History transformed by monsters and superheroes transformers of history

The new Transformers movie includes the Moon landing, while Captain America and the X-Men meet Nazis. Kaleem Aftab says that directors are behaving irresponsibly
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The Independent Culture

There was an inventive trailer for Transformers: Dark of the Moon that hid the fact that the preview was for the third instalment of the robot franchise until the very last images. Instead, the first trailer released for the film made it seem as though it was for a film about the first men landing on the Moon, until the final moment when a machine kicked into life and the trailer revealed itself as just the latest in a slew of blockbuster superhero movies of the summer that use historical events to enhance their story.

In Michael Bay's film, the action in 1969 takes place in the opening sequences before a jump to the present day and the continuing adventures of Sam Witwicky, the human friend of the heroic Autobots, played by Shia LaBeouf. Iconic images of the Moon landing and space travel are included, from the proclamation made by President Kennedy that America will put a man on a Moon, to the tension of the Space Shuttle being launched and Neil Armstrong's famous line about it being "one small step for man".

At first glance it all seems like fairly harmless fun, putting superhero tales into real historical situations and using this connection to heighten tension in the audience. After, all it's a convention of alien movies such as Independence Day that Area 51 will be portrayed as holding a museum of real aliens and spaceships that have been locked away by the American military to protect humans from alien life forms.

The highlight of Indiana Jones IV is seeing the adventurer get caught up in a nuclear test in Nevada. Even the first Transformers movie mixes fact with fiction, opening in 1897 with President Herbert Hoover and the building of the Hoover dam. What is different about this summer's tent-pole movies is the use of archive footage and how entwined the plots have become with historical events; none more so than the recently released X-Men: First Class.

The film starts in occupied Poland in 1944. Ten-year-old Erik (played by Bill Milner) watches helplessly as his parents are led away towards a concentration camp, only for the young child to bend a gate with his mind. When Erik cannot use the power of his mind to move a coin on a table the officer shoots Erik's mother dead, precipitating a rage of anger in which the child destroys the room with his power.

The incorporation of history into the Matthew Vaughn-directed picture continues as the action moves to 1962 and the run-up to the Cuban missile crisis. Again, archive footage of President Kennedy can be seen on television screens.

Almost half a century after his assassination the charismatic president is the most familiar face in the biggest movies of the summer. The plot sees evil Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the mutant who killed Erik's mother, try to create a nuclear war by encouraging American and Russian soldiers to place missiles in Turkey and Cuba. Elements of history are completely distorted as Russian soldiers blow up their own ship that is transporting missiles, and a stealth-fighter jet is invented years before it came into service (why they could not use the U2 plane that took pictures of a base being prepared in Cuba is not explained).

The trouble is that, as the Spider-man tagline so succinctly put it, "with great power comes great responsibility", and it seems that film-makers are shirking their responsibility when it comes to historical events.

In the United States the X-Men film has come under particular fire because of its failure to recognise the Civil Rights movement. The X-Men, being a bunch of mutants, have traditionally been praised because of the manner in which they portray the outsider in society, and among their clan have been gays, Jews and blacks, yet the film set in 1962 ignores Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. The prequel is, bizarrely, a step backward in this regard, and race is not an issue, even for the two young black members of the clan, one of whom, played by Zoe Kravitz, is first seen as a stripper.

The criticism has elicited a response from producer Bryan Singer, who also directed the first two in the series, and who argued: "I don't know if every movie has to be a history lesson. But there's a lot of history to cover. If we sequel-ised this, it could inhabit a whole world of the 20th century... When [First Class] happened, Kennedy had not been assassinated and the Vietnam War hadn't happened yet... [But] what's really interesting about the Sixties setting is the Civil Rights movement."

But clearly not interesting enough to be mentioned in the first film.

The backlash highlights a problem that never existed when superhero movies were about characters living in Metropolis and Gotham City. The big change in the superhero movie genre and its dealings with history came when comic-book company Marvel began having a much greater input in how its characters were represented on screen, partly as a response to characters from rival company DC continually being more successfully brought to screen. All of a sudden Iron Man was seen gallivanting in Iraq, and the forthcoming Captain America starts with our hero recruited to fight Nazis in the Second World War. Nazis have been popular in superhero movie mythology. As well as in X-Men and Captain America they've made appearances in Hellboy and The Rocketeer.

The trend for rewriting history in movies is not a new phenomenon, and films have been criticised for it ever since cameras began rolling. But what makes this latest wave more open to criticism is the complete failure to ignore historical accuracy when it gets in the way of plot.

It all seemed such fun when Forrest Gump ran his way through modern American history in 1994. Technology had finally allowed a fictional figure to feature in historical events – he talks to President Johnson about Vietnam and President Nixon advises him to stay at the Watergate. One of the many successful aspects of the film was that it was able to use hindsight to treat historical moments with respect, and wasn't afraid to deal with big issues such as Civil Rights and war.

The biggest rewriting of history, and the moment that seems to have given blockbuster-makers carte blanche to ride roughshod over history came with Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds in 2010. The film rewrites the end of the Second World War with Hitler and his cohorts being blown up at the world premiere of a German propaganda film in France. It feels a bit cheap and disrespectful to all those who died fighting in the war. Tarantino argued that creative licence over-rode questions of taste: "My characters didn't exist, but if they had existed they could have changed the outcome of the war."

What Tarantino and the X-Men movies fail to recognise is that, no matter how fictional the characters are, when dealing with the real world, if history is changed, it needs to be for a better reason than it simply it being more entertaining.

'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' is out on 29 June; 'Captain America: The First Avenger' is out on 29 July; 'X-Men: First Class' is out now