The comic-book movie has had, to say the least, an up-and-down year. But with the success of "Captain America: The First Avenger," the mid-20th century couldn't be doing any better.
Among Hollywood's purveyors of action and adventure, World War II and the Cold War were settings supposedly best left to yesterday. Yet several times in 2011, we've not only accepted Nazi- and Soviet-era environments; we've embraced them.
The latest example came this weekend, when "Captain America" and its 1940s flag-waving took in $65.8 million, the best opening for any non-sequel this year. In some foreign countries, marketing materials downplayed the context in which Chris Evans' super soldier was fighting. But anyone seeing the movie couldn't miss the WWII flourishes -- the military ambitions of Evans' Steve Rogers, or Hugo Weaving's Wagner-listening Third Reich leader.
Other period American crucibles have been peeking out at the multiplex this summer: the Cuban missile crisis of "X-Men: First Class," where Americans and Soviets take turns being the bad guy (there's also an evil Nazi tossed in for good measure), and "Super 8," where Brezhnev-era paranoia hangs heavily over the proceedings. Like "Captain America," both of those movies performed solidly: "X-Men" sits in the top 10 among all releases this year, and "Super 8" has garnered $124 million to date, second only to "Bridesmaids" among live-action movies based on an original concept.
Two of these films, of course, are based on comic books, and most moviegoers are no more likely to see them because of their history lessons than they would for the Oscar bona fides of the third male lead. But it's notable if not even a little odd that the Cold War and World War II have proved a kind of safe haven for Hollywood. It wasn't long ago (Tom Cruise's "Valkyrie" eyepatch, anyone?) when the mere whiff of Nazism was considered lethal at the box office. Director Joe Johnston and Marvel executives themselves faced the skepticism of box-office pundits when it was revealed that "Captain America" would remain in period.
The decision to use these throwback eras is hardly a matter of deep ideology. But then, that may be the point. Contemporary geopolitics are sufficiently fraught that if you're going to root villains in a national identity (and plenty of action movies, like the Jason Bourne series, largely avoid that, going to shadowy international groups instead), you better go pretty far back.
What's interesting is that, whereas the Cold War and WWII were once popular because they carried a certain aura of mystery and fear, the current vogue is driven by the opposite: by just how non-scary these periods are to 2011 eyes. In a lot of ways, these settings represent the reverse of the moviedom phenomenon of a few years ago, when Hollywood couldn't get enough of contemporary enemies. Then, big-budget movies such as "Body of Lies" and "The Kingdom" sought to put a decidedly more timely spin on the action movie and give villains an Islamofascist face. But filmgoers balked; apparently we want our movie enemies a little less familiar than our real life ones.
Even in this retro craze, there are still limitations, of course. The Russians can't be outright villains -- Moscow's box-office potential is too great. But when it comes to nemeses, Hollywood has figured out that giving us cinematic types a lot more common decades ago is perhaps the surest, and safest, way to make money today.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Chris Evans as "Captain America." Credit: Paramount Pictures