Captain America: The First Avengerby Kavish Chetty / 05.08.2011
The commercial cinema circuit exhausts my critical repertoire very quickly. If film review is – as is overarchingly the consensus amongst newspapers and magazines – just an evaluative exercise, then your task is under no threat: just pleasantly and inoffensively critique an endless parade of casts, characters and stakes. They may all be structurally similar, but they swap out enough surface elements to keep you knee-deep in press passes. If you’re trying for something thematic – atmospheric even – you’re going to find yourself staggering along on fumes. How many inventive ways are there to connect some cinematic artefact to the greater lurches of late capitalist society? How many original perspectives on lamenting mediocrity, and the age which makes it not only possible, but frankly delicious and lucrative?
These are not rhetorical questions because the answer is blunt and boring: a few. If you’re dragged deep into a glut of superhero movies, eventually the critical arsenal wears itself out and the only remarkable thing you’re left with is narrative. I despise narrative reviews because there are only three possible endings. They may bloat themselves up with a hundred digressions – this guy does that, she looks like this, his dialogue went south, the plot had a twist – but these are all leading to a final reception which is good, bad or lukewarm. This is an anachronistic box-office journalism. The sovereignty of critics has waned to a sliver. The audience will make their own minds up and they don’t need some weasel with a film degree up his ass legislating on matters of taste and subjectivity.
Captain America has already been slid through the Anglo-American critical machine and when all the incuriously similar opinions are yoked together into one mighty judgment, it comes out like this: “With plenty of pulpy action, a pleasantly retro vibe, and a handful of fine performances, Captain America is solidly old-fashioned blockbuster entertainment.” Thrumming in this is the idea that we neatly divide cultural products up into two decisive categories: art and entertainment. To art belongs the terrain of the provocative and the existential, and we assess this accordingly. And to entertainment, we apply a rubric which accounts for its inoffensiveness and thrill. It’s not that “entertainment” is judged less harshly and cruises along with a pardon from the severer critics; it’s that it operates under a distinct set of principles because it’s all about having fun, being entertained.
We seem to have an endless fascination for this ability to be entertained, because blockbuster cinema has converged on about five different tropes and it feeds us the same old bullshit over and over again. The fact that Captain America is acclaimed even though it is familiar (which is to say unoriginal) and totally status quo tells us something about what we have been taught to value in this world: entertainment. In aggregate, we evidently want to be entertained, not provoked – popcorn, Slush Puppies, action, pendulous tits, special effects, excesses, shattering of records; a certain numbness to dull the anxiety of modern life and prevent it from irrupting too dreadfully into our mechanistic existences. This is the point at which I would ask whether art and entertainment ever were really distinct, or whether both are really just ideological projects, one of which has become so naturalised that its failings are not just enjoyed, but slurped up and guzzled.
But it’s almost impossible to make this argument without sounding like some kind of pleasureless, monkish aberration. What sort of killjoy motherfucker wishes to banish entertainment from our world? Captain America is properly solid entertainment; it’s enjoyable, lighthearted, unserious – another in a sequence of apparently necessary and adored distractions which keep us going. It plumbs the old myths for content: Captain America – or Steven Rogers (played by Chris Evans) – is the living embodiment of the American dream, and any number of Obama-esque “yes-you-can!” aphorisms. At the dawn of the Second World War in a parallel history of the 20th century, Rogers is a wimpish and inconsequential ectomorph with no lover, no friends and no future. But goddamnit if the boy doesn’t have his principles! Because he’s able to demonstrate that he’s “good on the inside”, our everyman hero gets a special serum injected into his veins and turns into a boundlessly muscular, good-looking, dexterous and proficient super-soldier. He’s now ready to combat the Nazis, have a stock-standard love affair with a woman and save the world. And remember, all you marginal and abject souls of the world: Rogers was just like you!
So that’s what Captain America is. It’s got superb retro set designs (a kind of re-imagined art deco universe with bizarre technology), it doesn’t take itself seriously at all – thereby inoculating itself from some of the main criticisms one could thrust in the face of say, X-Men: First Class – and it is just two hours’ worth of campy, action-packed ‘romp’ (and I say that with my tongue jammed firmly in my cheek). I mean, if you were going to play the game properly, the only way to criticise this thing would be to say that is doesn’t have any nudity in it. So, at no point is there the promise of a flagging narrative getting the two-tits treatment. What I’m trying to say here is that, as we’ve emblazoned “entertainment” on Captain America’s bullish forehead, any opinion of the film pretty much ceases to make any fucking difference, because it’s considered null and void before it even screened to the test audience.
This appears to leave film criticism in a rather precarious position – because when it comes to the cinema of distraction, I see no reason why Roger Ebert or Rex Reed should be better suited to judge a film than you or I am (essentially, why they should be able to tell you what you will be entertained by). All film critics are engaged in a normative business – when we say what we like or dislike, we’re promoting an agenda for what we think should be valued in our society. And now that we’ve reached the point where Captain America and his gang of mutant side-kicks are supremely valued for their ability to entertain us, what the hell does it actually matter what anyone thinks? As long as a film disguises its own spoor – which lead inevitably to the bank accounts of pulp scriptwriters and gluttonous producers – and is as offensive as is possible under its ideological conditions, it enters the truly democratic free-for-all world of entertainment.
Actually cutting ourselves off from this phenomenon is like asking someone to slash off a limb of theirs trapped under a boulder that they can’t feel is on them. So go ahead and enjoy Captain America: it’s got its numerous faults and problems, but it works altogether. In other words, after a long re-route, my verdict is: lukewarm.