Monthly Archives: June 2015

Spotlight: Avengers – Captain America/Steve Rogers

Captain America

“Avengers Assemble!”

You know, readers, it was not that long ago that I had no idea who Cap was. My first taste of Marvel stories were TV shows about the X-Men and/or Spider-Man. Cap showed up very rarely in either set of storylines, so his adventures and character were never really explored. After all, in a TV series about the X-Men or Spider-Man, the show is going to revolve around them and their particular friends, enemies, and problems. There is not much room in such a story for guys like Cap (let alone all the other Avengers).

Then the first Iron Man film hit theaters. I did not pay much attention to it at the time beyond learning that Iron Man was not the robot I had thought he was for years. (Like Cap, he never got much screen time in X-Men/Spider-Man TV series. And when he did show up, he always wore his armor. Secret Identities were all the rage back in the 1990s, unlike today.) I heard about Iron Man 2, which the media were crowing about after it hit theaters, but I somehow missed out on all the hype over Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger.

Then I heard about The Avengers. By this point, I had begun researching some old comics I had picked up. Most of them were X-Men comics, with a couple (literally) of Spider-Man stories. These were old news to me, in a way, but the few comics I had with the Avengers in them were hard to understand. I knew who Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were (thank-you, X-Men TV series), but Hawkeye was an unknown and Cap I knew only slightly. He was from World War II, and that was all I could tell you about him.

So I did the only thing a curious person could do. I started looking up these Avengers. One of the first I looked up was Captain America – and it was not long before I discovered that Cap was a character I could support on practically everything.

It is hard to describe Cap. This is not because, as his numerous critics like to say, he has a character as colorless as plain glass. I suppose part of what makes Steve Rogers/Captain America so hard to discuss in terms of personality is the fact that he consistently makes the right choice, all the time, every day. And he does it in such a way that readers/viewers are always aware of how he makes his decisions.

No matter the situation, no matter the danger, no matter the temptation to take the “easy way” out of a crisis, Steve does not swerve from his moral compass. “This is right, this is wrong,” he says.

In this writer’s opinion, no other character in modern literature – with the exception of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings trilogy – has been written in this way. At some point, every other hero has weakened, made a compromise with his moral compass, or taken a nosedive over a moral cliff, only to claw his way back up to “hero status.” Superman may come close to Cap’s record, but I stopped paying attention to him a few years ago, so I cannot comment on him very well.

This is why so many people love Captain America. And this is why so many other people hate him. This is shown when they call him a “Boy Scout,” “old-fashioned,” or – my personal favorite – “idealistic.” On top of this Cap is the embodiment of everything that makes the U.S. great. He defends the weak, fights for truth, justice, freedom, and he never gives up.

It may sound clichéd and dry, readers, but it is true. There are people who still will tell you that Cap is “not so great.” That he “hardly has any personality,” or that people only notice him “because [he] wears a flag on [his] chest and thinks [he] fights a battle of nations!” Even Chris Evans, the man who portrays Cap in Marvel’s wildly popular Avengers’ themed films, downplays Steve Rogers as a “dry” personality. What is so interesting about Cap?

Uh, how about everything?

In an age when the United States of America and everything good it was founded on is belittled and hated, from within and without, any character that embodies the U.S. is disparaged for the simple reason that they are American. The talking heads howl endlessly that, “America has made huge mistakes! America has problems! Our country isn’t worth loving!”

Yes, the United States has problems, which I am as aware of as anyone else who lives here. Yes, we have made mistakes, and a number of them have been blatant, horrible lapses in our public consciousness of right and wrong. Looking at this resume of faults, I feel close to tears, and I was not even alive for most of these events. That does not mean that I feel those national mistakes any less keenly than if I had lived through them all, and I can believe that a lot of people hate us for them.

And I know that Cap feels the weight of America’s mistakes, too: “When I went under, the world was at war. I wake up, they say we won. They didn’t say what we lost.” He saw the America he loved united and fighting for the survival of the world, not just for its own survival, when he went into the ice. Then he wakes up seventy or more years later to an America that is self-obsessed, petulant, despairing, fractured, and under attack.

But he does not throw in the towel on his country, like a lot of people today want to do. He puts on his uniform and goes out to do what he did back in the Great War: he fights for the values his country was founded on, he fights for his people, and he fights to make sure the world can survive so that it can go on forging its destiny. That last part is the hardest battle because, after defeating threats from space, Cap still has to deal with the haters, tyrants, and other evil people who live here on good old terra firma.

Although the U.S. has made mistakes and is in trouble, and seemingly going through the “terrible teens,” Cap does not give up on it. He does not give up on the hope that the country he loves will turn itself around. Which brings me to the other thing about Captain America that people love and people hate: he never gives up hope. No matter the grimness of the situation, no matter how hard and hopeless the battle becomes, Cap still hopes that everything will turn out all right – even if he and his teammates may not live to see it.

In this way, Cap also resembles Aragorn. Growing up, Aragorn lived in Rivendell under Elrond and his people’s care. In Imladris – Rivendell – his true heritage, his real name, were completely hidden from him. Elrond, instead of calling him Aragorn, named him Estel in his youth. In Elvish, Estel means “hope.” And throughout his long years battling orcs, men, and Sauron, Aragorn never lost hope that the evil in Mordor could be defeated. The appendix to The Return of the King, which tells his and Arwen’s story, says that hope was “like a spring” inside him, and laughter and mirth would bubble up at the most unexpected times, startling his friends and enemies alike.

The same description could easily be applied to Captain America. Despite every battle wound, every act of evil by people like Thanos, Galactus, or Henry Peter Gyrich, Cap still keeps going. And at the seemingly oddest times, he will suddenly start laughing, and point out a weakness that his enemy thought was well hidden. Cap knows himself and the world very well. But he knows and still has hope. And that is a great tipping point in any battle, for as Napoleon said, “A leader is a dealer in hope.”

These are the reasons why I think Cap is the greatest Marvel hero, and these are the reasons why he is one of my favorite Marvel characters. He is all-American, always good, always makes the right decision, all the time. And he never, EVER quits – or gives up hope.

If I had to face all the evil that Cap directly battles before sitting down to breakfast, I would probably quit. When looking out over the U.S. in its current state, I do feel like giving up. What in the world am I going to do to make a difference? I am one small person, with one small voice, that nearly no one can hear. What good can I do?

Not as much as Cap, I have to say. But I think he would smile at that – and probably laugh a little at it, too. He would probably tell me and others like me, “Why do you think you have to do lots of big, important things to change the world? Small things don’t seem like much, especially from the point of view of the person doing them. But do you think we got where we are – with the good and the bad – by doing big things? Some of us have done big things to change the world, that’s true. But most of us just do the small things. And those small things, all added together, make a bigger difference in the world in the long run than the greater accomplishments do. Sometimes, they even help the great accomplishments to occur.”

And he would be right to tell me that.   If Cap was a real man, and if I was someone who could follow him into a fight, I would. He is the kind of leader I wish we had. And I know I am not the only one who wishes he was a real man. If I were, then the Avengers’ and the Captain America movies would not be nearly as popular as they are.

Excelsior!

The Mithril Guardian

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Being a Victim

For a long time, maybe even since the stormy night of her eighth birthday and the frenzied palmetto beetle, she’d known that being a victim was often a choice people made. As a child, she hadn’t been able to put this insight into words, and she hadn’t known why so many people chose suffering; when older, she had recognized their self-hatred, masochism, weakness.

Not all or even most suffering is at the hands of fate; it befalls us at our invitation.

She’d always chosen not to be victimized, to resist and fight back, to hold on to hope and dignity and faith in the future. But victimhood was seductive, a release from responsibility and caring: Fear would be transmuted into weary resignation; failure would no longer generate guilt but, instead, would spawn a comforting self-pity. – Intensity by Dean Koontz.

Happy Father’s Day!

Fathers. They are not thought on very much today. In some ways, their position has gotten a worse rap than motherhood. Yes, some of them are downright subhuman, but so are some mothers. (Catherine the Great was not very well thought of by her illegitimate son, Paul, who became Czar after her death. He even passed a law prohibiting women from ruling Russia when he came to the throne.)

Yet fathers have a difficult job, too. No, they do not always have to change the baby, or care for the sick children in the family. No, they do not have to do the dishes or the laundry every day. But then, it is no easy job to earn enough money to pay the bills, buy groceries and clothes, and purchase Christmas presents either. And many fathers have that situation facing them every morning.

I have heard some say that fathers are mysterious. To some extent, this is true. But why are fathers so mysterious?

“Well, they aren’t around all the time;” “They aren’t as understanding as mothers;” or “They’re always busy.”

All right. But why?

Fathers are not around all the time because it is their duty to provide for the family. In circumstances where the reverse is true, then the mother is mysterious and the father more familiar. By and large, however, fathers are not always nearby and/or are always busy because someone has to support the family. Often, that job belongs to the father.

As for fathers not being as understanding as mothers, my experience tells me that is pure balderdash. No, not everyone has had my experience, but this I know: Fathers can be as understanding as any mother with their children. Sometimes they can even be more understanding than a mother can.

I have nothing that specifically celebrates Father’s Day, but through these two songs below I can express my sentiments:

“Butterfly Kisses”

“Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)”

These songs do not describe a father for everyone, I know. But they articulate my feelings on fathers perfectly.

Happy Father’s Day!

Later,

The Mithril Guardian

Book Review: The Ballad of the White Horse

Here again I speak of a favorite author just lately mentioned, readers. G. K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse was recommended to me a long time ago, but only recently did I download a copy of the Ballad to read it.

I enjoyed it immensely but found that my Gutenberg.org edition lacked footnotes to clarify some of Chesterton’s poetry. So I hunted up a hard copy of the book (I usually prefer hardcopies of books or papers anyway) and bought it, determined to better understand what I found to be such joyful reading.

The Ballad of the White Horse, by G. K. Chesterton, tells the story of King Alfred’s battle against the Danes who had invaded England. Alfred was a king dispossessed and in hiding; should the Danes find him, England’s only hope of driving the enemy from her soil would vanish.

It is unimportant how historically accurate The Ballad is to both the author and to me; suffice it to say that Alfred was a king of England and he did drive the Danes from his kingdom – quite heroically, too. Chesterton shows us Alfred hiding from the Danes on the island of Athelney, feeling despair creep over him. His people are scattered or under the yoke of the Danes, his armies destroyed, and his remaining chieftains hold their own territory free of the Danes – but that is all they can do. His situation is looking grimmer by the day.

Then he sees a vision of the Virgin Mary who tells him, “I tell you naught for your comfort/Yea, naught for your desire/Save that the sky grows darker yet/ And the sea rises higher.” Mary adds to her warning: “Do you have faith without a cause/ Yea, faith without a hope?” In other words, Alfred is not told whether he will fail or win, only that he must try to defeat the Danes.

Thus inspired, Alfred heads out to find and rally his chieftains: Mark the Roman, Eldred the Franklin, and Colan the Gael.

On a personal note, of the three chieftains I like Colan best – primarily for the reason Chesterton states here:

“For the great Gaels of Ireland

Are the men that God made mad,

For all their wars are merry,

And all their songs are sad.”

I myself have Irish lineage, though I will say no more of that. But I will take this verse – and others in The Ballad – as compliments high and fair to that race of which I claim a small part.

The final battle against the Danes goes hard; all three chieftains are lost but Alfred does gain the day, and becomes king of England once again. I would recommend to anyone who desires to read the poem to buy a book with footnotes – reliable footnotes – so that they can better understand the Ballad. Apart from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the Ballad is one of the few works of fiction I will not part with.

A last word, readers. The white horse geoglyph, which does exist and lies carved into a mound in England, is mentioned throughout the Ballad as a recurring theme for the story. During the course of the Ballad, the white horse is used to suggest the transcendent.

As Alfred points out to the king of the invading Danes, Guthrum, destruction is not as wonderful as the Danes make it out to be. Things naturally rot away or crumble back into the earth. Even the White Horse geoglyph disappears under weeds and thorns every year. And it would stay there, lost to history, if it were not scoured annually. Therefore, which is the greater power? he asks. Destruction or preservation?

The answer is pretty obvious; with decay a part of nature, the fact that anything can be preserved through millennia is astounding.

But preservation is no easy task. As Alfred says near the end of the poem:

“Will ye part with the weeds for ever?

Or show daisies to the door?

Or will you bid the bold grass

Go, and return no more?

“And though the skies alter and empires melt,

This word shall still be true:

If we would have the horse of old,

Scour ye the horse anew.”

So, readers, if we would have the good of old, the good we know and love today, in order to keep it tomorrow and into ever after – “If we would have the horse of old” – then we must “scour the White Horse anew.” Time after weary time, battle after exhausting battle, we must fight the “Long Defeat” as Tolkien named it, if we wish to see the victory.

I have a scouring brush. Feel free to join me and the others fighting the “Long Defeat” whenever you wish. 😉

Later,

The Mithril Guardian

Pity and Mercy Can Make All the Difference

It seemed to Frodo then that he heard, quite plainly but far off, voices out of the past:

            What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature when he had the chance!

            Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.

            I do not feel any pity for Gollum. He deserves death.

            Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.

“Very well,” he answered aloud, lowering his sword. “But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.” – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Chapter Twelve (Chapter One of Book Four): The Taming of Sméagol by J. R. R. Tolkien

Spotlight: The Winter Soldier

If you read a post I wrote last year called “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” then you know I saw and enjoyed the film for which the post is named. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has to be one of the best “buddy movies” I have seen in ages!

Why do I call The Winter Soldier a “buddy movie”? Well, for starters, Cap is the ultimate best buddy. He will never leave a man behind if he can help it. And in The Winter Soldier he meets another fellow with the same “buddy” mindset: Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon.

Although they have not met each other prior to this, Cap and Falcon hit it off very quickly. Recognizing that the other has seen battle and understands the way it changes a man’s perspective on life, the two almost immediately fall into “battle brother” mode. They identify with each other, and can speak together about things other people would not appreciate.

What also helps each man relate well to the other is the fact that they have both lost previous “battle brothers.” Sam’s fellow paratrooper was killed midair by an RPG, while Steve lost Bucky on a HYDRA train ride. But only one loss proves to be physically permanent. Sam’s buddy, Riley, is most definitely dead. Bucky, unknown to Cap, is certainly alive.

And he is out to kill his best friend.

This brings me to the moments in the film which greatly impressed me. The first is Bucky’s encounter with Cap in the streets of D.C. It is a hard fight – I think I might have held my breath while watching it! Cap finds himself fighting a man who is his match in skill and strength. He has fought other tough guys before (Thor and Loki) and held his own. But he has not had to think, react, and fight in quite this way since he last faced the Red Skull, a fellow Super Soldier.

The fight is disorienting for Bucky as well. Cap’s startled recognition of him at the end of the battle stirs Bucky’s buried memories, and Cap has matched the Winter Soldier in hand-to-hand combat. According to Natasha, the Winter Soldier has never failed to kill his target – even shooting through her to do it once. So it may be safe to say Bucky came to feel he was somewhat unbeatable during his long years of servitude to HYDRA.

But Cap would not die. He stood up to the worst Bucky had to throw at him and survived. Cap is Bucky’s equal in combat. Which is part of what seems to confuse Bucky early on – no one is supposed to be the Winter Soldier’s peer in combat!

His target – Cap – should not have met Bucky blow for blow but should have messed up, been too slow, or not seen a blow coming. However, he did not. Cap saw everything coming, matched the Winter Soldier’s speed and skill with his own, and took punches that had knocked down hundreds of other men before him. He is Bucky’s equal.

That shakes Bucky from his professional detachment. It is not just the disturbing memories Cap stirs up nor the fact that HYDRA will not give him a straight answer about Cap’s identity. They are his handlers; they are only supposed to supply him with targets, not answers. Cap survived his attacks. Twice – once at his apartment and a second time in the streets of Washington, D.C. The Winter Soldier has never left a target alive. Any target who fought back, as Cap did, fought a losing battle. The Winter Soldier was unbeatable.

But Cap held him at bay.

The next scene to get my attention came after Cap, bleeding and bruised, goes back to save Bucky. He works his way across the crashing Helicarrier toward his best friend, and then lifts the fallen rafter (which has to be twice as heavy as it would normally feel to Cap now, because of his injuries) high enough so Bucky can scoot out from beneath it.

Watching Bucky during this scene was great. You can see he is puzzled by Cap’s actions. He is here to kill this man, but this man is helping him. He is saving his life, though he knows it could cost him his own. This behavior is anathema to the Winter Soldier’s programmed thinking. Bucky has never gone back to save an enemy. He leaves them to die. All HYDRA operatives do that.

But not this man. Not Cap.

Bucky’s expression also suggests that he perceives, faintly, that there is something familiar about his target’s gesture of friendship. Something he should know, something he does know but which he has been forced to forget by HYDRA.

Yet the Soldier does not want to think about this strange idea. He does not want to dwell on the fact that what his target is doing is right because it means his whole worldview is wrong. It is not hard to imagine the battle going on inside his head. I would think it might have gone something like this:

He’s doing the right thing. I wouldn’t have done it. HYDRA wouldn’t let me do it. They’d say it was weakness to save an enemy. This is weird.

It can’t REALLY be right. Missions come first. Targets don’t do this. They die. I kill them. It makes the world a better place.

But he’s still helping me. I remember that what he’s doing is…is right, somehow. And I know him. I know this. It IS right!

But…but it can’t be right! Because…if it is…then what I’ve been doing all these years is WRONG!!! It CAN’T be wrong! I can’t be wrong!

Some might say Cap‘s entrance into Bucky’s internal debate was poorly timed. I think it more likely that it may have been timed just right. He starts pushing his friend into the memories HYDRA has done their best to erase. If Cap does not awaken his true memory now, then he may never get another chance to do it. He may lose Bucky again, this time forever. “You know me!” he tells the other man.

From there on, Bucky’s internal battle is paralleled by his physical attacks on Cap. He cannot fight his mind, but he can fight Cap. So he hits him, shouting, “No I DON’T!”

But is it Cap he is trying to prove wrong in this fight, or himself?

Cap knows Bucky is fighting with himself. He knows his old friend is confused, lost, and disorientated. He knows that the confusion, after all these years of programming, frightens Bucky and has left him scrabbling to reorient himself. He also knows that he will not fight his friend to the death, only to an awakening.

Cap drops his defenses. When he does, the memories Bucky has of him come back even stronger than before. He gets angrier. He cannot be wrong. His mission is his life, the only thing that gives him purpose. He has to finish it, or he is nothing at all.

He keeps fighting his memories, taking it out on Cap in the form of brutal punches which the other man does nothing to block. “You’re – my – MISSION!” he shouts.

“Then finish it,” Cap says, seemingly unperturbed. “’Cause I’m with you to the end of the line.”

That does it. Bucky’s eyes widen after Cap repeats an affirmation of trust and friendship Bucky gave him decades ago. The look in Bucky’s eyes after Cap finishes speaking is wild, almost insane, as the memories of his past come crashing in on him and shatter the “order” HYDRA forced on him. After all this time, he is finally beginning to recall himself.

However, it is only a beginning. Bucky has recalled himself, but only in a small way. A crack has opened in the “order” HYDRA programmed him with, but it is only a crack in the wall. Such cracks need to be widened, and that takes time. And time is what he and Cap do not have at the moment.

His reawakened memory holds him back and stops the final blow on Cap. But his rigid immobility, temporary as it is, also means he cannot move or make a coherent decision. He is trapped between his programming and his old memories, the same way Frodo was pinned between Sauron’s and Gandalf’s separate wills in The Fellowship of the Ring. Except, where Frodo remembered that he could choose what he would do, Bucky is too confused to choose a course of action.

Until the Helicarrier starts to fall apart and his base instinct for self-preservation kicks in. Bucky saves himself as the bottom of the Carrier drops away, taking Cap with it. But he knows he cannot let the man who has broken his HYDRA programming die. So he dives into the Potomac River and hauls Cap out, then looks down at him to ensure he is still alive.

Bucky knows now that he and Cap were friends a long time ago. But he cannot stay and pick up their friendship. He has changed while Cap has not, and to pretend he has not changed is impossible. Also, Bucky must come to terms with what he has done as a HYDRA operative. He is messed up. He is dangerous (he probably has the worst case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Marvel history – or any history!). In this state he cannot stay to reform his friendship with Cap. He has to relearn who he is first.

So he leaves and goes to look himself up in a Smithsonian Institute exhibit built to commemorate Cap and the Howling Commandos. And we are left to wonder: is he remembering his past at last?

Or is he taking what others have to say about his past self as a medicine so bitter that it could poison him again, but in a different way than HYDRA did?

The fact that Sebastian Stan was able to pull off his part in Captain America: The Winter Soldier by saying nearly nothing is amazing to me. And he had to portray his character almost entirely by facial expressions, since the Winter Soldier expresses himself almost exclusively through action, not words, in the second Captain America film. I was very impressed with his performance.

What do you think about all this, readers? Did I get Bucky right in this post or not? I hope I did. I would not want to disappoint his best friend by mistreating him again. Cap would not like that much, though I think I would be in less trouble than HYDRA was!

Later,

The Mithril Guardian