“Rambo was the uber-mensch of the period, his engorged muscles and phallic weaponry making a symbolic statement about the reawakening of American military power after its period of post-Vietnam dormancy” (Prince, American Cinema of the 1980s, pg. 12). Americans rallied around these films that gave some hope that one day their defeat in Vietnam would be avenged. Today, as war rages on once more in the Middle East and America lives in fear of terrorists, there is once more a need for these kind of films. And so, the Revisionist War Film has been revived in the Superhero Film.
Superheroes seem to have a knack for popping up just as America goes to war. Superman and Captain America were both born during World War II, kicking off the Golden Age of Comic Books. Similarly, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Hulk all arrived just in time for the Vietnam War and the Silver Age. Even the Cold War brought us the Dark Age. The main difference this time is that instead of just Superhero Comics getting the boost, Superhero Films have exploded in popularity like never before. Before the Iraq War began, there was maybe one Superhero Film a year, two if we were really lucky. As soon as war was declared, however, at least three or four Superhero Films were released per year. As Cole Abaius put it in his article “Is the Iraq War Propelling the Superhero Film Phenomenon”, “[w]ithout stating directly that the Iraq War is the sole cause for a boon in superhero films… it seems clear that it’s a major factor in one of the largest business trends in recent Hollywood history.”
At first, the military had no place in Superhero Films. The movies that came out in 2000 and 2002 (X-Men, Spider-Man, and Blade II) were all devoid of any military presence; they all went into production before 9/11, so this is hardly surprising. But the U.S. Military were intricately linked to the plots of the films of 2003, Hulk and X2: X-Men United. The next few years saw our heroes taking on super-terrorists instead of simple super-villains: Hellboy’s Rasputin, Spider-Man 2’s Doc Ock, Fantastic 4’s Dr. Doom.
Hell, in Batman Begins, Ra’s al Ghul’s plan is to quite literally spread terror. X-Men: The Last Stand was one of the last films to show superheroes fighting against the military; less than a year later, in Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the military was begging superheroes for help. In 2008, five years after war had been officially declared, Iron Man became the first superhero to directly take on terrorists in Afghanistan. And after the credits rolled, he became the first superhero officially recruited by the U.S. Military.
So if Superhero Films can also be seen as the natural progression of Revisionist War Films, what does that make this summer’s hits X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger? Both films are completely unique within the genre in that they are the first films to take place in the past and deal with actual historical events. While Superhero Comics have a well-known habit of creating alternate histories, First Class was the first film to do so and so was the first Revisionist Superhero Film.
Captain America: The First Avenger went one step further and became the first film to truly blend the War and Superhero Genres. Here we have a superhero created for and by the American Government whose only purpose is to fight America’s enemies. Steve Rogers’ journey follows all the major story beats of the Superhero Film almost as closely as Hal Jordan did in Green Lantern.
But at the same time, the film has all the trappings of a World War II Combat Film: “the hero, the group of mixed ethnic types… who come from all over the United States (and Brooklyn), the objective they must accomplish, their little mascot, …their weapons and uniforms” (Basinger, The World War II Combat Film, pg. 15). The scene that demonstrates all of this best is when Rogers, as Captain America, goes to save a group of P.O.W.’s from a Hydra facility. Not only is this Captain America’s Debut and First Fight, but he is rescuing soldiers from all over the country who rally around him like a mascot. The two genres are blended throughout the rest of the film, creating the very first true Superhero-War Film hybrid