Re-envisioning our Possible Past(s): Alternative Histories in Contemporary Summer Blockbusters

Curator's Note

It’s interesting how this summer’s contemporary (in some cases, hopeful) franchises – many of them comic book/superhero adaptations – are reaching back to past eras to reinvigorate themselves, utilizing a “period” context or theme as narrative backdrop or plot inspiration. Both X-Men: First Class (a prequel to the Marvel Comics-adapted film series originated by director Bryan Singer) and Transformers: Dark of the Moon tie their plotlines directly to American milestones of the 1960s. X-Men’s origin story is primarily set against the Cuban Missile Crisis, and neatly interweaves significant X-characters’ formative moments within the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The film proposes that the mutants’ first public reveal creates an alternative history which, in certain ways, directly inspires President Kennedy’s famous 1962 televised statement (featured heavily in the marketing materials and the film itself). The X-Men franchise isn’t new to re-interpreting history through its own mutant-inspired lens: 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine “reveals” that the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown was caused by a mutant vs. mutant battle atop the cooling towers. The third Transformers is significantly rooted in the past, as the movie (and teaser trailer that preceded it) posits that the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing discovered much more than just the moon’s surface terrain – which also plays into conspiracy theories surrounding the event. Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The First Avenger attempts to ground the birth of Marvel’s new cinematic universe (also encompassing the film worlds of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor) firmly in the World War II-era, again theorizing that prominent events were influenced by super-human forces both good and evil. J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is intended as a throwback to 1970s/80s Spielberg-ian science fiction and fantasy (a 1960s-era “archive” government film featured within connects long-rumored extra-terrestrial discoveries with the film’s subject matter). Even Cowboys and Aliens (another graphic novel adaptation) and Rise of the Planet of the Apes are rooted in the past, the former in its narrative (set in the late 1800s) and the latter in its franchise origins (set in the near future, but acting as a loose prequel to the first film in the franchise, released in 1968). Is there something deeper going on here in terms of a generational rhythm with screenwriters and ideas? Or is it just the ebb and flow of franchises and desperation for new sparks in Hollywood’s wrinkled studio system?


What a thought-provoking post. I've been thinking of these films as being nostalgic for the Cold War, when at least there was a clear enemy and threat for the U.S. to define itself against. This appears to be an update from the adventure and comic-book movies that pitted heroes against Nazis (Indiana Jones, et al.), referencing the Good vs. Evil narrative of World War II. While the plotline casting Erik/Magneto in X-Men: First Class as a Holocaust survivor and Nazi-hunter references the Second World War, the setting is the swinging '60s with all of its mod costuming and burgeoning civil-rights movement context. Thus, we can misremember the Cold War as an exciting time of espionage, go-go dancers, and "Mutant and Proud" mottos, instead of focusing on the threat of nuclear annihilation in any serious way.

If we compare these science fiction films to war films of late, most of the latter are either highly critical of the military and warfare in general or extremely ambivalent about U.S. motives in contemporary wars. By returning to the Cold War, these science fiction films make reference to the ambivalence of the seemingly never-ending "war on terror," but turn the focus to the Cold War's distinct fight between two superpowers, Good and Evil (with the U.S. always being associated with the Good).

I'll be curious to see Captain America and see what it does with its explicit World War II setting.

Over at Slate, Tom Shone made a similar observation recently. His conclusion, basically, is that the future is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine, so it’s easier to think about the past. I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s an interesting theory.

On a related note, today on her blog Anne Petersen enumerates some of X-Men: First Class’s historical inconsistencies.

I pretty much figured I wasn't quite the first to notice this trend -- thanks for those links, Matt. 

Tanine, your assessment of X-Men: First Class is correct, in my opinion -- it's slyly put together in such a way so as to reference both WWII and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but doesn't linger too heavily on the former, while the latter could easily be read as an extension of recent American cultural or governmental values.  In other words, the narrative is designed to appeal to multiple facets of the general audience -- but the final cut is a bit of a mess of differing tones and somewhat shoddy continuity (the film was put into production only 11 months ago, and there were apparently heavy reshoots/"pickups" this past Spring).  Tying into Monday's discussion, this is another case where I was more intrigued by the promise of something really interesting that was there, the concept and overall trend itself, than I was in the final product.

Yet I do find a surprising subtext taking place during the film's climax (unplanned by the filmmakers, no doubt), which takes on new meaning as a reference to recent nuclear problems in Japan, and the subsequent public reconsideration by certain international governments of the benefits and dangers of nuclear power.

I'm also pretty much in agreement with Anne Peterson's take on First Class, the inconsistencies in clothing, tone, and issues with the female characters -- Peterson's issue with Moira's character is notable here, as screenwriter Jane Goldman has admitted that many of her scenes were cut during editing; perhaps they will be more fully fleshed out -- no pun intended -- for the home video release.

 What I find most puzzling is the abnormally large number of good-to-great reviews for this picture, which heightened my expectations considerably.  I find this element particularly interesting as the movie seems to be underperforming a bit at the box office.  Personally, when comparing this summer's entries in the genre thus far, I actually found Thor's simple-but-smart premise of "history calls it magic, you call it science, where I come from, they're one in the same" to be more fulfilling cinema in numerous ways.

Michael, great post and subsequent discussion -- the ideas raised here make me think of Elsaesser's argument about nostalgia being the default mode of contemporary blockbusters, a notion I used to resist (for its implication that such films are, at an ideological if not formal level, reductive and regressive) but am finding more credible with each new crop of summer movies. Certainly Super 8, as you point out, is a giant valentine to a past that only existed in some hazy Spielberg continuum between the flicker of light on a screen and the fact of our butts in theater seats.

I haven't seen X-Men: First Class yet, so the following observation is based solely on what Jonathan Gray might call its "paratextual entourage" -- ads, posters, interviews, action figures, behind-the-scenes coverage, etc. But it seems to me an important element of the real-but-alternate-history setting of this new X-installment lies in its transmediated past, that is, as a franchise originating in a line of comic books whose first issue appeared in September 1963. The X-Men were in this material-historical sense a phenomenon of the 1960s, so perhaps there is some poetry in this film's decision to site itself there. It's a choice other franchises and graphic-novel adaptations have grappled with: for a time before the Daniel Craig Casino Royale was put into production, the possibility of a 60s-set James Bond was a subject of much discussion in fan communities, and Zack Snyder's Watchmen adaptation opted rather aggressively to set itself in the time of the miniseries' original appearance (itself, of course, an alternate 1986) rather than updating it to the present as most of the first screenplays tried to do.

I'm not suggesting anyone besides hardcore comic fans think of the X-Men as a 60s construct; more likely, studios consider the past an exploitable landscape of strange but familiar visualization, an uncanny lens on our own time a la Mad Men. On the other hand, the character of Captain America debuted in March 1941, a setting shared, as you note, by the upcoming film. Comics have a way of revisiting and "revisualizing" their own past in deliberate ways -- think of Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek's Marvels, which enshrines the specifics of 1960s and 1970s-set superheroics via Ross's updated, near-photorealistic painterly technique. Perhaps, then, the unique temporality of the comic-book medium is part of what drives First Class's period-piece approach?

I also find this post interesting for the change in the time frame. At the dawn of the super-hero blockbuster (with Superman in 1978), super-hero films took place in present time or the not-so-distant future. Heroes were for today. Heroes were needed because something about today or the not-to-distant future was problematic and needed  "greater than human" help to fix it. The superhero represented, in a sense, our ability to tackle these large problems and solve them.

Recent films, as noted in this post, have shifted this to our past; a past we generally view as "better times." This seems to me to be a huge ideological shift. The superhero represents our ability to take on and solve huge problems. Now that has been placed in the past; past when we did solve problems... perhaps though, not anymore? Thus the nostalgia?

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