai Jack" (as a fan of pulps I think that's a series you would really enjoy if you aren't familiar with it)

I think del Toro tries to make his English language projects more blockbuster-y for the sake of a wide audience, and something like his "Strain" books seem to suffer for it.

Michael May said...

I struggle with del Toro. I really do. We love exactly the same things, but he approaches them from a slightly different angle than I do. So it's ALMOST exactly what I want, but just different enough to be frustrating.

And I do love what I've seen of Samurai Jack. Need to watch more though.

Ken O said...

There was too much of comic Hellboy taking care of/watching over Liz as a child for me to not be put off of their relationship. It was really hard for me to separate comic and movie Hellboy and I was just creeped out by their scenes together. It was one of the biggest reasons I preferred the animated films

Michael May said...

Ah, the animated films! I have the first one, but need to get the rest. I agree; they're much closer to the tone I want.


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