Character and the Audience: The Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow

Yaay, it’s another occasional series! I’m becoming very interested in how certain kinds of characters, particularly those that break the traditional norms of race, gender and sexuality, can change the appeal of a film to an audience. So, assuming I can find enough of them to write about, I shall…

(SPOILER WARNING for Captain America: The Winter Soldier…)

Today’s character type, the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow, takes its name from a twitter comment that, alas, I have long since lost. If you think it was you, let me know who you were talking about, and with which screenwriter, and I’ll be happy to credit you…

The Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is always male, and he’s that guy who can kill a roomful of people without breaking a sweat – but who is massively emotionally vulnerable, has no social support system, and is incapable of interacting with civilized society. Frequently he’s physically or temporally displaced, and while perfectly adapted to his reality, struggles to map his skills and experiences onto ours.

One great example is Kyle Reese in The Terminator. Reese is perfectly adapted to the future, where killer robots roam and humanity scrabbles to survive and resist. But his skills transfer imperfectly to the 1980’s, and his emotional connection to human savior John Connor, and then John’s mother Sarah, whom he’s come to save, makes him immensely vulnerable and sympathetic.

A more recent, and hugely instructive, example is Bucky Barnes, aka The Winter Soldier, in the eponymous Captain America movie. The Winter Soldier is a human being erased right down to the skull, a bundle of reflexes and conditioning with no memory and no personality – until he encounters the one person with whom he has such a strong enough emotional connection that his true self starts bubbling up…

What interests me about the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is the character’s immense appeal to the female audience. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has created a massive, and hugely engaged, female audience for Captain America movies that simply didn’t exist before. If you doubt me, search for the fan art and fan fiction… And for all the emphasis on Arnie and on a strong female lead, Kyle Reese was a huge part of The Terminator’s success.

So why are these characters so attractive to the female audience? Two things, I think…

Firstly, they provide female viewers with a double experience – a character they can simultaneously desire, and empathise with.

There’s little common ground between any viewer (male or female) and a traditional muscular action hero, a stuffed shirt quipping his way through gunfights and embracing a ‘girl’ as a prize at the end of the movie. Their skills attract us, but their emotionlessness shuts us out.

(See this excellent post by Alex Epstein for a related examination of why this means that women make better action leads than men… )

But the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow displays both the “male” physical capability, and the “female” emotional vulnerability, to evoke envy and empathy simultaneously. The audience can share the character’s experiences on all levels.

And secondly: the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is, of necessity, a character locked into a complex, passionate and constantly evolving relationship. He has an opposite, a partner, a second self without whom he is incomplete.

Kyle Reese needs Sarah Connor’s help to survive as much as she needs his. Where she is weak, he is strong, and vice versa. He’s not a savior, he’s a partner.

And whatever your ‘shipping’ preferences for the Captain America movie universe, there’s no denying that Steve’s relationship with Bucky is the formative, deepest and most vital relationship of his entire life. Indeed, from Captain America: The First Avenger onwards, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have been reshaping the origin story, and Ed Brubaker’s original Winter Soldier storyline, to deepen this connection and increase the ways in which the characters’ lives, feelings and experience mirror one another. They are opposites, mirror images, unbreakably connected to one another, whether you view that connection as having a sexual component or not.

In other words, the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is a creature of relationships. It’s a cliché to say female viewers embrace the relationships in a movie rather than just the ‘cool’ stuff, but it’s true –

And you know what? Male viewers love relationships too. They just don’t define their reactions in the same way. Any male viewer who says “Wasn’t it cool when Cap faced the Winter Soldier on the helicarrier?” is reacting to exactly the same character points as a female viewer talking about the tragic emotions of the ending. They’re just using different terminology.

So what’s my point here? My point is that Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrows bring in a female audience for movies that are traditionally male (and yes, that’s a generalization anyway, but…) without ever alienating the male audience.

So why isn’t there one in every action, adventure, spy or superhero movie? If you want to double the audience for your movie, you now know what to do…

Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the New Hollywood Paradigm

From unpromising beginnings – “He’s a WW2 soldier who fights Nazis and literally dresses in the US flag?”  – the Captain America movies are proving to be the most intelligent, dependable and daring features of the Marvel Studios multiverse. The Winter Soldier is a smart, right-wing-baiting conspiracy thriller that starts off as a terrific action romp, and suddenly develops a raw emotional heart that’s delighted fans and played surprisingly well to those with no knowledge of the backstory (which includes me, to be honest).

I’m probably going to have things to say about the Winter Soldier himself, if you know what I mean, but I’ll give you a little longer to catch up before venturing into spoiler territory. For now, let’s take a quick look at the movie and how it illuminates Marvel Studios’ wider aims.

It’s a hugely enjoyable and hugely emotional movie, but in some weird ways, it’s strangely un-movie-like. (Yes, I know that’s not a word. It’s Sunday afternoon, cut me some slack…)

For a start, The Winter Soldier is unashamedly open-ended. While other story lines begin, develop and resolve as normal, the arc involving the two title characters reaches an emotional peak, but not a conclusion. (In traditional screenwriting parlance, that particular story is only at the end of act two – the ‘dark point’ or ‘all is lost’ – as the film concludes, and one of the credit scenes would play well as the beginning of act three, the moment where new information triggers change…)

The movie also splits its screen time between multiple characters without losing focus or audience interest. In other words, it’s a team movie in all but name. It namechecks and references a wider universe, even featuring characters who’ve been bit players in previous movies as major players. It ends by turning the dramatic universe upside-down, and then sets its characters going in new directions. They are not satisfied and changed, as movie characters are supposed to be: instead they’re in transition, going on to new challenges.

All of these are elements that you find in television drama – many commenters have called Marvel Studios supremo Kevin Feige the most powerful TV showrunner on the planet – but there’ s somewhere they’re even more common…

In the individual storylines and limited runs that make up comic book continuity. In a very real sense, Marvel Studios is not creating movies – it’s creating a new comic book universe, one that just happens to be made of actors and film rather than paper and pen.

Of course, comic books have been turned into movies before: some successfully, some… not so much. But until now, the basics of the story have been taken out and shaped into movie form. It feels to me that Marvel Studios are increasingly abandoning that approach, and instead shaping our perception of movies into something more like what we experience from long-term comic book reading.

Can this approach succeed? Possibly. There are dangers. Lack of closure is traditionally considered fatal to a movie. The Winter Soldier has a hugely powerful emotional hook, which helps, and it also plays to our perception that “the second in a trilogy is always open-ended”, as established by The Empire Strikes Back. But will other, similar movies succeed without those advantages?

There’s also the “you have to collect them all” effect, where audiences  feel that if they miss a movie in this wider universe, they’ll no longer understand what’s going on, and they lose interest. And they may even resent being manoeuvred into paying out for two or three 3D movies every year to keep up with the story world.

But the biggest danger is one that’s haunted comics for years – lack of consequences. If character X turns up as a guest in character Y’s comic and then seems to be in danger of dying, is she going to die? Of course no. She has her own title, and she’s a guest star in character Z’s title next month. She ain’t going nowhere.

Franchises already suffer from lack of consequences; it’s hard to imagine Mission: Impossible killing off Ethan Hunt, say. An expended movie universe, where every creative decision has an affect on the profit margins of five upcoming blockbusters, may finally leave us floundering in a story world where no one ever dies, and therefore, nothing ever matters.

And yet this expanded movie-comic universe has a lot going for it, too. Rich characters, intertwined stories, a depth of worldbuilding that’s rare in movies. I’m very interested to see how all this turns out…