When Whatever Becomes What If: Perverse Pleasures of X-Teen Estrangement

Diana Sandars, University of Melbourne |

Wearing flying goggles, headphones, shiny silver leather jacket, black Pink Floyd T shirt and an expression of mischievous arrogance, we watch a teenaged Quicksilver causally jogging pakour-style along the walls of a steely industrial kitchen.  Armed Officers, X-men, food and bullets are all held hostage to bullet-time motion and one X-teenager’s desire. This is the “Time in a Bottle” scene from Xmen: Days of Future Past (2014), a choreographed musical number framed by Quicksilver’s subjective narration, set to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” a song released in 1973 – one month after the time in which the movie was set. When the “Time in a Bottle” sequence commenced in X-men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer 2014), I shared in the surge that ran through the audience around me. We all moved in unison, leaning forward in our seats, eyes wide and bodies tensed with the phenomenological overload of the sublime. The finale of this sequence produced a ripple of electricity, passing like a wave through the cinema, uniting us all as most of us exclaimed and cheered. Why this one sequence should elicit such a memorable cinematic experience has intrigued me ever since, and accordingly, is the subject of this article.

Time in a bottleThe “Time in a Bottle” sequence is a highly choreographed comical performance number that resolves a pivotal moment in the plot via and establishes why this secondary character in the X-men franchise actually deserves a primary place in Bryan Singer’s X-men movie franchise. The adolescent Quicksilver (Pietro Maximoff) first appeared in the X-men comics in March 1964 as Magneto’s son, possessing the ability to excite the molecules in his body so that he can move and think faster than the speed of sound. In the “Time in a Bottle” sequence the combination of these abilities, Quicksilver’s appearance and the reaction he elicits from the audience evokes the marvelousness, intensity, immediacy, but most importantly, the estrangement of the sublime. Scott Bukatman argues that it is, “the precise function of science fiction […] to create the boundless and infinite stuff of sublime experience and thus to produce a sense of transcendence beyond human finitudes.” (Scott Bukatman, 2003. 51). In this highly choreographed performance number the perverse and sublime cohere to redefine the ontology of interstitial teen identity and that of the superhero, as the “whatever” of teenage disaffection is reconfigured via Sci Fi’s “what if.”

In the X-men comics being a mutant is a metaphor for the interstitial nature of a teen identity – neither adult nor child. Scott Bukatman argues that this forms an underlying “what if” appeal of this series – the “what if” being an outsider was actually a site of empowerment, rather than disaffection. However, as Tweeted responses to the unveiling of Bryan Singer’s Quicksilver reflect, the formal and temporal evolution of the X-men franchise has recoded Sci-Fi’s “what if” underlying this X-men -verse so that it is predominantly the domain of adults and bodies conforming to the superhero hieroglyph. Although X-men bodies “encourage an alternative understanding of the superbody hieroglyph (one that co-exists with hypermasculine fantasy),” (Bukatman, 2003. 59) X-men characters in screen form are coded by the iconographic conventions of bodily excess central to the superhero genre. This imbues them with spectacular over-determined bodies “locked into ‘dynamic’ heroic poses, […] where [similar to body builders] the look of power, virility, prowess, counts for more than function.” (Bukatman, 2003. 59.) Bryan Singer’s Quicksilver challenges the dominant superhero hieroglyph by remaining faithful to the adolescent body of the X-men body, the body of the superhero outsider.

Quicksilver was revealed a month prior to the film’s release via his appearance on the front cover of the March 2014 edition of Empire Magazine. The willowy nature of actor Peter Evens’ body is emphasized as he resists the chest-out, body squarely front on, chin up and staring at the camera, “superhero stance”. Instead Quicksilver appears to have just arrived in the frame. He is posed standing side on (minimising his broad chest), arms crossed, staring at camera with an expression of teen disaffection and arrogance. He is wearing the uniform of the Emo-teen, black Tshirt, black Adidas sneakers, black pants with an 80s style utility belt and a silver black leather jacket. This framing positions his body in a manner that resists fetishisation and as being secondary to the sublime nature of his mutant abilities. More importantly, the colour smear across the left side of the page implies Quicksilver’s movement into the frame, highlighting his ability to colonise any space, including photo bombing the cover of Empire Magazine.

This reinvention of Quicksilver from the chiselled masculinity of the blue suited of the 1960s Marvel comics to a teenager dressed in 1980’s style clothing, was treated as an unacceptable perversion of his character by fans prior to the film’s release. Fans tweeted that this incarnation of Quicksilver was “a giant doofball”, “underwhelming”, and

“[…] are we really supposed to get excited over a first reveal of a superhero wearing sneakers and a leather jacket?” (Screen Crush Accessed 22.1.2015)

Quicksilver comicAnother fan tweeted:

“oh my god Evan Peters as Quicksilver in Days of Future Past this is so awful what is he a spy kids villain why?! (Jones Accessed January 27, 2014)

But the most revealing tweet of all was:

“If the goal for Quicksilver was “Corey Feldman from Dream a Little Dream,” he looks great.” (Ryan. Accessed 22.11.2014)

As these responses suggest, Bryan Singer’s Quicksilver possesses an adolescent body inscribed as a site teen social anxiety via his subcultural clothing style. By inserting a seemingly mundane teen body in the place of the hyper-athleticised adult body, Xmen: Days of Future Past strips the superhero body of its look of power, virility and mastery. Quicksilver stands apart from the other teens recruited to help Xavier and his Xmen, in both Xmen: and the first X-men Franchise. In X-Men First Class (Matthew Vaughan 2011), a lengthy training montage sequence is devoted to the transformation of the teenage mutants recruited by Charles Xavier into their roles as superheroes. This transformation culminates in the teenage mutants wearing a body hugging navy blue and yellow uniform that code these characters with the look of power and virility expected of the superhero hieroglyph. In contrast, Quicksilver’s is an average body that resists these bodily fantasies of aggrandisement or obsession, but still performs super-heroic actions. X-Men First Class and X Men- Days of Future Past apply Sci–Fi’s perverse “what if” to liminal teen identities, and as the response to this indicates, an exploration of the gaps and fissures the representation and cultural expectations of screened superhero identities.

Scott Bukatman explains the centrality of the body to the superhero hieroglyph as:

Superhero comics embody social anxiety, especially regarding the adolescent body and its status within adult culture. Superhero bodies are mysterious, invested with magical abilities and metamorphic pliability. […] and Superhero comic present body narratives, bodily fantasies, that incorporate (incarnate) aggrandizement and anxiety, mastery and trauma. The body is obsessively centred upon. (Bukatman, 2003. 49.)  (emphasis mine)

Bryan’s Singer’s version of Quicksilver’s body, age and attire all contribute to a perversion of these conventions. By its very nature, Quicksilver’s superhero ability to move at the speed of sound perverts the superhero bodily obsession because the ability that codes his body as magical also obscures his body from the human eye. Therefore, unlike his screen contemporaries, it is Quicksilver’s ability that locates him as superhero on a par with The Flash and Quicksilver’s fellow Avengers. Quicksilver is commanding, almost invulnerable, a potential “leader, dominator, controllers – in short Masters of the Universe,” (Bukatman 2003. 191) but his attire, and body obfuscates this superhero status, as does his attitude. In X-men: Days of Future Past, Quicksilver’s superhero status is not written on his body, instead it is coded by its function, the enactment of the sublime’s marvellous, which outside of the “Time in a Bottle” sequence, cannot be seen. The “Time in the Bottle” sequence draws attention to this as it is framed through Quicksilver’s subjective narration. The elicitation of the sublime’s “marvellous element, introduced into an apparently realistic world,” Simon Spiegel argues, creates an estrangement on formal and diegetic levels, “making things appear strange or unusual,” (Spiegel, 2008: 370) and consequently open to revision. The “Time in a Bottle” sequence allows us to affectively experience the marvellous of the sublime precisely because a character whose age, physicality and clothing do not conform to the superhero hieroglyph it enacts. This locates Bryan Singer’s Quicksilver as a perversion and estrangement from the conventions of a superhero franchise whose characters are already defined as mutants – categorical mistakes. The expectation for the adherence to the superhero hieroglyph, and resistance to the altering of its conventions, even in a genre that prides itself on perversion, is evident in the responses to the unveiling of this character prior to the film’s release.

It is not only in Quicksilver’s appearance that teen identity is reconfigured as an interstitial space of sublimity. In addition to this perversion, the “Time in a Bottle” sequence recodes Quicksilver’s unique ability as a site of perverse pleasure born from the frustration of estrangement inherent in the liminal identity of being a teenager.  The “Time in a Bottle” sequence further rewrites the realm of the superhero as defined by “the excessive and arbitrary aspects of youth behaviour,” (Speed, 1998: 25) a dominant convention of teen films. In addition to being coded by the estrangement of the sublime, Quicksilver’s attire and attitude further set him apart from a world defined by the estrangement and altruism of Professor Xavier’s X-men’s mutants. The “Time in a Bottle” sequence reduces superhero action to a poetic teenage prank that is best described by Jonathan Richardson’s definition of the sublime, where “the sublime […] must be Marvellous and surprising. It must strike vehemently upon the Mind, and Fill and Captivate it irresistibly.” (Richardson, 1719: 35) This reconfiguration plays with one of Sci-Fi’s archetypal fears: what if we are not in control, but instead are being controlled?

Quicksilver’s irreverent play with the authority figures in the room and his arrogant belief that he will not be apprehended or held accountable for his actions, invest his performance with a level of ordinariness coding his actions as a teenage prank, akin to those performed by leading males in 1980s teen comedies, such as Biff taunting George McFly that his shoe is untied so that he will look down and Biff can slap him across the back of the head in Back To The Future (Robert Zemeckis 1985). As well as lending an element of comedy to the “Time in a Bottle” sequence, this ordinariness naturalizes Quicksilver’s character so that we read his actions as not just about what he can do, but we delight in the ordinariness enacted by what he does. This comedic play is underwritten by Burke’s concept of delight, which he argues, “results from the idea of self-preservation, provided that the pain and danger inevitably associated with the latter do not ‘press too nearly’ but involve us only through the effect of curiosity, sympathy, or imitation. Burke asserts that whatever arouses this delight […] is sublime. (Boulton, 2008:xxxvi) The delight is not so much in the self-preservation of avoiding a bullet, but at being held at a distance from the pain and danger inherent in the disaffected juvenile masculinities of X-men and teen films.

For Quicksilver the estrangement of teen identity is accentuated by the frustration of moving at a faster pace to the mundane world. In her article on teen films, Lesley Speed expands on Lawrence Grossberg’s contention that the opposition between youth and adult authority is mapped across values of mobility and experimentation versus constraint. Speed argues that, “the car in the teen genre is central to an association between adolescent identity and spatial mobility.”(Speed 1998: 27) Quicksilver’s reconfigures this connection between a juvenile identity and special mobility, with a freedom that transcends that afforded by a car. This transcendence is still coded by the discourses of restriction inherent in the interstitial nature of teen identity, an ambivalent status defined by Burke as ‘delightful horror.’ Scott Bukatman explains, “the sublime is grounded in a pervasive ambivalence- [.] tension between diminution and exaltation is evident in the oxymoron of Burke’s ‘delightful horror’ […].” (Bukatman, 2003: 92) The delight is evident in Quicksilver’s skilled self-preservation and his witty application of this skill to save the mutants, but the horror for Quicksilver is the burden of being trapped in a world that moves at a infuriatingly slow pace. Sci-Fi’s archetypal fear of being controlled is thereby comically layered with the fear that we are being controlled by a very cocky teenager, who has more knowledge, power and authority than the adults he controls, and is driven by arrogance and frustration rather than heroic altruism. The “Time in a Bottle” sequence thereby recodes the indeterminacy of teen identity as the delightful horror of being able to determine the fate of humanity.

Quicksilver’s pranks and slow motion movement seem imprisoned by the Andante or meandering tempo of the “Time in a Bottle” song and the wistful yearning of its lyrics. Accordingly the music in this sequence combines with the visual style to create the heightened emotion of Burke’s sublime, creating a connective via an affective, bodily response and an empathetic engagement with this moment of teen identity perversion. The lyrics of the song detail a longing to have more time and the limitations of mortality and every day life. The intent of these lyrics is perverted when they narrate the world that Quicksilver inhabits. Instead of a regret that time moves too quickly, these lyrics affectively convey Quicksilver’s perpetual isolation and frustration at being bottled up by a world that cannot keep up – an analogy for the angst and alienation of adolescence, a central theme of X-men comics. (Bukatman, 2003: 50) D. Robert DeChaine argues that in powerful songs, ‘we lose ourselves…submit ourselves to the slippage from mind to body, body to mind, self to other’. (DeChaine, 2002: 81) He argues that affect is not merely feeling, but ‘the intensity that allows us to feel’; it is the intensity that gives these feelings meaning. […] Affect is the “confluences of cognitive, artistic, and sensory knowledges.” (DeChaine, 2002: 81) The “Time in a Bottle,” sequence amplifies the affective power of the 1973 pop song on the soundtrack via the image of the marvellous enacted by Quicksilver and the knowledge of the delightful horror of this teen existence.

Teen estrangementThe “Time in a Bottle” sequence further contributes to the sense of Quicksilver’s social isolation, and by extension, that of the teenager, via a disjuncture between the almost historically accurate folk song on the non-diegetic soundtrack and the very contemporary visual aesthetics used to frame Quicksilver’s actions. While Jim Croce’s song, “Time in a Bottle” was released in 1973 and so is historically congruent, the visual style in this sequence is not. The hyper real visual aesthetics are derived using Sci-Fi conventions of 3600 shots per second and CGI, that have become very familiar tropes for the creation of a very contemporary Sci Fi’s landscape, particularly since The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers 1999).

This creation of a diegesis built on a disjuncture between the compiled score on the non-diegetic soundtrack and the very contemporary visual effects vs a pre-digital historical setting, has been used in other films with an historical setting, including Marie Antoinette (Sophia Coppola 2006), The Great Gatsby (Baz Lurhmann 2013) and Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino 2012). The contemporary music used in these film functions as a lingua franca, an empathetic and indelible bridge to the past, so that past cultures and characters are not held at a distance or removed, they are here and now, and it is personal. Kathleen Stewart accounts for this via her definitive article on the role of nostalgia in late capitalism, when she argues that, “in positing a ‘once was’ in relation to a ‘now’ [nostalgia] creates a frame for meaning, a means of dramatizing aspects of an increasingly fluid and unnamed social life.’’ (Stewart 1998: 27) This convention is perverted in the “Time in a Bottle” sequence as the lingua franca function of the soundtrack builds a bridge that transports us to a past that is in conflict with Sci-Fi’s sublime future.

The nostalgia is coded at the aural, rather than the visual level, and emphasised by lyrics of longing and loss and as a result we are not invited to read this sequence as a reimaged past, but as a interstitial space that simultaneously here, now and then. The music in the “Time in a Bottle” sequence doesn’t provide a lingua franca, instead it provides ironic separation, denaturalising a cultural familiarity with the past. The lingua franca assists in making the ordinary every day of a mythologised past appear alien, a perversion of Sci Fi’s convention of making the alien look ordinary. The affective response elicited by the effect of this lingua franca results in a delight in the momentary release from the mediocrity of US culture in 1973, and an affective understanding of the degree to which Quicksilver’s sublime abilities and quick thinking mind isolates him from the society around him.

Most importantly, an affective response to this musically-driven performance number facilitates an empathy for and identification with this incarnation of Quicksilver. The musical performance that evokes the sublime facilitates a recuperation of the “doofball” via the musical affect. This is reflected in by Alex Suskind’s review of the film when he states,

Well, once Days of Future Past opened last Friday, those naysayers likely found themselves holding their tongues. Not only is Peters’ version faithful to the comic book, but he provides viewers with what is by far the film’s most entertaining sequence. (Suskind, 2014, Accessed 22.11.2014.)

Suskind’s reclamation of Bryan Singer’s Quicksilver can be understood via Shlovsky’s concept of Ostranenie, which, “describes a process in the history of art, [where] in the course of time, a style once thought to be revolutionary will become ‘normal’ and thereby will be canonized.” [1] In the promotional poster for the subsequent X-men film, X-men: Apocalypse, the characters are united in their assumption of the superhero hieroglyph in their pose and outfits – all except Quicksilver. Quicksilver’s character appears to have again photo-bombed the picture, his unique fashion coding him with the mundanity of teenage existence and his cocky smile suggesting that no one even knew he was at the shoot. Consequently, as a product of the sublime, Bryan Singer’s Quicksilver perversely alters established conventions surrounding superheroes and teens on screen.

Days of Future PastThe “Time in a Bottle” sequence is defined by sublime dissonance that extends beyond all of the formal and stylistic features of the film, the hieroglyph for the screened superhero and Quicksilver’s character itself so that we are momentarily overwhelmed by the delightful horror and marvelous of Burke’s sublime. However, this is only one of many aspects of this sequence that accounts for the heightened collective audience reaction and my ongoing fascination with this one sequence. It is a rare moment in the contemporary era of superhero films where the culturally and diegetically secondary character, a teenager coded by the mundane, assumes authority, responsibility and narrative control, moving beyond the speed of sound to re-orchestrate not only the outcome of the plot events as they unfold, but the sublime possibilities of teen superheroes lost the adult-centric screened superhero hieroglyph. Accordingly, Quicksilver’s perversion of the superhero hieroglyph creates an interrogatory space that invites a reconsideration of both the privileged identities in the X-men-verse and teen identity on screen. The historical soundtrack competes with the CGI effects on screen catapulting us to temporally interstitial space defined by an irreconcilable indeterminacy, the space of screened teenagers since the 1950s, and it leaves us there, waiting for X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer 2016) to retrieve us.

References

Scott Bukatamn, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003.

Robert DeChaine, “Affect and Embodied Understanding in Musical Experience.” Text & Performance Quarterly. Apr2002, Vol. 22 Issue 2, p79 – 98.

James T Boulton, Ed. “editor’s introduction,” Edmund Burke: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, London and New York: Routledge, 2008

Alan Klein, Little Big Men: Body Building Subculture and Gender Contradictions. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993

Jonathan Richardson, An Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism as it relates to Painting, (1719)

Mike Ryan (@mikeryan) January 27, 2014”. pic.twitter.com/haQbQ57wjf Cited in Yahoo Movies, https://www.yahoo.com/movies/bp/quicksilver-makeover-inspires–x-men–nerd-rage-204009259.html. Accessed 22.11.2014.

Bryan Singer, (dir) X-Men: Days of Future Past 2014.

——— (dir) X-Men: Apocolype 2016

Lesley Speed, “Tuesday’s Gone: the Nostalgic Teen Film” Journal of Popular Film and Television. Spring, 1998, Vol. 26 Issue 1, 24 – 33. 25.

Simon Spiegel, “Things Made Strange: On the Concept of “Estrangement” in Science Fiction Theory,” Science Fiction Studies, Volume 35, 2008.

Kathleen Stewart, “Nostalgia – A Polemic,” Cultural Anthropology, 8/1/1988, Vol. 3, Issue 3, p. 227-244

Alex Suskind, “Let’s Talk About Quicksilver in ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past, ‘ Mashable, http://mashable.com/2014/05/27/lets-talk-about-x-men-days-of-future-past/ Accessed 22.11.2014.

Robert Zemeckis, (dir) Back to the Future 1985.

[1] Simon Spiegel, “Things Made Strange: On the Concept of “Estrangement” in Science Fiction Theory,” Science Fiction Studies, Volume 35, 2008. 369.

Bio

Dr. Diana Sandars is an honorary fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Australia where she is currently co-ordinating courses on Australian film and television and contemporary film and cultural theory.  Diana also lectures at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and has published chapters on Sci- fi, Ally McBeal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and contributed to the academic journals: Australian Screen Education, Idiom, Metro, The Refractory, Screening the Past and Senses of Cinema.

 

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