Getting to the heart of a character… Captain America: The Winter Soldier (CONTAINS SPOILERS)

captain_america__the_winter_soldier___fan_poster_by_superdude001-d68na0lTom Sawyer. Huck Finn. Oliver Twist. The Artful Dodger. Tarzan. Rhett Butler. Scarlett O’Hara. Peter Pan. Alice in Wonderland. To some of us, characters like these, and their many, many young siblings, are more real than the people we work with, go to school with or meet on the street. Their images are indelibly stamped on our hearts, so well did their creators fashion them. They are alive for us.

All of these characters have been revisited, again and again, by authors not their creators. That’s because they are so powerful. Because we want more adventures with them. Because they fire the imaginations of even the most imaginative people… and, yes, sometimes the imaginations of the dullest of people as well.

I daresay Captain America is such a character now, for millions of Americans. Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in the pages of Timely Comics (now Marvel Entertainment, thank you very much!) during the early days of World War II, Cap was re-engineered by Kirby and Stan Lee beginning in 1963. Starting as just another patriotic-themed Nazi-buster, in the 1960s, Steve Rogers became a stranger in a strange land, Rip Van Winkle, Buck Rogers, a man who goes to sleep and wakes up in a time not his own. Of course, in 1963 he’d been asleep for only 18 years. Now, since World War II can’t move in time, the movie version of Cap awakes over 65 years in the future, still young, still ready for battle.

Perhaps he was lost in a sea of red, white and blue in 1941. By 1950, he was one of the few comic super-heroes still being published. In the 1960s, he became one of Marvel’s superstars, winning his own eponymous comic book, and starring in some thought-provoking social satires as comic books became something more than thrill-a-minute entertainment. (If you still think of comic books as thrill-a-minute entertainment, um… yeah, you’re mostly right. They became something more. Then they lost their way. Now they’re pretty much shallow shock-rags, with a few brilliant exceptions.)

For comics fans, Captain America was one of those characters indelibly stamped on our souls. A great leader. A just man. Someone who showed courage even when everyone was against him. Someone who always loved his country, even when it was wrong and yet also had the cajones to say his country was wrong. He was everything we, as Americans, would like to think we can be.

In 2011, moviegoers discovered Captain America in a very big way, when Chris Evans and director Joe Johnston brought him to life in Captain America: The First Avenger. In 2012, Joss Whedon deepened the legend with Marvel’s The Avengers.  Now Cap was a fiction legend for a lot of people, like that august list at the top of this page.

The movies are informed by a lot of creators: writers, artists, editors. Over the years, many hands have added building blocks to the Captain America legend: Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, John Byrne, Sal Buscema, Ed Brubaker, Roger Stern and many others. Each has brought their own special touch to the character. That’s how it goes with these sorts of legendary properties, especially in comics. Our modern image of them is never complete shaped by one author.

When translating a literary or comic book character to the movies, it’s easy to change them too much, dilute personality, remove regional and historical flavor, go too far in “updating” a character for a “modern” audience. There’ve been some great Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn movies, but none of them had the benefit of Mark Twain’s witty narration and turn of phrase in the script. Tarzan, an educated, cultured British lord, became a seemingly brain-damaged idiot in most of his film adventures. Hmm… Can’t complain about Rhett and Scarlett, book to film. MGM’s team pretty much nailed them. But you get the idea.

Creators have no choice, though. Film is not a book or a comic books. It’s a different storytelling medium with its own rules. What works on the printed page may not work on the big screen. So changes have to be made. For example, the little wings on Captain America’s mask? They look okay in the comics, but, in really life, what are they made of? Are they actually feathered? Are they like stuffed bird wings, stiffened with wire? Do they get dirty? How do you clean them? Don’t they tend to break off when you’re fighting people? On film, we better just make them decals or something. And, seriously, we’re paying a really good-looking guy to play this character, and we want people to know what that handsome face looks like, so that, if they like this movie, they’ll pay to see him in others. So, he’s not gonna wear that mask a lot. And if he’s on the battlefields in the European Theater, we want to evoke the time, so lets give him a bomber jacked and make that signature blue cowl into a helmet. (Actually, this last innovation hit the comics first.)

You get the idea. Changes have to be made. The question is, will the character be recognizable to those who have loved him for years? Not just in appearance, but in actions, speech and gesture? It depends. It depends on whether or not the creative forces behind the project understand the heart of the character. What makes him unique?

It’s easy not to. For instance, it’s no secret what I thought of last year’s Man of Steel. (Apologies to my dear friend Lance, who finally just saw MOS, and liked it. He’s a great student of film, so he probably knows more than I about these things. Still, I’ll run my mouth.) I guess Man of Steel was a fine action film about a guy with special powers–if you like that sort of thing, which I do not. I’m not a fan of films that are just about action. For the last few weeks, every film I see has a trailer for Brick Mansions on the front. Even films like Winter’s Tale and Veronica Mars. The studios really want us to see Paul Walker’s last film. Due respect to the late Mr. Walker, I never wanted to see any of his films. Stories where the point is danger and violence alone don’t appeal to me. Man of Steel was about danger and violence alone, with maybe some dark, hopeless philosophy tossed in. And it did not feature a character who is indelibly stamped on my soul. It featured a guy who happened to be named both Kal-El and Clark Kent, but that was mere coincidence. It did not feature Superman. The character played by Henry Cavill was shallow, passive-aggressive and, well, not likable. He lacked the heart of Superman.

Chris Evans’s performance does not lack the heart of Steve Rogers. Whatever else has changed as we update a character born both in 1941 and in 1963, this Steve Rogers is still Steve Rogers. He has the raw courage and determination of a Greatest Generation kid who weighed 98 pounds, but wanted to serve his Country and was willing to risk death to gain the power to be a valuable solider. He has the haunted look of a man who’s lost his home and family… to time. It’s the look of a man who’s out of place. He has the compassion and bravery that it takes for a still-young man to look at the aged woman he once loved, and call her his “best girl,” and tell her lies to make her happy as her memory fails. He’s a hero, a gentleman, and an outsider with whom we can sympathize.

This character works his way through a maze of a movie that could have gone very wrong. Like most modern thrillers (and this is a spy thriller, not a “super-hero” story), this one is full of explosions, jarring fight scenes, amazing car chases and lots of guns being fired. The violence is up-close and personal. (For instance, there’s a scene where a very brave young SHIELD operative refuses to launch weapons because Cap has asked him not to. His reward is the villain’s gun placed against his skull. Once upon a time, the villain would have just pointed the gun and said he would fire if not obeyed. Now he puts the gun against the poor kid’s head, and, in our minds, we see the next frame: a splash of red as the boy’s brains are blown from his skull. It doesn’t happen. It doesn’t have to. We’ve visualized it. Violence is much more immediate, much more real in today’s films. Less is left to the imagination.)

In all these violent twists and turns, it would be very easy to lose the heart of a Captain America. This is not his world. But that’s the point. Like Tom Hanks staying a nice guy in the cesspool that is Hollywood, Steve Rogers stays Steve Rogers, our hero, in a very, very ugly world, where even the nicest of us, even heroes like Nick Fury, have accepted that we must compromise and do the wrong thing in order to survive. “This isn’t freedom,” Cap tells Fury when he sees the plan for the next big thing to safeguard America, “this is fear.” Fury tells him to get with the program. Cap refuses and flees. My heart soared.

These guys got it right.

And… here’s the thing… HUGE FRICKIN’ DOUBLE SPOILER ALERT! Don’t read any further if you haven’t seen both Man of Steel and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. You’ve been warned.

Here’s the thing… these guys would still have had it right, even if their film had included a scene as desperate, as shocking and as sickeningly real as Kal-El’s snapping of Zod’s neck in Man of Steel. When Cap and the Winter Solder have their final confrontation, they both know, and so do we, that there’s a very real chance one or both of them won’t survive it. Bucky, who’s been brainwashed into being a tool of foreign powers (the GASP in the theatre when it was revealed he was Bucky was so much fun for us comic book geek types!), Bucky intends to kill Cap. Cap is prepared, if he has to, to kill Bucky to save hundreds of millions of lives. He doesn’t have to. But if he had? I think Cap’s character would have survived intact.

Why? Because we would have felt the pain it caused him to make that trade-off, Bucky’s life for millions of others. It had already been established that Steve and Bucky were friends to the end. If that had been the end, it wouldn’t have broken Steve’s friendship for this man. In Man of Steel, the climactic moment just kind of made me go, “Who is this brute and why is he wearing Superman’s costume? He’s obviously an idiot, since he let a bad writer… er… the villain… manipulate him into killing when he didn’t need to.” There was no emotional power behind this character’s decision to kill because, hell, he’d let his Dad die already, just to prove a point. He’d shown reckless disregard for the civilians in the 5,997 buildings he blown through as he beat on the villain… over and over and over again. He was not a particularly nice guy.  He was just, like Xaphod Beeblebrox, “this Guy, Y’know?”

But Chris Evans was Captain America, no matter what the script called from him to do in the action sequences, because the writers, director and star got it right. They got Cap.

Why does anyone get it wrong? Because there are a lot of people, maybe the majority of the movie-going audience, who don’t care if the heart of the character is there. They’re happy to see The Fast and the Furious #72: Faster and Furiouserer…er. They’ll go watch Brick Mansions because they want the thrill of films like that. They want the roller coaster ride.

Okay. Fair enough. Glad there are movies for them.

But, you know what? Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a movie for them too. I watched the audience walking in. A lot of these guys (and yes, I’m judging books by their covers) were not the people I expected to see walking in the night before a comic book movie opened. These looked like the guys who did a lot of the beating up on the playground, not the ones who had to go home, defeated and red-faced, scraped and bruised and let their fathers scrape the mud out of their winter coats with a wire brush.

Not that that ever happened to anyone I know.

I’m sure these guys who may have once shoved littler kids in the mud are much nicer people now. The years have brought wisdom, I imagine. But I doubt they’re only seeing comic book movies because they’ve realized how cool it is to be the strong guy or girl who defends the weaker people instead of whaling on them. They’re seeing these movies because they deliver action, thrills, that roller coaster ride. But amidst the action and the thrills are characters with heart, who talk about their problems, their fears and their thoughts about their place in the universe.

Do these former bullies notice? Assuming they are former bullies and not just sensitive ballet dancers who happened to bloom into tough-looking jocks after puberty? I don’t know if they notice. But they didn’t seem to mind.

So let’s sum up. Some of us are happy with a movie which doesn’t feature characters who get into our heads and never leave. As long as there are chills and thrills, that’s okay. Some of us are okay with chills and thrills, and may even get off on them, but really need those unforgettable characters. Without them, the ride is just… wheels on a track. There’s no need to get frightened or thrilled or let our hearts soar, because we don’t care about the people in the film, and we don’t want to live in the world they live in.

Above all, a great myth-maker creates a world you want to spend time in. Because of characters like Cap, the Widow, the Falcon and Nick Fury, and, yes, Maria Hill (so nice to like Colbie Smulders again, after the creators of How I Met Your Mother trashed her character in that show at the end) , we can say, “Yeah. I wouldn’t mind going there. Looks a bit dangerous, but I bet those guys would have my back.”

So how about, instead of telling stories that are missing big chunks of the ingredients that would make them work for all of us, we make more movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier? That works for me. I bet it works for that guy, over there, too. Even though he’s… wait… don’t I know you? Didn’t you go to my school? Did I ever see you on the playground?

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