Posts Tagged ‘Action’

Warning the First: The following views are those of a disgruntled person. Long-term conclusions may be more moderate with hindsight.

Warning the Second: Spoilers for All The Things.  

Internets, I have finally snapped on the subject of YA dystopias.

Half an hour ago, I ran myself a bath and settled in with Fever, the sequel to Lauren DeStefano’s Wither, which I read last year and particularly enjoyed. Rather than recap the story so far, I’ll refer you to Goodreads should you require a detailed plot summary, but in brief, the setting is a romantic/sexual dystopia, and at the end of Wither, protagonist-narrator Rhine had just escaped her forced marriage with the help of her love-interest Gabriel. Fever picks up their story immediately after this point, with our two young lovers scrambling out of the ocean to – they imagine – freedom. Heading inland, they encounter a carnival and are quick-smart captured by Madame, the proprietor, for whom this title is also a job description. Within about ten seconds, Madame has given Rhine a new name – Goldenrod – and taken her up in the still-operational Ferris wheel to talk about becoming one of her girls, where, despite her fear, Rhine can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the world seen from on high:

The seat rocks a little as I settle into it. Madame sits beside me and pulls the overhead bar down so that it locks us in. We start to move, and I’m breathless for an instant as we ascend forward and into the sky.

The earth gets father and farther away. The tents look like bright round candles. The girls move about them, shadows.

I can’t help myself; I lean forward, astounded. This wheel is five, ten, fifteen times taller than the lighthouse I climbed in the hurricane. Higher even than the fence that kept me trapped as Linden’s bride…

Even my brother, who is all practicality, would have his breath taken away by this height, these lights, the clarity of this night sky.

And that’s when I stopped reading.*

Because all of a sudden, it hit me: I’d seen this device before. In the opening scenes of Carrie Ryan’s The Dead-Tossed Waves, the second volume in her YA zombie dystopia series, protagonist Gabry and her love-interest Catcher defy the rules to enter a zombie-infested amusement park. Not unsurprisingly, things go wrong pretty quickly; nonetheless, there’s still time for some opening nostalgia about carnivals:

The story goes that even after the Return they tried to keep the roller coasters going. They said it reminded them of the before time. When they didn’t have to worry about people rising from the dead, when they didn’t have to build fences and walls and barriers to protect themselves…

Even after the Forest was shut off, one last gasp at sequestering the infection and containing the Mudo, the carousel kept turning, the coasters kept rumbling, the teacups kept spinning. Though my town of Vista was far away from the core of the Protectorate, they hoped people would come fly along the coasters. Would still want to forget.

More recently still, a decaying carnival appeared in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, another YA dystopia about which I had very mixed feelings. Midway through, heroine Tris and her love-interest Four climb an abandoned Ferris wheel to use it as a vantage point during a wargame:

Four sits down on the edge of the carousel, leaning against a plastic horse’s foot. His eyes lift to the sky, where there are no stars, only a round moon peeking through a thin layer of clouds…

When I stare up at the Ferris wheel from the ground, my throat feels tighter. It is taller than I thought, so tall I can barely see the cars swinging at the top. The only good thing about its height is that it is built to support weight. If I climb it, it won’t collapse beneath me…

When I look at the city again, the building isn’t in my way. I’m high enough to see the skyline. Most of the buildings are black against a navy sky, but the red lights at the top of the Hub are lit up. They blink half as fast as my heartbeat.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with three separate YA dystopias all including amusement parks. After all, they’re dystopias! It makes sense that the characters would encounter the ruined edifices of modern times, and from an aesthetic point of view, there’s something particularly powerful and haunting about the imagery of an abandoned Ferris wheel. But what jerked me out of Fever was less the presence of a repeated motif than what its usage seemed to represent: the romanticising of our present, and therefore a softening of the pertinent social criticism that ought to be an inherent part of dystopian fiction.

That’s a big claim, I know. But before I go on to defend it, I’d like to present a fourth except in contrast to the previous three, taken from yet another YA dystopia: Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. Here, protagonist Tally and her friend Shay are hoverboarding along the tracks of an old roller coaster – something Shay has done before, but which Tally has not.

It was like a hoverboard course made solid, complete with tight, banked turns, sharp climbs followed by long drops, even loops that took Tally upside down, her crash bracelets activating to keep her on board. It was amazing what good shape it was in. The Rusties must have built it out of something special, just as Shay had said…

Tally followed at top speed, rocketing up the spindly track. She could see the ruins in the distance: broken, black spires against the trees. And behind them, a moonlight glimmer that might have been the sea. This really was high!…

Suddenly, the board dropped out from under her. It simply fell away from her feet, leaving her flying through midair. The track below her had disappeared…

Then Tally saw the framework of the roller coaster ahead. Only a short segment was missing… Her momentum had carried her to the other side of the gap! The board must have sailed along with her, just below her feet for those terrifying seconds of free fall.

She found herself cruising down the track, to where Shay was waiting at the bottom. “You’re insane!” she shouted.

“Pretty cool, huh?”

“No!” Tally yelled. “Why didn’t you tell me it was broken?”

Shay shrugged. “More fun that way?”

“More fun?” Her heart was beating fast, her vision strangely clear. She was full of anger and relief and… joy. “Well, kind of. But you suck!”

At first glance, it might seem fairly arbitrary as to why I’ve chosen this final scene as a contrast to the others. All four excerpts show female protagonists either experiencing or thinking about the decaying rides of modern-day theme parks; all four mention the height and the view – which is understandable – and all four ladies are in places they shouldn’t be: Rhine has been captured by Madame for trespassing, Gabry is going into a forbidden area, Tris is risking her neck to climb a rickety structure and Tally is breaking multiple laws to follow Shay’s lead. Stylistically, there’s an obvious divide in that DeStefano, Ryan and Roth are all writing in the immediate first person, while Westerfeld uses omniscient third, but that’s vastly less important than the subtext of each scene. Neither is it divided along romantic lines. True, Tally is the only one not thinking about or travelling with a boy, but that’s only because she hasn’t met her love-interest yet, and this is a long-game point.

No: it’s that Westerfeld’s characters are the only ones to find a new use for their carnival, and whose appropriation therefore makes us critique its original purpose. Tally and Shay are the only ones having fun.

Rhine rides her wheel passively – she’s been forced onto it, after all – but takes the chance to reflect on how carefree our world used to be, before it broke into hers. Gabry’s thoughts run down similar paths, despite the fact that she never actually makes it onto a ride. Tris and Four turn their own wheel into a vantage point, true, and there’s a moment prior to their ascension when another character jokes about what a present-day version would entail - “A Dauntless Ferris wheel wouldn’t have cars. You would just hang on tight with your hands, and good luck to you.” - but this introspection ultimately goes nowhere: the scene is about Tris’s bravery and her relationship with Four, not a commentary on funfairs, and though their climb is dangerous, the Ferris wheel is not forbidden territory.

But in Uglies, there’s a double subversion to Shay and Tally’s scene. Not only have they broken the rules by visiting the ruin, but their use of the tracks as a hoverboard route is much more dangerous than if they’d found and ridden a still-functional roller coaster. Where the original ride was safety masquerading as danger, Shay turns the tables on Tally, tricking her into doing something genuinely risky: jumping an unknown gap. And while Tally’s first reaction is anger, she’s also a bit elated, too – her success is thrilling, empowering, and all the more so because the threat of mishap was real. While DeStefano and Ryan invoke a deliberate nostalgia for the present day through the inner thoughts of their characters, and where Roth’s narration makes us consider the image of a decaying past without offering hope for the future, Westerfeld makes his audience realise that, compared to Shay and Tally’s world, our own is safe – but perhaps, in some fundamental way, less satisfying because of it.

As a subgenre, dystopia has its roots in social criticism. The big adult classics – Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – all end bleakly for the protagonists: their purported futures are warnings, and at least part of their purpose is to make us wonder what horrors our own bad, real-world decisions could ultimately engender. This is not to say that all adult dystopias are concerned with social what-ifs: Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning The Road is unremittingly bleak, devoid of human society – an apocalyptic vision more than a twisted take on human folly – while William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a study of children breaking down into violence, barbarism and anarchy in the absence of any higher moral guidance. By contrast, the archetypal YA dystopia – Lois Lowry’s The Giver - ends on an ambiguous note, leaving its young protagonist, Jonas, hovering somewhere between death and salvation; either way, though, he is free. While Orwell’s Winston is crushed into conformity, Huxley’s savage driven to suicide and McCarthy’s nameless father murdered, Jonas’s story ends on a vision of hope. The closest comparison is with Atwood’s Offred – we don’t see whether her escape succeeds, though the epilogue assures us of her world’s eventual recuperation - but even then, this knowledge is divorced from Offred’s voice. If the job of adult dystopia is to caution, therefore, it seems fair to suggest that the role of YA dystopia is to reassure: not, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, because they tell us that broken societies are survivable, but because they tell us broken societies can be changed.

Which tradition is now upheld by Fever, The Dead-Tossed Waves, Divergent and Uglies alike: even in the case of any as-yet incomplete series, the narrative arc is such that progress is definitely on the agenda. And yet, for all that, there’s a maddening dearth of danger and consequence both in the bulk of YA dystopias – danger, which is here distinct from action, and consequence, which is here distinct from loss. Battle scenes and dead companions are staples of YA dystopia, and yet they tend to feel like punches pulled, potential roundhouse blows swerving away from successive protagonists and into their nearest and dearest. Loss is the moment when Divergent’s Tris loses both her parents and keeps on fighting; consequence, though, is where Katniss Everdeen – the battle-scarred heroine of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy – is left to live with PTSD, irrevocably haunted by the catastrophe of war. Loss, to draw a comparison with another recent bugbear of mine, hints at romanticised damage; consequence does not. Similarly, action is successive protagonists being thrown into battles where the stakes are either death, which seldom afflicts main characters, or the sort of coercion that leaves no marks (and which, when combined with loss, is typified by an absence of psychological scarring). Danger is when the risks involve actual physical and/or mental change – and when the protagonist doesn’t emerge unscathed.

For reasons which are complex and fascinating enough to merit an essay of their own, a staggering number of YA dystopias with female protagonists are concerned with sexuality and romance. In these stories, partners are chosen by higher powers (Matched and Crossed, Ally Condie), love is branded a disease (Delirium and Pandemonium, Lauren Oliver), teenage pregnancy is a way of life (Bumped and Thumped, Megan McCafferty), and brides are stolen freely (Wither and Fever, Lauren DeStefano). At the other end of the scale are female warriors: gladiators-turned-revolutionaries (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins), questing cage-fighters (Blood Red Road,   Moira Young), face-changing dissidents (Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras, Scott Westerfeld), soldiers-in-training (Divergent and Insurgent, Veronica Roth) and zombie-fighting survivors (The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Dead-Tossed Waves and The Dark and Hollow Places, Carrie Ryan). All of these books provoke questions about identity and agency; all of them, too, relate to ongoing political discourse about the role of women in society, whether in terms of sexual freedom or women as front line fighters. But while some of them actively embrace this critical aspect – seeking, in the spirit of dystopia, to make us question both the real world and the fictional – others instead provoke only a sense of gratitude for our distance from their settings. They might still be reflective of current issues, but they shy away from making us make the connection, because their ultimate purpose isn’t to encourage questions.

And this, to return to my opening statement, is why I’ve finally snapped. It’s the Ferris wheel effect: a nostalgia for the present day rooted in being grateful for what we have, rather than in asking where we’re headed. It’s dystopia with the safeties on - and that is, to me, an alarming inversion of how the genre should work. I have nothing against stories being written purely for escapist purposes, but dystopia is not the ideal genre for it. Of course, as in all things, your mileage may vary, in which case you’re wholly entitled to disagree. Yet I’d ask that you ask yourself: what, exactly, is escapist about an uncritical dystopia? While critical protagonists set out to change society, allowing us the fantasy of  being world-altering revolutionaries, uncritical protagonists remain wrapped up in themselves, dealing with immediate, personal obstacles rather than tackling their root causes. Such characters can still change the world, of course – or rather, be instrumental in its change – but the difference is one of intention: their rebellion stems from a desire to be left alone, not to combat injustice, and this difference shows in how the story treats them. They are kept safer than their critical counterparts – exposed to action and loss, rather than danger and consequence – because if something sufficiently bad were to happen or be realistically threatened, then their stories would no longer stand as purely escapist fictions: the audience would no longer want to share in their experiences.

Trigger warning for this paragraph, because we’re going to talk about rape and sexual assault – which are, for me, the crashing, trumpeting elephants in the room in far too many dystopias. On the one hand: these are big issues that ought not be treated lightly. I can understand entirely why authors shy away from mentioning them. They are dark themes, frightening and raw, capable of completely transforming the tone and scope of a book. On the other hand, though: if you build a dystopian society based around the capture, sale and slavery of women – and particularly if the reason for this is tied to pregnancy – then you are automatically inviting this threat to exist. More, if your protagonist is female and she’s trying to escape this world, then you have guaranteed the relevance of this threat. This doesn’t mean your character must be assaulted. It does mean, however, that you need a convincing explanation as to why. Not mentioning it at all, even in passing, strikes me as a form of erasure; a denial of consequence, and a dismissal of the very real trauma suffered by millions of women. If the audience can reasonably infer that rape is a thing that happens in your dystopia, then you are doing a disservice both to us and to the intelligence of your heroine to keep it hidden. The real world has a vile enough culture of silencing without extending a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to fiction, too.

To be absolutely, brutally clear: I am in no way saying that what YA dystopias need is for more teenage girls to be raped. I am saying that in instances where the plots of YA dystopias are heavily concerned with the control of women’s bodies and female sexuality, failing to even mention rape or assault as part of those societies is not only unrealistic, but an undermining of discourse.

In Delirium, Lauren Oliver does an excellent job of pointing out the perils of her society – all save one. In a world where everyone is effectively lobotomised at eighteen to ‘cure’ them of amor deliria nervosa – love – it makes perfect sense that kindness, hugging, casual touching, kissing and other such tactile displays of affection would all be taboo, reclassified as symptoms of the disease. She mentions, too, the reality of cured parents sometimes killing their children out of anger or exasperation, unable to form the usual parental bond, while married couples – forbidden to choose each other for emotional reasons – consent to be matched by the state. The book is beautifully written and world-built, exquisitely characterised and absolutely compelling. Yet there’s a hole in the heart of it, a question I can’t quite shake: the cure erases love, yes, but what about sexual desire? The two are not synonymous, and though there’s some overlap in which areas of the brain control them – both involve the anterior cingulate cortex, which is connected to the amygdala – sexual brain-mapping lights up multiple other regions. Which begs the question: in a world without love and greatly reduced compassion, where emotions are muted but where – we assume, given that people still reproduce the traditional way – human beings continue to experience sexual arousal, what sort of horrors go on behind closed doors?

Oliver’s world is totalitarian. Its military forces are cold and unyielding, freed from the usual human compassion for their charges. Love might be impossible among the populace, but as the story continually demonstrates, violence is not – and at least for me, that opens the door for a society rife with sexual abuse. Incorporating that possibility into the story, however, would have radically changed its scope. I understand why Oliver chose instead to tacitly infer that the cure, as well as erasing love, also eliminated rape. Delirium is still one of the best dystopias I’ve read in years, and a book I heartily recommend. For all that it doesn’t treat with societal sexuality, it nonetheless counts as a critical dystopia, commenting powerfully on freedom of choice, totalitarianism, propagandising, religion and individualism, inviting direct contrast with present day issues. Yet it, like far too many of its fellows, shrinks from discussing institutionalised misogyny and the specific issues of female oppression.

And this is a problem for me, because it seems to cut to the heart of a different discussion: the perennial questing after strong and varied female characters in SFF. I dislike the oft-floated image of YA books didactically Teaching Lessons To Teenagers; dislike, too, the inference that writing for young adults inherently entails a greater moral responsibility than writing for adults. The primary point of fiction – any fiction – is not preaching. But the lack of a moral burden is not the same as an absence of critical thought, and it strikes me that maybe one of the reasons we’re still having this conversation about the merits of various female characters is because, despite our best efforts, we’re still stuck in a mindset of gender protectiveness, particularly in YA. By which I mean: if you consider the image of a little boy hitting a little girl to be inherently worse than if he were hitting another boy, then we have a problem.

To be clear: targeted physical violence against women is still as much of a global epidemic as sexual violence. It would be hypocritical to suggest that YA dystopias ought to tackle the latter but ignore the former, especially given their penchant for producing physically aggressive heroines who are just as strong or stronger than men, and seemingly without effort. Quite the opposite: I’m actually starting to wonder if, rather than representing an idealised physical equality, such warrior-heroines are really gifted with strength in order to keep them safe, in much the same way that their romance-seeking counterparts are protected from sexual violence by the pretense that it doesn’t exist. In both cases, it seems like the fictional solution to two of the biggest women’s issues going – our physical and sexual vulnerability – is not to confront them, but to erase the reason they exist. That’s what I mean by protectionism: we’re afraid to have our heroines suffer the same dangers as real-world women, and so we keep them safe, bestowing on them unnatural strength if they’re going to fight battles, or removing the threat of rape if they’re going to encounter sexual prejudice. This is by no means a problem exclusive to YA or even dystopia, but my suspicion is that this combination of genres in particular serves to magnify it.

Under such circumstances, then, is it any surprise that we’re still asking ourselves how best to write a wide and gorgeous range of women? It’s not that we don’t understand female versatility – it’s that deep down, we still shy away from having our female characters confront real danger and consequence. Fearful of writing victims, we pretend that victimisation doesn’t exist, and so disengage from the dialogue about how such victimisation might be halted; but of all genres, dystopia shouldn’t shrink from ugly truths – regardless of the age of the audience.

By the end of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, Tally Youngblood has undergone multiple transformations: from her natural self to a cosmetically enhanced Pretty, and last to a fearsome Special. Offered the chance to return to who she originally was, she refuses and finds herself imprisoned: her allies want to indoctrinate her into thinking such a reversal is for the best. But Tally is stubborn. As dangerous as she’s become, the only way forward is for her to rewire herself, alone: to become something new, no matter how uncomfortable her self-acceptance makes other people.

And if YA dystopias are serious about offering social criticism – if they really want to discuss the role of women in society – then they need to do the same.

* For now. I do plan to finish the book!

Warning: total spoilers, much rant.

Straight off the bat, tonight’s excursion to see Captain America constitutes the most physically uncomfortable experience I’ve ever had at a cinema. My neck has been sore as hell this past week, so sitting on a slight angle that I’d go so far as to suggest was exactly calibrated to exacerbate the problem hasn’t left me in the best of moods. Above and beyond that, the 3D was either appallingly rendered, out of focus, or more likely a wretched combination of both. The whole right-hand side of the screen kept flickering into multiple lines, and every time the camera went to a long shot, the same thing happened. Also, I couldn’t get my packet of seaweed peanut crackers open, and even though I totally loosened it for him, neither could Toby. So! It’s entirely possible my reaction to the film itself has been irrevocably sullied by the circumstances under which I watched it. Given preferential Gold Class seating, continuous neck massage, fully immersive 3D and a complementary bottle of Veuve Clicquot, I might well have been left with a tingling desire to fight for the good ol’ US of A while simultaneously flinging myself at Chris Evans.

But I doubt it.

To begin with, the film has no script, unless shaking the Cliche Bag over a Xerox machine and distributing copies of the resulting wordsoup counts as a legitimate writing process. Still, better action films than this have gotten away with worse, because what they lacked in verbal originality they made up for in character development, narrative coherency and awesomely choreographed action scenes. Captain America has none of these things, instead presenting as a hodgepodge of abortive relationships, nonsensical segues, pointless fighting montages and bizarre decisions. A small example to demonstrate this latter: Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a renegade German scientist on the side of justice, has just been shot dead by an enemy agent seconds after turning Steve Roberts into a super soldier. Roberts gives chase and, after saving a small boy from being used as a hostage, catches the killer, who promptly chews his suicide pill and dies. The very next scene, we’re back in the lab – it feels like later that same day, but apparently not, for reasons which will soon became apparent. Present are Roberts, aka Captain America, the female Agent Carter, head military honcho Colonel Phillips and financial backer Senator Brandt. Their conversation goes something like this:

PHILLIPS: Whelp, Dr Erskine’s death means that we can’t make any more super soldiers, presumably because he’s left behind no notes or formulae of any kind although I’m not going to come out and say as much. The point being, he’s dead, and his brilliant ideas have therefore died with him. Apparently. So now we’re going to head over to Europe and kick the ass of the guy who killed him. Any questions?

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Ooh ooh! Pick me, sir, pick me! I want to avenge my mentor’s death – and even though I have no combat training of any kind, I feel I’d be awesome at that, seeing as how I’m a super soldier and all!

PHILLIPS: No way. I asked for an army. All I got is you.* So now you can just stay in the lab, I guess? I mean, even though you’re all awesome now, we’re not about to just let you fight. Because, um -

BRANDT: – because you don’t have a costume yet, and only I can give you one. Give you a chance, I mean. Not a costume.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Um…

BRANDT: You see this newspaper I’m holding? The one with a photo of you saving that boy yesterday or whenever, even though it felt like ten minutes ago? That photo means you’re a SYMBOL TO THE PEOPLE, and even though the colonel here doesn’t want you, I think you’ve got some important work to do. SYMBOLIC work.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Well, sure! So long as I’m serving my country by putting myself at risk of actual death – which is my explicitly stated goal and the sole reason why I refused to take up other jobs for the war effort despite my previously puny frame – I’ll do it.

BRANDT: *coughs* I know I totally just implied that you’d get a fighting role, but what actually happens is that two minutes from now, we cut to an honest-to-god musical number slash montage where you dress up in a leotard to help me sell war bonds. But it does explain your eventual costume, even though it otherwise makes no sense. Did I mention I’m a senator?

CARTER: But why can’t he come with us? Or at least fight with the regular army guys? I mean, he IS a super soldier.

BRANDT & PHILLIPS: COSTUME!

Which, yeah. Makes absolutely no sense. We’re never told why the only available choice is between being a performing monkey and getting stuck in a lab: apart from anything else, with Erskine is dead and his research discontinued, who’d be doing the labwork? Given the experiment’s obvious success, why would it even be necessary? And this is where things start to get really weird, because all of a sudden we’re stuck in a musical montage, watching the Captain appear on stage – over 200 times, we’re later told – while comic books and movies featuring his fictional exploits are released to an admiring public. How much time passes here is anyone’s guess, but it’s got to be months at the very least – films aren’t made overnight, and especially not when the star is simultaneously part of a travelling show. But somehow, this wacky jaunt eventually takes the Captain to Europe under the guise of entertaining the troops. Of course, he’s received badly; of course, it’s his friend Bucky’s regiment he’s performing for; of course, they’re just back from a hellish mission to enemy territory; and of course, Bucky – plus 400 other men – are imprisoned deep behind enemy lines.

Maybe because they’re badly sequenced, maybe because there’s no tension, or maybe because we haven’t seen Bucky since the opening scenes and don’t give a shit if he lives or dies, the end result is some truly unthrilling heroics. Which is doubly disappointing when you consider that this is meant to be the Captain’s glorious moment to shine, the point at which he transitions from Hopeless Dreamer to Action Hero. We’ve been waiting for this moment ever since the movie started – so why the hell is it so underwhelming? This is some basic stuff, right here: I mean, I watched Burlesque last week, which is essentially about Fictional Cher teaching Fictional Christina Aguilera how to wear corsets, and the glorious moment when Aguilera’s character finally gets to sing on stage was infinitely more raw, more powerful and better-scripted than the point at which Captain America sallies forth to get his fight on.

I’ll give you a moment to let that statement achieve the proper impact.

(Also, Burlesque stars Stanley Tucci as a wonderful, witty gay man with emotional depth and snappy dialogue rather than as a scruffy German scientist who gets shot and killed to facilitate an already dubious plot point. But I digress.)

So now the Captain has come into his own, we get the requisite Level Up scene where a young Howard Stark presents him with a selection of new and shinier weapons. This is, without a doubt, one of the most ridiculous gadget-bestowal scenes ever filmed, and I say that as a woman who’s watched every single James Bond movie. As before, allow me to lovingly recreate the pivotal conversation between Stark and Our Hero:

CAPTAIN AMERICA, inspecting shields: What’s this one? Me likes!

STARK: Don’t touch that! It’s a prototype!

CAPTAIN AMERICA, instantly donning prototype shield: Wow! What’s it do?

STARK: It completely stops all vibrations from projectiles, because it’s made of VIBRANIUM, a completely real metal that’s lighter than steel, but much stronger.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Why isn’t this standard issue?**

STARK: Because vibranium is the rarest metal on Earth – so rare that we used all of it to make your shield.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: But didn’t you just say it was a prototype and I wasn’t meant to touch it? Why would you make a prototype out of all the metal and then tell me not to use it? Also, you only knew I needed a new shield, like, five minutes ago – did you just have some vibranium lying around, or were you just making shields for the hell of it? This doesn’t make any sense!

STARK: I’M BRAFF ZACKLIN!

The rest of the film makes just as little sense. There’s some disjointed action scenes strung together in slowmo, an entirely pointless motorcycle chase, lots of explosions, the most ridiculous Evil Salute in the history of ever, and the assembly of a Five Man Band to fight alongside Bucky and Captain America. None of these members are never named, developed or given meaningful dialogue, leaving them to be distinguished solely on the basis of race and nationality: one Englishman, one Frenchman and three Americans who are respectively white, black and Asian. This would actually constitute progress, if not for the total lack of any character development and the fact that none of them are on screen for more than five minutes altogether. Oh, and Bucky dies falling off a train, but even though he’s really sad about it, Captain America can’t get drunk to mourn his buddy because of how quickly his new metabolism processes alcohol. Which is just tragic.

And then there’s the Agent Carter, the requisite Female Love Interest who has all the personality of a limp noodle. The best I can say about her treatment in the film is that it’s lead me to coin a new trope term: Kick The Bitch. A feminist variant of Kick The Dog (see what I did there?), Kick The Bitch occurs when a lone female character is inserted into an environment that the audience is likely to associate with sexism, if not outright misogyny, but where the main male characters, despite being comfortable in this environment, need to be shown in a positive light. Thus, because actually talking about sexism would be breaking an unwritten rule of cinema (Thy Manly Films Shalt Not Touch On Feminist Issues), a bitch-kicker character is introduced for the sole purpose of acting like a vile, sexist sleaze – the absolute straw-man epitome of misogynist behaviour. Depending on the story, the female character will then either stand her ground against said cretin, thereby affirming or earning her the respect of her male counterparts and establishing them as Good People, or fail to do so and be rescued, which achieves the same thing, only with even less semblance of equality. In fairness, Agent Carter does punch her bitch-kicker square in the face, but the scene is so textbook as to render it meaningless. Plus and also, she’s subsequently depicted trying to motivate an all-male group of soldiers by calling them girls and ladies as insults. Which, I’m sorry, but no.

It’s a much lesser crime that Carter and the Captain have zero chemistry, but it’s still worth a mention. Apart from anything else, it highlights the film’s failure to find an emotional core. Dr Erskine was a promising character, but then he was killed before anything could come of it; Carter is absent in for long stretches of time, precluding actual banter; and Bucky is almost a non-entity despite his supposed importance in the Captain’s life. By trying to juggle all three relationships while refusing to spend time on any of them, the film has effectively hollowed itself out around a series of narrative disjunctions: just as we’re starting to care vaguely about one person or another, they’re whisked away and replaced with someone else. But then, none of them are terribly interesting anyway: Carter and Bucky are both as cardboard cutout as the Captain himself, while Dr Erskine was seemingly murdered for the crime of having an emergent personality. (Either that, or so the Captain could get a costume. Which is quite possibly worse.)

Finally, after the big battle with Red Skull, Captain America crashes a plane into the arctic to stop it from exploding in New York, which noble sacrifice somehow has the miraculous effect of freezing him in stasis for nearly 70 years. Which, um, yeah. Regular ice. No ageing. In stasis. So he wakes up in our time, just as was foretold in the opening scene. Huzzah! You can’t even blame this endpoint of ridiculousness on the Magic Cube Of Power they’ve all be fighting about, because it fell out of the plane mid-flight. I suspect I’d have felt more outraged, but then the credits came up, and I was just happy I was being allowed to leave.

At the end, my husband turned to me.

‘People should go to jail for that movie,’ he said.

I’ll put it this way, internets: I didn’t disagree.

(Except for Stanley Tucci. He can stay.)

 

*An actual quote.

** Also an actual quote.