Apr 28, 2011

The summer blockbuster goes retro

Last year the blockbuster moved inward, to ponder such questions as whether we are all figments of Leonardo Di Caprio's imagination. This year, the movement is backward, with the arrival of the retro superhero flick. First, in June, we have X-Men First Class:—
The film is a prequel to the first three movies,[2] set during the early 1960s, with John F. Kennedy as president of the United States. X-Men: First Class parallels the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Movement. The villains of the film will be the Hellfire Club.[3]
That is followed in July by Joe Johnstone's Captain America: The First Avenger.
In 1942, Steve Rogers is deemed physically unfit to enlist in the U.S. Army and fight the Nazis in World War II. Volunteering instead for Project: Rebirth, a secret military operation, he is physically transformed into a super-soldier dubbed Captain America. With sidekick Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), he fights the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), Hitler's treacherous head of advanced weaponry, whose own plan for world domination involves a seemingly magical object known as the Tesseract.[9]
This seems important for several reasons. First: improved production design. The blockbuster has been succumbing to terminal rust for years now; rare indeed is the summer movie which doesn't mudde through a monotone palette of mud browns and apocalyptic grays, as if the producers had accidentally left a Terminator in the wash. Either than or things are too anonymously hi-tech, the heroes encased in wall-to-wall tungsteen, like Iron Man, living out his antiseptic playboy fantasies in an minimalist Malibu apartment. The gleaming new or the irretrievably skuzzed-up: these are the two looks. When Downey jr took in some flickering old super-8s, featuring a dapper John Slattery as his father, it pointed a way out of the impasse, one going through the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper & Pryce, as Matthew Vaughn has realised, too, in the casting of January Jones in X-Men First Class. With her Hitchcock blonde looks and ice-popsicle manner Jones is practically a period detail unto herself, at least as much as the Dr Strangelove-style Pentagon, or Kennedy-era lapels. Secondly: a brief halt to the cinematic arms race. The use of the cuban missile crisis as a backdrop in X-Men is telling. We passed Mutually Assured Destruction at the movies many moons ago. Halfway through the Matrix trilogy, I worked out that given the infinitely downloadable resources of both Neo and Agent Smith there was no reason, theoretically, why those movies need never end. Both they, and we, were trapped in an eternal loop of oneupmanship, a closed circuit of endless escalation, from which we would never be able to escape. And so it proved. Taking us back to the second world war (Captain America), or the cold war (X Men), constitutes a rejuvenatory return to a period when plots came in smaller, more maneagable sizes and a nuclear bomb going off actually mattered, if only for reasons of historical continuity. Each film must leave the world exactly as the history books found it — a worthwhile discipline and a useful way of stemming megalomaniacal plot swell. Last but not least, you will not wish to slit your wrists after watching them. Recent years have found cinemagoers clamoring for an end to war-on-terror subtexts (The Dark Knight), debates on the efficacy of torture (Star Trek), and jingoistic celebrations of war in the middle East (Transformers) alike. The retro blockbuster instead signals a return to the innocent boosterism of the forties and fifties — the golden age of comics — when superheroes wore the American flag unironically, busted Nazi /Communist balls without having to worry about blowback, and stood astride the globe like the gentle giants of the American psyche they were. America gets its own origins story — a psychic reboot.

1 comment:

  1. Quibbles, sir:

    - You forgot the down-to-Earth super-heroics of Spidey, as well as the Norton Hulk.

    - One could make a case for the Art Deco-rific Superman Returns as the proto-retro-blockbuster.

    - The Trek-torture assertion was a stretch - I think you'd have done better citing the modernity-eschewing (yet modern comfort-keeping) escapist aesthetics of "Potter" instead.

    Otherwise, fun piece.