Metropolis Maria

Friday, May 27, 2016

Captain Hydra?

Update: There have since been some further "big reveals" from issue 1 to issue 2 that have clarified my position somewhat. Read on, then see below.

So the first issue of Steve Rogers: Captain America, I think the heat from the firestorm raging on the Internet is contributing to the global warming crisis.

While I have not read the comic, there is a pretty big reveal at the end: Steve Rogers has been a Hydra sleeper agent almost his entire life.

I'll let that sink in a little.

Steve Rogers, the sickly. scrawny young man who volunteered for the top-secret Super Soldier program of the US Army, the kid who hates bullies and just wanted to help the war effort, and as Captain America, the only successful recipient of the Super Soldier Serum, he punches out Hitler a full year before the United States enters the war, was actually aiding and abetting the enemy the whole time.

There are plenty of blog Twitter and Facebook posts on this with most on the side of this being a heretical turn and others asking what's the big deal?

One pretty compelling post  I saw put the scandal in the historical context of comics in general and Captain America specifically. The discussion pointed out that this reveal invalidates who Steve Rogers is, and treats the Holocaust as nothing more than an attention grabber, "clickbait," to use the author's expression. Again, as I have not read the first issue (and am not certain that I want to), this could well be hyperbole.

But what if it isn't?

And what if the writers and editors were doing something that they may not realize themselves?

In an interview with Entrainment Weekly, writer Nick Spencer says "Captain America is not just one of the most recognizable faces in the Marvel Universe. He’s an inspiring figure, somebody who brings people together. Everybody here obviously gets that. What you hope is that this story, in its own very different way, highlights those things and only continues to elevate the character in importance, and only serves to illustrate how powerful that symbol is."

Mostly, I believe that Captain America is and has been a symbol of what America should be.  But what if this darker turn illustrates more what America really is.

Don't get me wrong: I am an American Exceptionalist. I believe in the promise of America, that when its right, there is nothing else like it and it should be a shining beacon of hope to the rest of the world. That is the essence of Captain America's power as a symbol.

But by portraying Cap as a secret Hydra agent, I believe that there may well be a message that Cap is really revealing the hidden parts of the American Dream, the parts we don't show to company, lest they get the "wrong ideas" about us.

But what if, instead of a symbol for the potential of America, this new interpretation of Steve Rogers is as a symbol for how America truly is: Outwardly displaying virtue, loyalty, perseverance, and moral righteousness, but inwardly corrupt, divisive and fearful.

Currently, we are embroiled in one of the most divisive, bitter presidential campaigns in my memory.  For the first time, the leading candidates for each party carry an unfavorable rating in the most trusted polls. In other words, neither candidate is looked upon favorably by the voters.  On the one hand, we have a corporate-natured tax-evading, misogynistic xenophobe, playing to the deepest most visceral fears humans of all stripes experience. On the other hand, we have the ambitious wife of a former president who routinely plays fast and loose with the rules, is under scrutiny for her use of an unsecured private email server for government business and who is consistently viewed as untrustworthy by a large number of the electorate.

The American Exceptionalism I adhere to will proclaim that America is the best possible place, and then use that as a promise, not a boast, to the rest of the world. We make this promise, and then use it to critically examine ourselves and judge how we measure up, not against any other nation but our own ideals, and founding documents. Where we fail it is not because of our ideals, but because we have failed to hold ourselves accountable to those ideals.

This version of Captain America exposes the ugly side of America. I hope he goes away soon, and the Cap that I and millions of others look up to comes back.  Not because I want to hide our failings, but because I, and I presume others as well want a symbol that will inspire us to be and do our best.

So, the big reveal is that when Kobik, the living embodiment of an infinity stone restored Steve Rogers and he once again assumed the mantle of Captain America, his reality was "reshaped" by Kobik, thereby making it possible for him to be a Hydra deep sleeper agent.  I still think that the wrtiers are playing a dangerous game by even considering this a possibility, but I do apologize if this post seemed reactionary.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Captain America: Civil War and the Book of Romans

Now that a few weeks have passed, and I have had the opportunity to see Captain America: Civil War twice, there are some thoughts that I believe are present.

A number of bloggers and other critics have noted that neither Steve Rogers/Captain America nor Tony Stark/Iron Man are 100% correct in their views. Neither individuals nor institutions can be trusted to provide competent, reliable oversight for people with power.

Personal responsibility:
I find it interesting that in discussing the Sokovia Accords, which would limit the Avengers to act only when they had clearance from a UN panel, Steve Rogers claims to accept that in order to act he must be willing to live with the consequences. In other words, he sys he is willing to take responsibility for the results, good and bad, of his actions.  

Speaking to Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, he says "This job... we try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn't mean everybody. But if we can't find a way to live with that, next time... maybe nobody gets saved."  Later, as the Avengers debate whether to sign the Accords, he has the following exchange with Tony Stark/Iron Man:

Steve Rogers: Tony, if someone dies on your watch, you don't give up. 
Tony Stark: Who said we're giving up? 
Steve Rogers: We are if we're not taking responsibility for our actions. This document just shifts the blame.

These statements are inspiring, and even convincing in their call to take responsibility.

But then, when he and his best friend Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier share a private moment, Steve's tune seems to change. Only Bucky appears to accept the implications of his actions:

Bucky Barnes: I don't know if I'm worth all this to you. 
Captain America: What you did all those years, it wasn't you. You didn't have a choice. 
Bucky Barnes: I know... but I did it.

"I did it." The simple, quiet way that Sebastian Stan (the actor playing Bucky) delivers the line is heartbreaking in its resignation. It does not matter the why he did those things. He openly acknowledges that it was by his hand that people died.   Too many people try to minimize or negate their responsibility. Many years ago comedian Flip Wilson had a catchphrase that to this day people still use: "The Devil made me do it." Bucky rejects that excuse, admitting that although his mind was not his own, he nonetheless owns up to the fact that he still bears the responsibility.

Another exchange, this time between Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch and the Vision also seems to resonate with Paul's message in his letter to the Romans:

Wanda Maximoff: [laugh] ... I used to think of myself one way. But after this... [swirling fingers with magic]...I am something else. And still me, I think. But that's not what everyone else sees. 
Vision: Do you know, I don't know what this is [point at mind gem on his forehead]. Not really. I know it's not of this world. But it powered Loki staff, gave you your abilities. But its true nature is a mystery. And yet, it is part of me. 
Wanda Maximoff: Are you afraid of it? 
Vision: I wish to understand it. The more I do the less it controls me. One day, who knows, I may even control it.

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.  (15)  For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  (16)  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.  (17)  So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  (18)  For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  (19)  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.  (20)  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  (21)  So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.  (22)  For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being,  (23)  but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.  (24)  Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:14-24 ESV)

Where Wanda and Vision differ, of course, is their desire to fully understand and eventually control the parts of themselves that make them different and potentially dangerous. Paul, on the other hand, realizes that not only can he not control his inward nature, he will never fully understand it. He laments this failure in that 24th verse: "who will rescue me?"

Bucky seems to realize this as well, and gets that he is not in control. His solution? To lock himself away from anyone who could exploit him and his abilities.

Steve Rogers: Are you sure about this? 
Bucky Barnes: [going into cryogenic stasis] I can't trust my own mind. 

T'Challa: Your friend and my father, they were both victims. If I can help one of them find peace...

If we had read on into the very next sentence in Paul's letter to the Romans, which leads into Chapter 8, we read Paul's solution lies outside of himself and his ability to understand and mastery: only by being surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ can one hope to escape. He does not have to submit to cryogenic stasis to be freed; freedom comes from the sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection of Jesus.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.  (8:1)  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  (2)  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Romans 7:25-8:2 ESV)

The Avengers have never been the tightest-knit group. In fact, when they first meet (in the first Avengers film), Captain America and Iron Man take different approaches to apprehending Loki, and then when they all get together, the squabble so much that it is impossible that they could every work together, unless, of course, they get a little push in the right direction. This push comes from the death of a beloved agent, a good man, who gave his life to try to stop Loki.  In the second Avengers film, again Iron Man and Captain America have different approaches to protecting the world, and each is too stubborn to compromise until it is almost too late.

The villain, Helmut Zemo, recognizes this weakness and does all he can to exploit it.  His reasoning follows thusly:

Zemo: An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again, but one which crumbles from within? That's dead... forever.

This is an echo of what Jesus said  to people who claimed He was possessed by Satan:

Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. (Matthew 12:25 ESV)

This quote has appeared many times in our history, including speeches by Abraham Lincoln on his determination to preserve the Union during the American Civil War.  Even now, 150 years later, we are still dealing with the mistakes of this great national tragedy.  The phrase "United we stand, divided we fall" even forms one of the taglines for the film we are discussing.

I think its important to note here that unity in this case does not necessarily mean uniformity of presentation or thought; it means that we have a common purpose and we work together to accomplish a common vision.  Much like the Avengers, the Church is a collection of people who have gifts, talents and abilities to be used for a common purpose. None of us look alike, and we certainly all don't think alike, but when we put these gifts and talents to use, working together, amazing things happen.  Too often, though, the Church descends into petty squabbles based on our differences, and we end up with our own Civil War, in miniature. The problem, though is that our Civil War potentially has eternal consequences.

Vengeance & Justice:
Zemo is nursing an overwhelming loss. During the Battle of Sokovia (as presented in Avengers: Age of Ultron), his family was killed, and he blames the Avengers. In this bit of dialogue with T'Challa/Black Panther, he shares his pain with someone who he believes understands his thirst for vengeance:

T'Challa: Is this all you wanted? To see them rip each other apart? 
Zemo: My father lived outside the city, and I thought we would be safe there. My son was excited. He could see the Iron Man from the car window. I told my wife, "Don't worry. They're fighting in the city. We're miles from harm." And the dust cleared, and the screaming stopped. It took me two days until I found their bodies. My father still holding my wife and son in his arms... And the Avengers? They went home. I knew I couldn't kill them. More powerful men than me have tried. But if I could get them to kill each other... I'm sorry about your father. He seemed a good man, with a dutiful son. 
T'Challa: Vengeance has consumed you. It's consuming them. I'm done letting it consume me. Justice will come soon enough. 
Zemo: Tell that to the dead. 
[points gun to head, T'Challa stops him] 
T'Challa: The living are not done with you yet.

Vengeance is a fire that consumes everything. In this case, it has consumed Zemo and his actions in search of retribution have led to many others dying and/or being hurt in the process. Those seeking to avenge themselves often are careless with regard to the collateral damage they cause. They only want to hurt the object of their vengeance, and if anyone else gets in the way, too bad.

The problem is that vengeance often breed more vengeance. You hurt me, I get back at you, which drives you to get back at me, and so on and so on, ad nauseum.   Again, Paul discusses this in his letter to the Romans:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."  (20)  To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head."  (21)  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21 ESV)

One might object that Paul was not thinking about the loss of family and the pain that would cause someone which then might lead them to seek vengeance. But I believe that Paul believed precisely this to be the case. He was writing to Christians in Rome, who were being persecuted for their faith. Family members and loved ones could well have been killed as part of this. Only T'Challa gets that vengeance is something that we do for ourselves, and rather than making us feel better, it only consumes us more. He rejects the notion of vengeance for something else: justice. Justice is the equitable assignment of responsibility and penalty for wrongdoing. T'Challa understands that Zemo, in his careless pursuit of vengeance must account to the survivors and those he has hurt. The living require an accounting of Zemo for the pain he has caused.

If vengeance is such a bad thing, then why does the Scripture teach that God will execute "vengeance?" Only God is unbiased and righteous enough to execute vengeance on our behalf without it consuming Him; this is true Justice.  Those who seek reckless vengeance must answer to those who are left in their wake.

Many would scoff at superhero movies in general and Marvel superhero movies specifically as eye-candy and fluff. But to my eye, there is much in this film to ponder over and to consider in light of personal responsibility, unity, and vengeance and justice.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Supergirl v. (Batman v. Superman)

Now that season one of Supergirl is in the books, and the initial back and forth over the merits or crimes present in the film Batman v. Superman: the Dawn of Justice has died down, I have an observation I wish to share:

The best presentation of Superman on screen today is in Supergirl.

There.  I said it.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the near-mythical blur that pops up every so often to prove the Man of Steel exists in this universe, or exchanges text messages with his cousin is what many die-hard Superman fans have been clamoring for.


The best Superman on screen is, in fact, Kara Zor-El, Supergirl herself.

Why do I say these things? Well, it's only slightly based on my own readings of comics from the seventies, a small but eclectic collection of DC and Marvel titles that my aunt had at her house for her grandkids to read when I was very young.  I've also done some reading on various histories of the comics and even one specifically on Superman. In part, it is based as well on the reaction of folks far more fluent in comic book than I when reacting to what they believe makes for a good Superman story.

Below is a small sample of the themes that should be present in a good Superman story, and ones I believe are found in Supergirl.  Oh, a word of warning: There WILL be spoilers for Season 1 of Supergirl.

Many of the comics I remember from my youth told stories involving the young Clark Kent and his adoptive earth parents. The Kents instilled in him from infancy a moral compass that served him throughout his life. Even later stories deal with this relationship. He has a groundedness because of his family that Bruce Wayne doesn't, which also speaks to how they approach crime fighting.

In much the same way, Kara was adopted by loving and supportive parents, as well as a sister who looks out for her. This relationship helps her to see her powers as a gift she can use to help others in need. This was consistently the message given in every Superman movie before Snyder's.

In Episode 13, "For The Girl Who Has Everything," Her family bonds are put to the test. In a battle, Kara's Aunt Astra, the leader of the Kryptonian bad guys providing the impetus for the conflict in this first season, is about to kill Hank Henshaw, the leader of the DEO,  the team that Supergirl is a part of. Alex, Kara's adoptive sister and also a member of the team, drives a kryptonite sword through Astra's heart to save Hank. When Supergirl arrives, Hank immediately claims responsibility, because he doesn't want Kara and Alex to become estranged over this act.

In a CW show, this subterfuge would become a season-defining arc (*cough* I'm looking at you, Arrow...*cough, cough*).But here, the secret lasts all of two episodes before Alex confesses. Rather than tearing them apart, the familial bonds that have grown for most of Kara's life by this point, provide a bridge toward reconciliation.

VillainsThe writers and producers of Supergirl are not afraid to use the full range of Superman-type villains.  Maxwell Lord is a better version of Lex Luthor than what we saw in Batman v. Superman. He is subtle, cunning, charismatic. Shave his head and you have Lex.

One of the biggest complaints leveled at any attempt to bring Superman to the screen is the lack of imagination writers use when finding a villain to throw against him. They seem to be fixated only on Lex Luthor or General Zod.

As I noted above, Supergirl has her own version of Lex, and a version of Zod (Non, who is presented here as the husband of General Astra, Kara's evil aunt).  But this show is not afraid to dig into the Superman catalogue of villains, giving us a version of Brainiac.  Here, she refers to herself as Indigo, but make no mistake, the show calls her out as originally named Brainiac 8.  

We also get a look at Bizarro Supergirl, a nod to Bizarro. Bizarro Supergirl was created by Maxwell Lord in an attempt to discredit and stop Supergirl.

Larry Tye, in his 2012 history of Superman called him "...a freshly minted Man of Tomorrow for a world not sure it had one." (p. 34) One of the key elements of Superman's character is that he never loses hope. The film Man of Steel tried to make this connection by referring to the S on his chest as a Kryptonian symbol for hope, but I don't think it really ever explored that theme, and the newest film fails to explore it as well. But the Supergirl series seems to be preoccupied with the idea that she gives people hope and in one

Tye also compares the Man of Steel with a couple of his inspirations: "Superman was a creature of light, and it was that very optimism that America loved most. And although (Doc)Savage and (Hugo) Danner were human and Superman wasn't, his pairing with Clark Kent gave him a groundedness and humanity Doc and Hugo couldn't match." (pp 33-34)

The season 1 episode  (#7) "Human for a Day" shows Supergirl losing her powers, but then putting her life on the line in order to talk a desperate man out of committing an armed robbery at a convenience store.  Another episode that makes this point even more directly is the season finale, "Better Angels." Briefly, Supergirl has to go on TV to make an appeal to everyone who has been brainwashed by Kryptonian supervillains. She has to offer people hope and inspire them to snap out of it and reject the false messages placed in their brains.  A snippet of dialogue also reveals one of the key tenets that makes a good Superman story: Maxwell Lord tells Supergirl "If you go out there and fight, you might win. But chances are this is a suicide mission." She responds, "You know I'll never stop trying." (emphasis mine). These words could just as easily come out Superman's mouth. 

Supergirl epitomizes what Christopher Reeve said:
"What sets Superman apart is that he has the wisdom to use his powers for good. He has all these powers, but he's got the mind of maturity - or he's got the innocence, really - to look at the world very, very simply. And that makes him so different.

When he says, 'I'm here to fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way,' everyone goes: *snicker* *cough* *ahem*.

But he's not kidding." 

By giving us a hero who looks at the world very simply and tries to live by his moral code instilled in him by his adoptive parents, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster also managed to make him very inspirational.

Gary Weldon in his excellent Superman: An Unauthorized Biography, captures this idea perfectly:
"...unlike Spider-Man and Batman, he is not the hero with whom we identify; he is the hero in whom we believe. He is the first, the purest, the ideal. As long as character traits such as selflessness and perseverance manage to retain any cultural currency whatsoever, we will need a Superman to show us what they look like." (p. 4)

He also notes the following critical themes for any good story involving Superman:
"Superman changes as our culture changes. The only thing about him, in fact, that has remained untouched, inviolate since Action Comics #1 hit the stands in April 1938 is his motivation. That motivation is at once the simplest of them all and the hardest to unpack: he is a hero. Specifically:
     1.  He puts the needs of others over those of himself
     2.  He never gives up.
These are his two most essential attributes, the elements that make a Superman story a Superman story. As we will see, even when all of the other, more recognizable pieces of super-iconography are in place - the costume, the spit-curl, and so on - if one or both of these two bedrock elements are missing, our mind rebels; we instinctively reject it. It's just not Superman." (p. 3)

I realize that some will argue that Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman have these themes as well, but I just really feel that action set pieces have been privileged over those themes to the point that the themes are underdeveloped, and the story feels like it's missing something important. In my mind, Zach Snyder really wants to tell these stories, but I'm not sure he's skilled enough to do so.

To conclude, in much the same way that CW's Arrow is a disguised version of Batman for TV, Supergirl is doing the same for Superman.  I find it even more interesting that due to lower than hoped for ratings, CBS declined to renew the series on its own network, but allowed it to be picked up by the CW, where it is a more natural fit alongside other series like Arrow, The Flash, and DC's Legends of Tomorrow. I can only hope that we see more crossovers now, as the one featuring the Flash was a lot of fun, even if it wasn't the best story. 

Reeve, Christopher: Secret Origins: The Story of DC Comics (video), 2010

Tye, Larry. Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. 2012 Random House

Weldon, Glen. Superman: The Unauthorized Biography. 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, NJ