War films have only rarely been part of the summer movie lineup, yet summer is when theaters are most likely to be packed with teenagers and young adults—exactly the people military recruiters would like to reach. The U.S. military has attempted to bridge this gap through pre-movie, in-theater advertising. The most memorable of these ads are likely the three- to four-minute National Guard commercials that played on tens of thousands of screens nationwide. 2007’s “Citizen Soldier,” directed by Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua, juxtaposed contemporary soldiers, the Normandy beach invasion, and the rock band 3 Doors Down—and threw in some Revolutionary War militiamen for good measure. (The follow-up intercut Kid Rock, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and troops alternately blowing things up and being nice to kids.)
The X-Men: First Class/Army Strong commercial represents the first time the U.S. Army has entered into a sponsorship deal with a particular Hollywood film. The Army could not be more overt in their attempt to show soldiers not just as heroes, but as superheroes. In addition to the action movie clichés apparent in the National Guard commercials (slow motion, rapid editing, explosions, etc.), the X-Men ad includes imagery associated with the fantastic: bodies morphing, flying, disappearing, and exerting unnatural control over water, gravity, and magnetism. While the soldiers lack the ability to, say, shoot energy out of their chests, they too are “ordinary people who discover they can do extraordinary things,” as the ad claims. And in this film, the X-Men even wear uniforms of a sort (the uniform is the theme of this year’s “Army Strong” marketing campaign)—though in another parlance, they might be called “superhero costumes.”
The Army’s cross-promotional deal with X-Men: First Class lays bare the military’s increasing reliance on the science fiction genre as the prime narrative medium through which to sell itself. The new recruitment films are not the critically acclaimed Restrepo or even The Hurt Locker (whose DoD support was revoked at the last minute), but rather Battle: Los Angeles (a conventional combat film—with aliens!) and Transformers 2, promoted as the “largest joint-military movie ever made.” Unlike recent films about Iraq and Afghanistan, contemporary science fiction films show our armed forces heroically fighting the good fight against intergalactic enemies, killer cars, or nuclear-toting mutants. More importantly, perhaps, science fiction reintroduces wonder and spectacle to typical recruitment strategies that media-savvy young audiences distrust, tune out, or scoff at.