Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The History of the "X-Men"

The new X-Men movie, which opens on Friday, is a prequel that takes place around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and will recalls the origins of the comic book from the early 1960s.  Indeed, the X-Men first appeared as a Marvel Comic in 1963, during the peak years of the civil rights movement.  The book would have debuted within a year of key events, such as the integration of the University of Mississippi, Bull Connor’s unleashing of police dogs on protestors in Birmingham, as well as JFK’s speech calling for a major civil rights bill. As a result, the “mutants” seem very clearly designed to serve as a metaphor for black Americans in this time.  Charles Xavier (Professor X) and the X-Men, who want to work with humanity, represents Martin Luther King, Jr. and the integrationist wing of the movement.  On the other hand, Magneto’s Brotherhood, with its doctrine of mutant supremacy, seems to represent Malcolm X and other black nationalists.  Malcolm X’s profile was particularly high at this time as he appeared on TV more than anyone but President Kennedy in 1963.  The connection between Malcolm and Magneto is again made in the final scene of the first X-Men film in 2000, when an imprisoned Magneto tells Xavier that he still intends to fight a war against humanity, “by any means necessary,” a famous line of Malcolm X’s.
Changing times meant that others could adjust the intolerance metaphor for new realities.  In the last decade, director Bryan Singer used X1 and X2 to make the mutants a metaphor for discrimination against gays.  The first film stresses the difficulties that mutants who have come forward have faced, while showing politicians trying to exploit the fear of mutants.   In the second film, we see Bobby Drake (Iceman) have to “come out” to his family as a mutant, only to have his mom ask “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?” While Singer did not direct the final film, X3 revolves around a “cure” for mutancy and debates about whether the mutants should take it or not.
Looking forward to the movie this week and will have more to say afterward.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"The Event" and the Death of Bin Laden

The cancellation of the lowly-rated “The Event” and the killing of Osama Bin Laden may not seem related, but they may symbolize the end of the post-9/11 era in pop culture.  In the decade since the September 11th attacks, television and movies have been consumed with real and metaphorical terrorist  attacks.  “24”, which debuted two months after the attack on the Trade Center,  provided the clearest illustration of this phenomenon, with seasons revolving around real nuclear and biological attacks(2002-2004).  Jack Bauer, the show’s protagonist, routinely used torture, causing some to see it as propaganda for the Bush/Cheney administration. 
Other programs used a less direct approach.  “Heroes’” first season dealt with the possibility of a nuclear bomb going off in the form of a “nuclear man” who is predicted to explode in New York City.  Following the “24” formula, its second season then featured a bioterror threat.  The reboot of “Battlestar Galactica” moved the show from the original’s Cold War roots to a war on terror metaphor with debates over how to maintain one’s ideals in the face of lethal threats to human civilization.  “Lost” frequently dealt with the issue of torture, seen through the character of Sayyid, a former Iraqi torturer..
As the decade since the attacks continued, however, these kind of shows seemed to have less and less success.  Programs like “Flash Forward” and “V” that dealt with 9/11 style events garnered weak ratings.  The same went for “Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles” and now, “The Event.”  Clearly, these shows were weaker than some of the ones mentioned above and viewers seem to have less an d less patience for the serialized format.
Still, as memories fade, it may be that the resonance of 9/11 will dissipate and Bin Laden’s death will only accelerate this process

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Superman's History

With the series finale of Smallville this week, one reader asked me to give some historical context to Superman, a character now entering his ninth decade in American cultural life.  Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, two Jewish-American teenagers from Cleveland, created Superman during the Great Depression, with DC Comics publishing Action Comics 1, the first comic book to feature Superman, in 1938. Many have interpreted Kal-El’s (Superman’s given name) flight from war-torn Krypton as a metaphor for the American immigrant experience in general, or perhaps for Jews trying to escape Europe during the 1930s.  Clark Kent’s sense of otherness  as an “alien” in Middle-American Kansas can also be seen as an expression of the challenge of assimilation for the immigrants who arrived through Ellis Island between 1882-1924 and their children. During the depression, Superman reflected the politics of the time, acting as a proto-New Dealer, taking on corrupt landlords and businessman.
During the 1950s, Superman again reflected the ethos of his era, emerging as a champion of “truth, justice, and the American way,” during the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union.  This phrase, now closely linked to the character, first became central during this time (though it had been used briefly during World War II.)  The first Superman television show, the Adventures of Superman, premiered during this decade, starring George Reeves, from 1952-1958.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Superman re-emerged with the Christopher Reeve films, which became the most famous and influential depiction of the superhero.  The success of the films can partly be attributable to the fact that Superman is portrayed as an incorruptible hero in the aftermath of the cynicism wrought by Vietnam and Watergate.  The film also served as a template for most of the comic book movies since then, clearly influencing Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s  Batman films, as well as Sam Raimi’s Spider Man series.
Indeed, Smallville, which premiered in 2001, can be seen as a 10-year prequel to the Christopher Reeve films and has become the primary representation of the Superman myth for Generation Y.  With the arrival of yet another Superman film in 2012, it seems likely that the character will continue to endure in popular culture.

Sources: Bradford Wright, Comic Book Nation, (Baltimore, 2001)
Erik Lunegrad, "Truth, Justice and (Fill in the Blank), New York Times, June 30, 2006