Hello again. A few months ago, I looked at three movies that were directly or indirectly inspired by Philip K. Dick. With the summer season drawing toward a close, I thought I would look at three more movies, the Marvel comic book movies X-Men First Class, Thor, and most recently, Captain America.
I discovered an interesting thread running through the three movies, and, no, it is nothing to do with the Avengers movie in 2011 or the other cookies that link Marvel films. It is, instead, the fact that all three movies are very definitively period pieces.
What do I mean by period pieces? A period piece, in terms of a work of art such as a movie is a work of art that evokes and delineates the era in which it is set. The period can be evoked by dialogue, by costuming, by references to contemporary events and characters, by mise en scene, and even by the type of cinematography. Think of some of the great historical movies throughout the course of cinema. Movies such as The Lion in Winter, or Shakespeare in Love, or Cleopatra bring viewers to the time and place convincingly.
You can even make a movie set today a period piece, and it is my contention that Thor attempts to manage that feat. As a classic example of a movie that succeeds beyond expectations in that regard, take a look at Back to the Future. That movie is a period piece for *both* 1955 and 1985, with the director Robert Zemeckis giving a very good sense of both eras. After all, Marty McFly’s 1985 is winningly and to me as a moviegoer, very specifically captured, with references to Ronald Reagan, then-contemporary music , Marty’s clothing, and more. I believe that Zemeckis was trying to capture the feel of 1985, as opposed to “the present” very specifically. If you look at a lot of movies set in the present, they don’t try to invoke and evoke the year they are filmed in as well as Back to the Future does for 1985.
In that vein, the three Marvel movies are all period pieces, too, with the eras of the 60’s (X-Men First Class), Modern America (Thor) and the 1940’s (Captain America).
X-Men First Class is very definitively a deliberate evocation of the 1960’s. The plot is tied and tangled around the real-life events of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But it goes far beyond that. The costumes and clothing (especially that of Ms. January Jones) could have come directly from the set of Mad Men. The themes of nuclear annihilation and the Cold War helped define the early 60’s, and they are well integrated into the movie. The very dialogue and attitudes in the movie, such as Charles’ fumbling attempts at hitting on women, are almost painfully retro in their style. And X-Men First Class has a harrowing and tense opening scene that is in itself a period piece—a look at a World War II Nazi concentration camp, done in German with subtitles.
By contrast, Thor, in its time set on Earth, is an evocation of 2011 America. This is partially done to show the extreme differences between Earth and Asgard, but let’s go a little deeper. First, take a look at Jane Foster. In the comics, she has normally been a nurse assigned to Dr. Donald Blake, one of the secret identities Thor has often employed in comic history. At best, she’s been little more than a love interest with little volition of her own. In the Thor movie, as portrayed by Natalie Portman, Jane Foster is an astrophysicist. While cynics might suggest that Natalie Portman playing an astrophysicist is as realistic as Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist in a James Bond movie, I think that it is a welcome and contemporary updating of the character for her to do so. And, twenty years from now, Kat Dennings’ character’s antics with a cell phone camera and name checking Facebook will help ground the movie in 2011.
And then there is the scene where Thor attempts to get the Hammer back from S.H.I.E.L.D. As opposed to the heroic, over the top mythic combat we see in Asgard and Jotunheim, this is Thor’s major fight on Earth, while depowered. What I was thinking as the scene, in dark and pouring rain and a lot of furious editing was, that director Kenneth Branagh was unleashing his chance to film a contemporary Bourne-style action sequence for the first time. If the movie had been filmed ten or twenty years ago, that sequence would have been filmed with very different sensibilities in terms of its direction. And students of action films will be able to pinpoint when Thor was filmed based on the sequence.
Then there is Captain America, or to be pedantic, Captain America: The First Avenger. Despite a wrap-around story set in the present, the movie is unbelievably well set in its time frame and its era.
Let me start with the palette. Even more so than X-Men First Class or Thor, Captain America starts with the very palette of the movie to convey that this is a movie set in the 1940’s. The palette is muted, understated and in many places only a little bit removed from black and white. The cinematography and even the framing of scenes (with a quasi 4×3 sort of look to the scene framing in many places) suggest a 1940-era movie. It might have bombed commercially, but the movie could have been filmed in black and white, and it would have worked, I think.
Beyond the palette and cinematography, the movie is unabashedly a “fight the Nazis” 1940’s era cynic-free patriotism. Although Captain America himself is not a killer, and eschews guns, his “let’s kick Adolf’s rear to the curb” never gets old (even if the true fight is against Hugo Weaving’s Johann Schmidt). More pointedly, there is no evidence of world-wearying regrets about war and its costs. That you find in movies set in just about any war since. Additionally, the Saturday morning serial like music really helps set the aural background needed to make you believe you are in the 1940’s.
Unfortunately, since it is completely a movie captured by the era it is set in, the attempts at diversity, both in gender and in the ethnic range of Cap’s team feel a bit forced and out of place. I do give them credit for trying as hard as they could with a movie set in World War II, and “everyone doing their part for the War” is a strongly played theme. Although the movie only technically passes the Bechdel test, given the era and subject matter, I’m willing to give it a pass.
I do think that all three of the movies are worth your attention, especially to Marvel fans. Sure, Captain America and Thor are loaded with references and tie-ins to the “Avengers movies” and even the X-Men First Class movie has a cameo tying it into other X-Men films. Those are just the rainbow sprinkles on top of the ice cream of the movies. None of these movies are main courses of a film, deep movies that offer the depth and emotional resonance of the great works of cinematic art. As far as I can tell, none of the three are even attempting such a feat, although Thor does try for pseudo-Shakespearean family dynamics between Loki, Thor and Odin.
No, what these movies are is entertainment, pure entertainment in the comic book movie subgenre. I do admit that all three movies do veer into tragedy and loss in various ways, especially in their climaxes, but I think that’s necessary emotional ballast to the entertainment. And in any event they are all period pieces in the course of doing that.
Which was my favorite? Hard to say. I was well entertained by them all. I had not expected to like Captain America as much as I did—I walked in to see it to be a completist and walked out very satisfied. I think X-Men First Class is a notch or so more entertaining for me than Thor.
Which is the best, objectively? I think that as a period piece that Captain America edges out X-Men First Class and both are significantly ahead of Thor in evoking the time periods that they do. Ten years from now, when viewers watch either of those films, the technology of the film might be dated, but viewers will be equally transported to the 1960’s and 1940’s respectively. As far as Thor being a period piece, I can amusingly imagine 30 years from now having a young viewer ask their grandmother. “Grandma, what’s a Facebook?”