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

by Ethan Tussey

by Michael S. Duffy for IN MEDIA RES

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 (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 the Hollywood’s wrinkled studio system?

X-Men: First Class International Trailer

A copy of the international trailer for X-Men: First Class (2011). Taken from's YouTube channel (

from X-Men: First Class (2011)
Creator: Matthew Vaughn
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Posted by Ethan Tussey