Whether Abrams can recapture some of that hush—or even whether we still have the ears to hear it—remains to be seen, although if the rapt silence with which audiences drank in the Upmarriage montage, or the first 20 of Wall-E, are anything to go by, people are plenty willing to pay good money for a little silent wonder. Once you've seen one Point Dume beachfront mansion with glass-spiral staircase and en suite nuclear capability turned to matchwood by warring robots, you've seen 'em all. Tony Stark's digs in last year's Iron Man 2 looked natty enough, but the film reduced them to rubble all the same. More intriguing was the casting of Mad Men's John Slattery as Stark's atom-splitting father, glimpsed in a super-8 home movie, complete with Walt Disney moustache and martini-hour manner. This summer, X-Men: First Class follows suit: Kennedy-era lapels, a Pentagon war room straight out of Dr. Strangelove, even the ice-popsicle presence of January Jones, who practically counts as a period detail unto herself. These details confirm what Slattery first suggested: The stylistic salvation of the summer blockbuster seems to run through the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Just as importantly, we get a temporary halt to the onscreen arms race that has stalled so many movies in superpowered detente. Somewhere in the middle of the Matrix movies, I worked out that if you took the number of skills Neo could download, multiplied it by the number of times Agent Smith could regenerate himself and divided it by the number of sequels, there was no reason theoretically why that series need ever end. Both Neo, Smith, and the audience were trapped in an infinite loop of one-upmanship, an eternity of pure, pointless escalation from which the only escape would be to abruptly get up and leave the theatre. By contrast, X-Men: First Class tacks back to a time when a nuclear blast was something you didn't recover from and generally wanted to avoid, not least for reasons of historical continuity. The film must leave the world as the history books found it, which should help dampen the temptation toward megalomaniacal plot-swell that killed the previous X-Men movie.
Rolling back the clock even further we have the last of this summer's historical jaunts, Captain America: The Last Avenger. The original Captain America ditched his stars-n-stripes uniform to become the crime-fighter Nomad in 1972, out of disgust with Watergate and U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam. With Superman threatening to renounce his American citizenship in a recent edition of Action Comics ("I'm tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy"), director Joe Johnston was perhaps wise to look up Captain America in 1943, when comic book superheroes bestrode the globe like the gentle giants they were, and Nazis could be rubbed out with impunity. * Origins stories are all the rage in Hollywood, of course, and Johnston is something of a dab hand at retro thrills, having directed The Rocketeer in 1991—a ripping adaptation of Dave Stevens' 1982 comic about a jet-pack-wearing superhero who zips across the sky in Deco-ish tribute to matinee serials past.
On the other hand, Christopher Nolan didn't return to the 1940s for Batman Begins, and the most recent Spider-Man movies didn't see fit to return Spidey to the decade from whence he came, though nothing says 1962 like being bitten by a radioactive spider, and Tobey Maguire—we happen to know—happens to look great in bellbottoms. So why this sudden outbreak of period superheroism? Why are our thrill rides doubling up nostalgia trips? Is everyone that fearful of the future, these days?
Let's face it: if any franchise is in need of a little reboot, it's America's. She's seen one too many pointless sequels (the Iraq war), CGI effects (tornadoes, floods, explosions in the Gulf), and cartoonish villains (Palin, Trump) recently. Only the killing of Bin Laden has served to quicken the nation's pulse. Maybe the Tea Partiers are onto something after all. What we need is a return to basics, a refresher course, a rewrite, a younger cast, an origins story to end all origins story. As Miss Palin so helpfully puts it: Don't Retreat, Reload. Or was that the Wachowski brothers?
Corrections, May 24, 2011: This article originally stated that X-Men: First Class was set in 1963. Many of the movie's events—particularly those related to the Cuban Missile Crisis—are set in 1962. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
The article also misspelled the name of the Star Trek character Lt. Uhura. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)
This sentence originally stated that this edition of Action Comics was "forthcoming"—it hit newsstands at the beginning of May—and misspelled the last name of Joe Johnston. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)