Within Marvel Studios’ catalogue, Captain America: Winter Soldier is one I consider to be their best. The reason being that it managed to be about something of import — in fact, it was about many things of import. It wasn’t just a bunch of gaudily-dressed crime-fighters who talked in Whedonesque quips while fighting a villain who does villainous things ‘cause reasons. The film dealt with the dubious morality of warfare in modern times, the increasing prevalence of a surveillance state (“This isn’t freedom, this is fear.”), that soldiers are treated as expendable commodities by bellicose politicians with nothing to lose and everything to gain, that democratic institutions have been slowly sabotaged by the interests of disaster capitalists, and (more relevant than ever before) how we’ve let fascist ideology continue and grow in the shadows by acting as if it ceased to exist long ago.
All of that is far more meaningful than anything in the other films, an overglorified series of bells and whistles with little else on their mind (even when claiming otherwise like Guardians of the Galaxy’s supposed theme of “family” — but I’ll go into that another time). That the narrative was centered on Captain America made it more profound because he represents the United States at its most ideal and optimistic. After having slept through so many decades he finds himself lost and confused by the cynicism, deceit, and opportunism that is prevalent in our socio-political landscape presently. The fact he was not around to keep it from happening, being quite literally frozen in time, gnaws at his conscious and what drives his actions throughout the plot. He may’ve not been able to stop it then but, by God, he was going to now…
It was why I looked forward to Luke Cage as much as I did. If there’s any superhero that needed a live-action adaptation with this kind of social commentary, it would be Luke Cage. He’s a proud black man who is bulletproof and, gee, isn’t that topical? I was more than ready for a neo-blaxploitation series where someone of a marginalized group used their newfound powers to fight back against racist cops and the businessmen who profited from their suffering. To put it another way: I wanted to see the physical embodiment of the Black Lives Matter movement on-screen. If Captain America represented the U.S. as a nation at its best, Luke Cage could represent the need for social upheaval when the U.S. fails as a nation.
Except that wasn’t the case at all. It was something far worse — an ode to respectability politics. But what, exactly, are “respectability politics”? As described by the Wikipedia page on the topic:
“[A]ttempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as its failure to accept difference[…]was practiced as a way of attempting to consciously set aside and undermine cultural and moral practices thought to be disrespected by wider society, especially in the context of the family and good manners.”
In essence, it is about those among the marginalized (black individuals in this case) trying to appease the more privileged and affluent of society (who are almost entirely white) rather than challenging and perhaps changing mainstream social values for the benefit of all. It is the assumption that the marginalized are still marginalized not due to economic or political roadblocks based on discrimination but because of their own behavior. That an unwillingness to not just assimilate and behave no differently to mainstream sensibilities (even when they’re outdated horseshit traditionalized by those who’ve never suffered a day in their lives) is the source of further oppression, not those who had been responsible for such going on centuries now. Obviously, it’s quite appealing to many right-wingers and centrists who just so happen to be white — alleviating responsibility and admittance of a system skewed in their favor…
It’s not because the show starts off with the titular character taking issue with another black individual using the N-word, a legitimate grievance given its historical usage, but that does set a precedence. So many scenes involve older individuals speaking condescendingly to youths about “responsibility” that goes beyond simple intergenerational tensions. There’s this notion that those youths take part in criminal activities not because it may be their only way out of poverty, next to joining the NBA or becoming a rap/hip-hop star, but as a lifestyle choice. That, somehow, they’d become doctors or politicians or CEOs if they just rejected any form of criminality and “worked hard.” Nevermind how many actually get stuck “working hard” at several dead-end jobs at once in order to barely pay for food and shelter until the end of their miserable life. Though Luke Cage does the same during the series — he’s not “uppity” about it and doesn’t complain. There’s something incredibly naïve about all its finger-wagging by ignoring such real-life scenarios. It dismisses the myriad of disadvantages that community has faced and still faces whenever it’s inconvenient, pushing this disingenuous idea of meritocracy that white people love so goddamn much these days. An idea that, as of yet, has never been explained to me properly or consistently as to what does or does not constitute as “merit” — probably because human beings are biased in favor of behaviors they personally prize (or, more accurately, are socially conditioned to prize).
This is reflected in how Luke Cage is portrayed as a character, with the show going out of its way to make him as inoffensive and good-natured as possible. It reminds me of how a friend brought up his problem with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the form of Sidney Poitier’s John Prentice, as he was without flaw or vice and didn’t feel like a real person. That it made the whole conflict involving his soon-to-be in-laws less meaningful because they’re given no reason to dislike him other than he’s a black man. Like many in-laws they could use any reason to dismiss their daughter’s fiance, the fact he is black would enable them to hide their racial prejudices behind “reasonable concerns” whenever flaws became apparent. I disagreed with my friend then but I’m definitely in agreement now after this show. Luke Cage isn’t only well-spoken and well-read and always personable, but had a holy man for a father and was a cop prior to his false imprisonment (you can’t have really committed a crime and still be a good person, apparently, unless you’re Ant-Man). In flashbacks, he’s shown as completely unlike all the other stereotypical black criminals incarcerated with him and better for it. When ending up a fugitive on the run, given opportunities anyone else in the same situation would take, he refuses to do anything morally questionable in the slightest to make his life easier.
Such behavior, back in the 1950’s, would be given the underhanded compliment of “you’re a credit to your people, son.” Luke Cage feels less like a flesh-and-blood human being with both admirable and ignoble qualities than a ridiculously contrived paragon of virtue that no one in reality resembles and likely never will. Which is kind of weird, when considering how the other Defenders-related series do not have that same issue. Why is it that Matt Murdock can agonize over his bloodlust clashing with his Catholic morality and Jessica Jones can be a psychologically dysfunctional alcoholic due to mind-control trauma (equated with rape because of course it fucking is), but Luke Cage can’t have demons that tempt him or vulnerabilities that can compromise his principles on the same level? Maybe it’s because, on average, a white person having some personality or character flaw is tolerated and can make them seem more “complex” — but a black individual’s indiscretions are harshly scrutinized, despite being comparable to their white counterparts, to the point their behavior is heavily sanitized. That’s why the overrated and overused Tony Stark can be a vainglorious, self-involved, dishonest drunk who regularly makes an ass out of himself but still be “awesome” regardless. James Rhodes, on the other hand, is a bland tag-along who functions as a nagging hausfrau and damsel in distress at one point — due to doubting Stark whatsoever. Y’know, ’cause a man who gets shit-faced and urinates in his power-armor at a large party is someone who should be treated with nothing but credulity…
In fact, the whole show could be best described as “the credit to his people vs. the thug culture” in order to be almost sycophantic towards white police officers in the U.S. (“Blue Lives Matter!”) by rarely ever showing them in the wrong. There are but two openly racist white cops featured and only one of them is ever verbally acknowledged as such. The other? His comments are treated like verbal horseplay and, when revealed to be corrupt, ends up shown as a victim to a black criminal’s betrayal. There’s another scene where a black youth is brought in for questioning and beaten by an angry cop who is… also black. The most egregious instance is at the end of the season where Misty Knight is berated by a superior over a mistake she made and for not “trusting the system.” As wretched as it is that Misty’s superior is also a black woman, the fact such a statement is made while never acknowledging that same system disadvantages them as both black and female once was unforgivable.
We’re talking about a system where black individuals are incarcerated more often than their white counterparts for similar criminal activities, where (often white) cops use unwarranted lethal force on unarmed black individuals both young and old, and lets those same cops off the hook for such an abuse of power than sufficiently punished. Then there was that whole period where slavery was legal and encouraged (Thomas Jefferson sure loved it…also “freedom”!), then another hundred years of second-citizenhood via Jim Crow before the Civil Rights Movement. But, sure, just trust that system despite having failed that group time and time again. ’Cause it’ll work itself out eventually or something…right?
But then there’s this scene.
Where was this, for all that time? Why wasn’t this scene the entire attitude of the show? Method Man even references Trayvon Martin and connects it to the hoodies that Luke Cage wears throughout, becoming a symbol of solidarity among those in Harlem. It’s also the closest the show comes to being critical about the police and their tactics. Cops are mocked for harassing those in bullet-riddled hoodies (‘cause “they all look alike”) and ridiculed further by others displaying the attire proudly to them, a reminder they’re wasting time and effort chasing a framed man than the real culprit (it’s certainly happened before and even involved our current U.S. President — just look at the Central Park Five…).
The fact this was only one scene and not representative of the rest infuriated me, because it should be. This is a perfect example of how Marvel Studios employs diversity as a shield to cover up regressive attitudes, that they get their cake and eat it too without anyone noticing and making a fuss. They want to act like they’re “with it,” name-dropping prominent figures in African-American history and culture or having a character do a monologue about Biggie “Notorious B.I.G.” Smalls, but then turn around and demand we respect U.S. law enforcement the same way right-wing proponents of the Second Gulf War guilt-tripped others with “support the troops.”
Why does all of this bother me? Why do I care that much about any of this? Why not just ignore it all?
Ultimately, it’s the waste of talent and potential.
It is absurd how good the casting and technical aspects in some of the films and series are, to not only manage getting actors who are spot on in their roles but have an audio-visual flair that comes with the right editing, cinematography, lighting, etc. Yet it is usually done in service of narratives that are overblown, tensionless spectacles and are disingenuous enough to use in-house ads in the form of “references” or “Easter eggs.” They’ll entertain some good ideas that should be developed more but either toss them aside, forget about them entirely, or keep teasing at it like a carrot dangling at the end of a stick. They’ll pay lip service to more profound themes without actually exploring them in a substantial matter. They could be better, they certainly have the means, but they choose not to and that’s far worse than just being bad.
Speaking of which, for next time: I explain Marvel Studios formula, its overuse, and how it makes the films increasingly interchangeable and mediocre as a result.
[Originally posted on 11/25/17 @ Medium.com]