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Summer Sneaks

Don't count on relief

When did superheroes become a volatile lot, uneasy with truth, justice and the American way? Look to the times.

May 04, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

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.

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