80s kids want to know
Some of us who were kids in the 1980s have felt pangs of nostalgia this summer thanks to rumored plans for a movie about the Canadian superhero team, Alpha Flight. The news couldn’t have come too soon. John Byrne’s well-written and expertly illustrated comic book series, which ran from 1983 to 1994 and has had various one-off revivals here and there, could make for a thrilling cinematic experience if done right.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of superhero films I’ve liked. It’s not just guilt over the idea of enjoying stuff I should have outgrown; it’s that so many adaptations that make oodles of money seem bizarrely overrated. The Avengers movies epitomize our Faustian bargain with CGI—which reportedly accounted for nearly 100% of the visuals in Infinity War, including protagonists—and the endless spectacle fails to distract from the mediocrity of the writing. Three hours is a long time to wait for lines like these, from Thanos at the climax of Endgame: “As long as there are those that remember what was, there will be those that are unable to accept what can be. They will resist.”
The X-Men movie from 2000 is fine for about fifteen minutes. After the thrilling early scene where Wolverine fights a stranger within a cage in a bar in remote Alberta, the whole thing devolves into an inert mess with a somewhat incoherent plot. The 2009 Watchmen adaptation displays a cardinal vice of work that tries too hard to be audacious, as one gratuitously nasty set piece follows another in the seeming expectation that viewers will overlook the corniness of the dialogue, characters, and situations. It just doesn’t gel, and the whole thing has an arch, smirking quality that makes it hard to sit through. The scene where Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” plays is not inspired, it’s godawful.
But an Alpha Flight movie has real potential. If you were an American kid in the 1980s, here was a series that took you into a society like ours, but different in subtle ways. The cityscapes of Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Vancouver were vividly rendered and nicely described in well-written and informative captions, as were the wilderness of northern Quebec, the desolate frontiers of the western plains states, and the remote reaches of the Northwest Territories. A mysterious ambiance drew the reader right in. Behind the pleasant or bland façades of daily life in Canada were the sinister doings of immensely powerful villains and the machinations of the secretive Department H, a government body charged with harnessing the powers of mutants and deploying them against threats to the safety of Canada and the world.
And the mutants were a highly engaging bunch. Here we had flawed individuals who appealed to awkward young readers just beginning to find their way in life. All the protagonists of Alpha Flight were likable. But apart from James MacDonald Hudson, who had something of a reserved Clark Kent personality and whose superhero alter ego, Guardian, nearly always had a bold commanding presence, the members of Alpha Flight had some quality or attribute that might make them a target of jaded bigots.
Marrina was a hybrid of human and aquatic creature. Eugene Judd, aka Puck, was a midget. Jeanne-Marie Beaubier, aka Aurora, struggled with dissociative identity disorder, that is, split personalities. And her brother, Jean-Paul Beaubier, aka Northstar, would come out as the first openly gay character in a Marvel comic. Adding further diversity, the team included a First Nations mystic, Michael Twoyoungman, aka Shaman, and a Polish Jew, Walter Langkowski, aka Sasquatch.
All these characters struggled. Northstar and Aurora were both alienated from a highly traditional sectarian order that sought, as recently as the 1960s, to enforce certain mores and ban certain works of literature in Quebec. Shaman, too, was at the nexus of the contemporary world and a world that modern people failed to understand or accept. Aurora’a relationship with Langkowski was complicated by the existence of not just two personalities but a third emergent one. James Hudson’s relationship with Heather MacDonald Hudson was headed for tragedy. Marina and Snowbird looked and sounded like no one else on the planet. Puck was a victim of ostracism in bars who learned to fight back, and though he was small, you sure wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of one of his punches.
They stand on guard for us
The writers explicitly described Alpha Flight as a team drawn from different regions of Canada and, hence, something of a unifying force for a country riven by internal quarreling. Alpha Flight could play the role of a galvanizing, mobilizing team, one that people could believe in no matter where in Canada they might live or what accent they might have. This is a crucial role.
Today it is not easy to say what, precisely, Canada is, other than in the crudest geographical terms. The nation’s identity has been the subject of furious controversy that reached a nadir when the criminal actions of radical secessionists sparked a national emergency known as the October Crisis of 1970. More than 40 percent of Quebec voters chose secession in a 1980 referendum, and just barely short of 50 percent in a second one in 1995. Today the embers are still burning, feelings still run high, even if many people in Quebec tend to avoid the topic in conversation.
The villains in the Alpha Flight series, no less than the heroes, are outgrowths of a complex social reality. In some cases, they are mutants whom Department H enlisted and who went out into the field full of good intentions but then grew disgruntled. One of the most interesting characters in the series is Alec Thorne, aka Smart Alec, whom James Hudson personally recruited to serve in a prototypical group known as The Flight. Thorne has no powers other than his exceptional intelligence.
Some people regard him as the smartest man in Canada, and he claims to be the smartest man in the world. Thorne wields no weapons but dons a device called an encephalo-helmet that boosts his already genius-level IQ into the stratosphere. Wearing this helmet, Thorne can anticipate others’ moves and can see and hear on strata off-limits to most people.
Smart Alec, is one of the most complex and believable characters in the world of Alpha Flight. Though it may be in poor taste to talk about one’s IQ, it is fascinating to watch Thorne strut around confidently at a chess tournament and loftily tell an intellectual inferior that that player might want to take another look at the absurd position into which he has moved his queen.
Above all, Thorne is fascinating because he’s a believable villain in a larger-than-life context. He is a brash egotist. Sure, he’s smart—but the smartest man in the world?
But Thorne is as erratic in the field as he is personally vain. His anxiety in a real emergency, triggered by the villain Egghead’s plan to launch a nuclear missile at New York from within Canada, has led to the death of another Flight member. As a result of this incident, Hudson decided that a tiered structure for mutants in the service of Department H would work best. Hence the real pros are Alpha Flight, the intermediate level are Beta Flight, and those who, like Thorne, most need guidance and training constitute Gamma Flight. In effect, Hudson has demoted Thorne. This predictably fuels Thorne’s resentment and helps make him open to an offer from the wheelchair-bound villain Jerome Jaxon, who nurses a long and deep grudge against Hudson, to join yet another group, Omega Flight.
In issue #12, entitled “One Shall Surely Die,” Jaxon’s plan to get revenge on Hudson sets in motion events leading to a furious battle between Omega Flight and Alpha Flight inside the World Trade Center, culminating in Hudson’s seeming demise. For his part, Thorne loses his sanity after snatching Shaman’s medicine pouch in the heat of the battle and gazing into it despite its owner’s warnings that Thorne has no idea what lies in its depths. This leads to an unforgettable scene. One frame shows Thorne’s features fully distinct under his encephalo-helmet. In the next frame they are slightly fuzzy. In the next they are a blur. What’s happening inside his mind is left wholly to the reader’s imagination.
The Greatest Canadian Heroes
The makers of an Alpha Flight movie have an array of fascinating options to explore. It would be interesting to see a Mission Impossible-type doomsday scenario in which negotiations between radical secessionists and the rest of the world come down to a chess match, and Alpha Flight has to find or liberate a player who is skilled enough to compete with Smart Alec and deflate his claims to be the smartest man in the world.
But whatever plot the filmmakers run with, what’s important is that they give us more Northstar, more Aurora, more Puck, more Marrina, more Sasquatch, more Shaman, more Snowbird, and more Guardian, more of the endearing and vulnerable characters who spoke so directly to young readers just beginning to find their way in the world.