Noah and Captain America: No Empty Tents

I don’t expect much from most movies anymore.

In this “tentpole” age, the primary goal seems to be distraction. Distraction from things we don’t want to think about … global warming, the Ukraine, growing corporate monopolies, terrorism, etc.

Original Film Poster for 42nd Street
Original Film Poster for 42nd Street

This isn’t such a new thing … after all, 42nd Street was all about distraction from the Great Depression. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers and that maestro, Busby Berkeley, were geniuses at keeping audiences thinking about things other than bank failures.

Today’s films shy away from tenors, the Great American Songbook and plucky chorus girls in mechanized dance formations. Instead,  they give us action, CGI, more action, twists on iconic and/or familiar characters (even better if non-copyrighted), more CGI still more action, still more CGI, a dash or more of sex and/or romance, violence (cartoonish or visceral, depending), and the promise of being able to continue our distraction off-screen by buying a spin-off product.

They are also far more global products than their Golden Era predecessors, more dependent on the box office in Shanghai than in Dubuque. Their aimed appeal, in fact, is so broad that dilution and vacuity is often collateral damage.

A film that "awoke America's conscience!"
A film that “awoke America’s conscience!”

To protect against this, sometimes everything inside the tent is  just thrown out … any content, meaning or intelligence. What we’re left with are poles, and very little else.

Of course, not every film in the thirties bore a message, sought to open dialog or offered insightful commentary. But in an era that churned out hundreds of films a year, talented directors, screenwriters and producers were still able to create a Gabriel Over the White House or I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang or Fury. And this despite the noose of censorship and (even then) dangerous, repressive political waters.

So, given the recent track record of the tentpole era, I was surprised and happy to watch two films with thought-provoking (even subversive!) content do well at the box-office, supply the needed distraction, and still offer rich content between the poles: Noah and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Noah PosterAfter reading reviews, I expected something from the former—after all, wrestling with an ancient chapter of the Judeo-Christian belief system should demand something more than modern Cecil B. DeMille-level showmanship.

I was not disappointed. Noah seeks to reconcile the contrary messages of Old and New Testament (the vengeful, capricious deity of Job with the embodiment of a deity of mercy), question and criticize man’s malignant “dominion” over earth while casting an admiring eye on his pride, drive and ingenuity, explore issues of pure ideology, human will and human responsibility, and ultimately ask what happens when obedience (to a god or ideology) and individual mercy/morals intersect.

The poster is reminiscent of 1989's Batman ... the film is not.
The poster is reminiscent of 1989’s Batman … the film is not.

The latter point intersects with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which I found to be the single most provocative super-hero movie I’ve seen. It asks tougher questions and comes to more profound conclusions than Christopher Nolan’s much-acclaimed Batman trilogy, and many aspect of the film—including Robert Redford’s casting—enrich the meta-textual meaning.

What is patriotism? What is obedience to authority? What is security and at what price do you sacrifice freedom (and lives) to find it? Should not politicians adhere to a higher standard of decision-making, where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? To that already daunting list of issues, add the potency of fear, and what entities have the motive to keep us in a perpetual state of it (Orwellian theme), the moral teeter-totter that historically ensued when allied nations recruited scientists and spies from the ranks of the former SS, and whether the release of information can set people free or just drive the agents of chaos (or HYDRA) further underground.

No spoilers here, but EW has offered an article on the political aspects to the film, and I hope it continues to do well at the box office. Yes, it’s distracting and entertaining and funny and all the rest of those things we’ve come to expect from Marvel movies. But it’s also a damn good film, and leaves you thinking long after the end-credit sequences.

And when is the last time a giant tent offered us that? 🙂