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Superpower, Superheroes

world Updated: Jan 01, 2011 23:43 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

What can you tell about a country from its preference in cinema? Hard to tell, but the new year is going to be one long rollout of superhero films.

Hollywood is banking on an American thirst for a world populated by unusually endowed people defeating clearly delineated enemies in a morally upright way. This has a passing resemblance to how Americans have traditionally believed their foreign policy operates.

These movies will not be about dysfunctional superman like Hancock or the dark bloodiness of a Crow. These are unabashed, clean-cut heroes, taken mostly from comic books of the 1950 to the 1980s, the period some historians call the American Century.

Are the Barons of Beverly Hills telling us something about what the sole superpower is thinking?

Mark Twain once said, "If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes." This may be at the core of what all this superhero celluloid tells us about the US. Is the US going to be satisfied with its present reduced circumstances or will it rage against the fading of the light?

Contemplating US action during 2011, Roger Cohen, writer of The Globalist column in the International Herald Tribune, says his sense "is of an America more inclined to preserve the make-believe of its former sway than embrace the adjustments demanded by the rebalancing of global power."

Here's what Hollywood will be rolling out in the rippling muscle genre - and how out of touch each film is.

Captain America - The First Avenger
No greater expression of nostalgia for America at its greatest and most innocent can exist than this Marvel Comics hero. And he will be on screen in India on July 29th. In the comic book, Captain America shows a streak of rebellion, giving up his costume and turning on his government once or twice.

This $ 140 million film, however, will about him at his Manichean best, showing how a sickly Steve Rogers is converted into a super-soldier to fight Nazi Germany and save the world for democracy. Chris Evans plays the hero. Hugo Weaving will be the evil Nazi villain, the Red Skull. Don't expect too much self-doubt or hidden weakness. This will be as Stars-and-Stripes patriotic as it gets.

Green Hornet
Based on a 1940s radio show, a 1980s television programme and a series of comics that are printed even today, this masked crime-fighter achieved fame outside North America largely because the Green Hornet's TV sidekick, Kato, was played by a young Bruce Lee.

In the original, Kato basically provided muscle to the well-heeled and brains of the Hornet.

In the movie it is more of a G-2 relationship. Kato is an employee of the rich newspaper tycoon, Britt Reid. But Kato puts together the technological wizardry that allows Reid to don a mask and take on gangsters. The white guy is still in charge, but his Asian ally is more of an equal partner in the film, set to be released in just a few weeks' time.

Mind you, the idea of a newspaper owner rolling in dough is as much an anachronism as the idea of a subordinate East Asian (Kato was Japanese, Korean and Filipino at different times in the character's cultural history. In the film he is played by Chinese-origin Jay Chou).

Thor
There can be no greater geopolitical discontinuity than having a movie on the comic book version of a very hoary Norse God of Thunder. Thor is a brawny blonde Nordic who gets tossed out of his celestial home in Asgard for being too full of himself.

He comes to earth, learns humility, falls in love with an earthling played by Natalie Portman, and then fights of the hordes of hell led by his half-brother Loki. In the real world, of course, Nordics are technophile pacificists troubled only by the odd jihadi terrorist group. They won't be saving the world in a hurry and are generally quite irrelevant to the goings on of the planet.

The film debuts in India April 29th, but may well be worthwhile given its director is that Shakespearean genius Kenneth Branagh and Anthony Hopkins plays Odin. But anyone who treats it is a sign of where the world is going may be let down.

Green Lantern
There is something distinctively multilateralist about the Green Lantern Corps, a group of individuals across the universe endowed with a special power ring to keep "intergalactic order". In the film, bad guy Parallax actually seeks to destroy the universe's balance of power, which sounds vaguely international relations theory-like.

Of course it some ends up that trainee Green Lantern, the American Hal Jordan (played by Ryan Reynolds), is the one who alone has to save pretty much everything.

The Green Lantern comic book hero was never particularly impressive, but the special effects potential in his power ring make him obviously screen-friendly.

And one can see why Hal Jordan's heroics would echo subconsciously to a happier past for a US audience. One thinks of the US's interventions in the two world wars - saving the balance of power alone and so on. None of the messy counterinsurgency stuff of today.

And it doesn't stop there. Conan the Barbarian will make a return. So will the X-Men, the Transformers and Alvin and the Chipmunks. The European popular culture is making a cartoon appearance and they have overtly given up on any world-saving, hero stuff. They will inspire a movie about the Smurfs.