The Blockbuster Goes Retro

X-Men, Super 8, and Captain America attempt to reboot the past.

Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney in Super 8

Prepare to dip your madeleines, as the blockbuster is experiencing a Proustian rush. If the movement of last summer’s movies was solipsistically inward, probing such deep epistemological matters as whether we are—or are not—a figment of Leonardo DiCaprio’s imagination, this year’s crop jumps backward, their plots o’ercast with the amber hue of retrospect.

On June 3, we have X-Men: First Class, an origins story set in the 1960s. * Magneto and Professor X are in college, duking it out over who gets top bunk while the Cuban Missile Crisis plays out in the background. This is followed a week later by J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, a touching ode to being 10 in 1979, when aliens from another planet were greeted with Spielbergian wonder and not a full pat-down and cavity search. On July 22 we have Captain America: The First Avenger, in which a 90-pound weakling steps into a science lab and emerges big enough to bounce Nazis off his bicep. A week after that, we have  Cowboys & Aliens, which pretty much speaks for itself.

If this keeps up, we can presumably look forward to a new Superman movie in which the caped crusader is returned to his Depression-era roots to do battle with moonshine bootleggers, and the new Terminator movie, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger travels back to the roaring ‘20s to protect Zelda Fitzgerald from character assassination by future biographers of her husband.

What the deuce—or blue blazes, depending on period—is going on? The summer is not traditionally the time when Merchant Ivory trot out their picnic hampers and cucumber sandwiches. Not that you could mistake any of these films for the latest Henry James adaptation, exactly—no film called Cowboys & Aliens is intent on cleaving too hard to the historical record. On the contrary, the anachronism is the point, just as the appearance of blackberries in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was designed to send the pince-nez flying from the noses of Conan Doyle fans. We live in the era of the movie mash-up—in the salad bar that is the head of the modern movie executive, the past is ripe for tossing.

In some ways, pictures like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunterconstitute the sweetest of compliments, there being no greater attribute we can bestow on historical personages than an ability to smush the undead. Even Roland Emmerich, king of the disaster zone, is making a picture about Shakespeare, for heaven’s sake, which tells you something about the shifting loyalties of today’s audiences: We’ve seen how the world ends, and, frankly, it’s getting a little samey.

Have you been back to the future recently? If the last installment of the Terminator franchise was anything to go by, the future has long since succumbed to terminal rust. That film, like so many others, gave us a darkened, battle-scarred plainland of mud browns and post-apocalyptic taupes, in which the haggard bark orders at the hoarse beneath skies the color of vengeance. Buck Rogers would fall into a dead faint.

The present is scarcely much brighter. Ever since Chris Nolan turned The Dark Knight into a scowling disquisition on Bush-era justice, no self-respecting piece of popcorn cinema has felt complete without a salting of war-on-terror subtext, whether it be the responsibilities that beset a lone superpower (the Spider-Man series), the threat of the illegal arms trade (the Iron Man series), or the virtues of diplomacy versus boots on the ground ( Transformers 2). Even the last Harry Potter sank to a profound, late-stage Imperial gloom. “These are dark times, there is no denying it,” intoned Bill Nighy, while the forces of darkness encircled our heroes, shivering, in a tent. I always thought pop culture was supposed to be about fake uplift—a draft of Leithian forgetfulness to ease the pain of our cramped late-capitalist existences with a cheerful blast of false consciousness?

Alone among recent blockbuster franchises, only the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek has dared stoke the high spirits of summers past, with Mr. Spock and Lt. Uhura making out in much the same spirit of multilateral co-operation that buoyed the original TV series. * Abrams continues the nostalgia trip with Super 8, an attempt to effect a Vulcan mind-meld with the work of the young Steven Spielberg, and also roll back the clock to a time when Americans still looked to the skies with something like wonder. The mixture of kids and bicycles is right out of E.T.Spielberg’s love sonnet to suburban America, caught in the glow of dawn and dusk—but Abrams’ film owes even more to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg’s junk version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with its vision of America roused from its slumber by an array of whirring toys and runaway washing machines. “Its better than goofy golf!” urges Richard Dreyfuss. “It’s like Halloween for grown-ups,” whispers Melinda Dillon.

Or July 4th for moviegoers. The one thing the whole aliens-arriving-from-outer-space really resembles, of course, is a blockbuster movie opening. “They were invited” insists Francois Truffaut—but nobody points this out, for back then, in the fall of 1977, blockbusters were still things that arrived once a generation, not every week, piling up like buses. If Close Encounters is Spielberg’s most magical film, it’s because he still had no idea what “Spielbergian” meant: That was all being mapped out for the first time, the flying toys and spilled fridges, sprinkled lawns and roiling clouds. He could still reach for a child’s toy and not be in any danger of it being one of his own.

This summer, Spielberg is everywhere; his name is attached as producer to three films (Cowboys & Aliens, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Super 8), but that tone he struck in 1977—benevolent, playful, utopian, childlike—is long vanished. Spielberg and Lucas were scrawny beta males, making movies for the little guy. Michael Bay and his ilk now make top-dog movies, heavy-metal hymns to American hard power. You knew the UFOs were about to arrive in Close Encounters because the crickets stopped chirping. You know that something big is about to happen in a Michael Bay movie because your eardrums are being pounded like timpani.

Whether Abrams can recapture some of that hush—or even whether we still have the ears to hear it—remains to be seen, although if the rapt silence with which audiences drank in the Upmarriage montage, or the first 20 of Wall-E, are anything to go by, people are plenty willing to pay good money for a little silent wonder. Once you’ve seen one Point Dume beachfront mansion with glass-spiral staircase and en suite nuclear capability turned to matchwood by warring robots, you’ve seen ‘em all. Tony Stark’s digs in last year’s Iron Man 2 looked natty enough, but the film reduced them to rubble all the same. More intriguing was the casting of Mad Men’s John Slattery as Stark’s atom-splitting father, glimpsed in a super-8 home movie, complete with Walt Disney moustache and martini-hour manner. This summer, X-Men: First Class follows suit: Kennedy-era lapels, a Pentagon war room straight out of Dr. Strangelove, even the ice-popsicle presence of January Jones, who practically counts as a period detail unto herself. These details confirm what Slattery first suggested: The stylistic salvation of the summer blockbuster seems to run through the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Just as importantly, we get a temporary halt to the onscreen arms race that has stalled so many movies in superpowered detente. Somewhere in the middle of the Matrix movies, I worked out that if you took the number of skills Neo could download, multiplied it by the number of times Agent Smith could regenerate himself and divided it by the number of sequels, there was no reason theoretically why that series need ever end. Both Neo, Smith, and the audience were trapped in an infinite loop of one-upmanship, an eternity of pure, pointless escalation from which the only escape would be to abruptly get up and leave the theatre. By contrast, X-Men: First Class tacks back to a time when a nuclear blast was something you didn’t recover from and generally wanted to avoid, not least for reasons of historical continuity. The film must leave the world as the history books found it, which should help dampen the temptation toward megalomaniacal plot-swell that killed the previous X-Men movie.

Rolling back the clock even further we have the last of this summer’s historical jaunts, Captain America: The Last Avenger. The original Captain America ditched his stars-n-stripes uniform to become the crime-fighter Nomad in 1972, out of disgust with Watergate and U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam. With Superman threatening to renounce his American citizenship in a recent edition of Action Comics (“I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy”), director Joe Johnston was perhaps wise to look up Captain America in 1943, when comic book superheroes bestrode the globe like the gentle giants they were, and Nazis could be rubbed out with impunity. * Origins stories are all the rage in Hollywood, of course, and Johnston is something of a dab hand at retro thrills, having directed The Rocketeer in 1991—a ripping adaptation of Dave Stevens’$2 1982 comic about a jet-pack-wearing superhero who zips across the sky in Deco-ish tribute to matinee serials past.

On the other hand, Christopher Nolan didn’t return to the 1940s for Batman Begins, and the most recent Spider-Man movies didn’t see fit to return Spidey to the decade from whence he came, though nothing says 1962 like being bitten by a radioactive spider, and Tobey Maguire—we happen to know—happens to look great in bellbottoms. So why this sudden outbreak of period superheroism? Why are our thrill rides doubling up nostalgia trips? Is everyone that fearful of the future, these days?

Let’s face it: if any franchise is in need of a little reboot, it’s America’s. She’s seen one too many pointless sequels (the Iraq war), CGI effects (tornadoes, floods, explosions in the Gulf), and cartoonish villains (Palin, Trump) recently. Only the killing of Bin Laden has served to quicken the nation’s pulse. Maybe the Tea Partiers are onto something after all. What we need is a return to basics, a refresher course, a rewrite, a younger cast, an origins story to end all origins story. As Miss Palin so helpfully puts it: Don’t Retreat, Reload. Or was that the Wachowski brothers?

Corrections, May 24, 2011: This article originally stated that X-Men: First Class was set in 1963. Many of the movie’s events—particularly those related to the Cuban Missile Crisis—are set in 1962. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

The article also misspelled the name of the Star Trek character Lt. Uhura. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

This sentence originally stated that this edition of Action Comics was “forthcoming”—it hit newsstands at the beginning of May—and misspelled the last name of Joe Johnston. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)