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Reboots, sf, and history

31 July, 2011

In response to my last post, which was in part on the latest version of Captain America, Bellebonnesage pointed out that Marvel had played a part in the Civil Rights movement, and in fact, The Howling Commandos were always an interracial unit. Even while watching the film, I did think about the Dirty Dozen, which had a less savory plot device for bringing Jim Brown into the film. I think this is specifically where the current reboot lets us down: there is no explanation. In fact, I think this is one of the joys and problems of reboots in general. Reboots are deliberate erasures of story lines and attempts to take a story along a different timeline in the way that sf has played with for years.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I liked the Star Trek reboot, despite having been a fairly serious Trekkie in my much younger days (Yes, there was a time when I could probably have told you the name of an episode based on a couple of hints, but not the episode number!). The reason why the reboot worked for me was that I was able to assume multiple parallel universes in which things play out differently. Also, I think it needs pointing out that, although the original Star Trek is part of my history, it is set in the future. It’s not actually history, and very little of it takes place in our historical past. “City on the Edge of Forever” may play with the time paradox and the effects of one slight alteration, but it’s always a ‘what if’ sort of episode. It’s also, incidentally, interesting in that it reinforces the idea of Big Events and stuff that doesn’t matter. If Kirk and McCoy save Edith Keeler, Hitler wins: see how one intervention in the timeline can have huge ripple effects? But what about the guy who sees Spock’s ears? How does that affect him, and his family? Still, the big picture is clear: we shouldn’t alter the past.

One might argue that the current Avengers movies are much like the Star Trek reboot. They are fantastic, they are pop culture, and they are clearly not history. This is one of the reasons that casting Idris Elba as Heimdall worked just fine for me — the Marvel Aesir aren’t gods, they’re just guys with better technology who got treated like gods. Not that some people could figure that out. But it is because some people can’t figure it out that I think Captain America‘s producers goofed.

Captain America is a superhero. He’s sf — after all, super-strength imparted through an experimental serum and Stark technology? But he’s also set in the historical past. Obviously, not entirely historical, because the Hydra is totally Marvel, and even there, this is a reboot of the organization.* But yes, our past, and our historical past. The Second World War is, with the Civil War, one of the few historical events/periods that modern US audiences (and given what I’ve seen of the UK A-Level exams, UK audiences) can get a grip on, in the sense that they know something about it. But what they know is often wrong. What they know is often misinformed, and leaves out things like Japanese internment camps, or segregation. So when an audience that doesn’t know the history of the comic, or the comic’s place in history — and I think most people who see the films won’t, because the numbers of people who learn about comic book characters via tv series and films as opposed to actual comic books (and they’d have to go digging backwards to get all of the original story line, which is only available via huge reprint volumes that cost a fortune) — when they don’t know, they are not likely to think about it. A couple of lines of exposition introducing the Howling Commandos could have made a big difference. In leaving out those lines, the reboot cut itself off from an important part of its own history, and rewrote ours.

*Also, despite the coolness of the Hydra logo, it’s not a hydra, it’s a skull-headed octopus! Hydra, people, NINE heads. If a villain is going to tell us that two heads grow back where you cut off one, then perhaps there should be multiple heads?

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