Scene: A shadowy group within American borders is suspected in an audacious attack at a national landmark. The talk in the White House corridors is that preemptive strikes may be needed in the future, and perhaps a national registry of a particular minority group.
In a different time and place: U.S. tanks roll through desert dust in search of a dangerous quarry. Meanwhile, there is a suspicion that a secret military lab has unleashed a biological technology with chilling repercussions.
In yet a third setting: At the turn of a century, a superpower wrestles with the international perception that it is an arrogant empire. Enemies plot against it, including one mysterious agent who wishes to trigger a world war and, in his actions, becomes a role model for a new era of geopolitical evil.
Those are not three moments from recent history, nor are they slices of some new espionage novel looking to cash in on the winds of war and terrorism that have been blowing so strongly since Sept. 11, 2001. The three scenes are from summer popcorn films, all based on comic books -- “X2: X-Men United,” “The Hulk” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” respectively -- and the fact that even summer cinema escapism has such a grim echo of reality may say a lot about the vagaries of youth entertainment in our media-saturated age.
Even some of the film’s creators were struck by the resonance of the CNN world in their films of the fantastic.
“Down to the details of even the smallest plot points -- and we commenced the process of working on the screenplay before even 9/11 -- it is uncanny how up-to-the-second contemporary this movie is in its concerns,” says James Schamus, co-producer of “The Hulk,” which opens in theaters June 20. “It’s almost too uncanny for us personally. We’re constantly rubbing our eyes and looking at cuts of the film and saying, ‘Did we actually think of that before the war in Iraq?’ ”
And what will audiences think? Walking into the air-conditioned darkness of a theater in June is often an exercise in shedding reality, so will fans be ready for the opening minutes of “X2,” with its harrowing assassination attempt inside the Oval Office?
The emphasis of the films is on spectacle, not politics, but Jeffrey A. Brown, a professor of popular culture studies at Bowling Green University, says it’s often impossible for audiences to turn off the news crawl in their heads when they see new fictions that even unintentionally reflect troubled times. He pointed to “The Manchurian Candidate,” the 1962 assassination thriller that took on new layers of meaning with the shooting of President Kennedy. Even less ambitious fare can have ominous tinges when it looks to newspaper headlines for its themes.
“Look at something like ‘Rambo III,’ set in Afghanistan,” Brown says. “The Russians pulled out before the film was released [in 1988] and things changed and the film bombed because the timing was not quite right. I showed that in class last year and, of course, in that film, Rambo is fighting with the Taliban. At the end, there’s a dedication to our brethren in the Taliban who will never give up no matter the odds against them or how powerful their foe. That feels pretty strange now.”
Brown says that in his classroom, the iconic “Rambo,” which made an action figure out of Sylvester Stallone and came to stand for a brand of patriotism that surged in the Regan era, is surreally strange to today’s students. If John Wayne’s cowboys were laughable caricatures to the youthful sit-in culture during the Vietnam War era, Rambo is the same to a two-way messaging generation of the Iraq war.
The nature of hero today? When Rambo reloaded, it meant a sinewy arm reaching for a new ammunition clip and another chance to redeem the American flag soiled in Vietnam. This summer, with “The Matrix Reloaded,” the verb is about sleek rebels in a false paradise making sacrifices to find reality in a virtual existence. And in the three comic-book films -- “X2,” “Hulk” and the lesser-known “League” -- there are other intriguing suggestions of character that may say more about the audience than it does the art.
The heroes are volatile, mistrusted, conflicted and grappling with past sins. The villains are grounded in the government or technology or megalomania. In each film, there is a sense that everyone is living in a moment when the building pressures of science and/or authority are cracking open the ground beneath our collective feet.
A hero’s dark side
Remember in the 1970s when a square-jawed farm boy with a cape was going to make moviegoers believe a man could fly? Or the 1980s when even the dark vigilante of Gotham City lived in a cartoony realm with room for humor? Not anymore. In this summer’s films, the heroes themselves are weapons of mass destruction. It’s all a bit bracing for anyone who still thinks of superheroes as simple vessels of truth, justice and the American way.
In “X2,” the world is teeming with a secret population of mutants who may look like everyone else (some are doe-eyed schoolchildren, others have forked tongues or come in shades of indigo) but have fantastic abilities. They are feared and, in this film, soon hunted by a dark military leader (portrayed by Brian Cox) who has the ear of the U.S. president and a plan that resembles ethnic cleansing. The most compelling mutant figure is the sharp-clawed Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), an amnesiac who may be a former assassin. In one scene, he uses his claws to skewer a dozen American commandos, and don’t think for a moment the audience won’t cheer.
“The Hulk” remains largely under wraps, but it stars Eric Bana as scientist Bruce Banner, a beautiful mind who is in love with Jennifer Connelly’s character, scientist Betty Ross. She is the daughter of an Army general, Banner is the son of the mercurial David Banner (Nick Nolte), a genius himself but one with a dark secret. An experiment gone awry transforms Bana’s character into the title monster, the un-jolly green giant who, in the comic books of the 1960s, was beloved by young boys who identified with his tantrum problem and man-child issues.
Those “Hulk” comics, by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, were subversive in comparison with the Boy Scout mentality of, say, Superman comics of the 1950s, but they were also hyperbolic and campy. Not so with the film. It’s directed by Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Sense and Sensibility”), and co-producer Schamus describes its themes: “There’s an underlying unity of concern which has to do with familial obligation and freedom and identity and the search for connections.”
He laughs and then playfully describes it as “ ‘Sense and Sensibility’ with a green monster.” In a more serious vein he notes that “The Hulk,” like the X-Men films, has a new standard of character development to meet. “The bar has been raised as far as integrating deep structures of human psychology into these mythological figures in more psychologically interesting and realistic ways,” Schamus said. “In a way, it’s a step back to the roots of what we think of with the superhero genres, which of course is Homer and the Iliad and Beowulf and Gilgamesh and the Aeneid.
“Achilles, as far as superheroes go, is a pretty flawed character compared to what you were getting as heroes in the 1950s. He was a deeply troubled guy.”
The third big-budget comic book film of summer 2003, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which opens July 11, adapts a fascinating comic book series written by Alan Moore. Moore teamed up 19th century heroes of literature, among them Allan Quatermain (played by Sean Connery), Dorian Gray, Captain Nemo and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and launched them in battle against a sinister, mysterious mastermind.
Every one of the “League” heroes is seeking redemption or salvation, and each is damaged goods psychologically or in society. The backdrop of the story, too, provides more dark themes. “The century is turning and the old rules of empire and honor no longer apply,” says screenwriter James Robinson. “There’s veiled references that maybe that’s a good thing, maybe the empire and honor actually mean subjugation and conquering.”
The current state of the world was very much on Robinson’s mind when he talked about the film. Its villain, a phantom presence who is revealed in the end, symbolizes much of the despotism and many of the political pulls that in the 20th century, and now the 21st, have been major factors in the theater of war.
“He’s a precursor to that in a way -- he represents the new world, the new century, the race for arms and the technology of warfare that the world is still in the grip of now, as we can see with the use of chemical weapons as an excuse to attack Iraq. He represents the darkness of the future. There’s the idea of the 20th century being the birth of the arms race.”
When exactly did comic-book films become vehicles for examining psychosis and tracking the dogs of war? The evolution of the genre is intriguing. Heroes emerged on the silver screen in the 1940s as flamboyant, two-dimensional champions of the serials, and by the ‘60s had moved further from reality with the farcical adaptation of the “Batman” television series starring Adam West. Batman returned to the screen in 1989 with more gravity in the franchise launched by Tim Burton, but as those films turned to camp and special effects, they became more like theme park rides than films.
It was the potent success and ambition of “The Matrix” -- not technically a comic-book adaptation, but certainly of the genre in spirit -- and the commercial click of films such as “Blade” and the first X-Men installment that made Hollywood view the comic book as source material to be treated with respect. Just as “The X-Files” made it OK for television to treat science fiction as if it had some intellectual merit, the new-look comic book films had the scripts (and special effects) to get good hero films off the ground. “Spider-Man,” a huge blockbuster with good reviews, hammered the message home and is now the tallest skyscraper on this genre’s horizon.
More comic-book films (and, certainly, a slew of sequels) are in the pipeline, and they range from the oft-delayed resurrection of the Batman and Superman flagships to “The Watchmen,” which for comics fans is the Holy Grail of long-promised adaptations. Many of the film creators today grew up as devotees of comics, and treat them with a reverence that would have been hard to find a few decades ago. They are also informed by the antiheroes of cinema -- from James Dean to “Dirty Harry” -- and the times their creators live in.
“Our idea of what a hero is now must have more dimensions, even for the young audiences,” professor Brown says. “The big turning point for heroes from the square-jawed kind of Superman characters to antiheroes was really the 1970s. It was losing faith in government, and the counterculture movement, and ‘Dirty Harry,’ the antihero who throws away his badge.... With these new films, what exactly is a hero? It’s pretty exciting, because a lot of the old rules don’t seem to apply. And that makes things interesting.”