The first Disney — Marvel CGI-animated mashup, Big Hero 6 (2014), captures the creative potential of two powerhouse companies working under the same roof: a heartwarming, action sci-fi story about an Asian-American robotics prodigy, his pudgy inflatable robo-medic sidekick and a crew of awesomely diverse supernerds tackling crime in the high-tech metropolis of San Fransokyo (what the Bay area should really be — more sushi and fat cats, less tech snobs). With stunning animation and a progressive narrative — introducing a minority protagonist, showcasing the coolness of STEM, embracing the power of “woman-ing up” — Big Hero 6 is sure to attract large fanfare for weeks to come.
But the most intriguing facet of this film is its obscure Marvel comic genesis. Turns out that the original Big Hero 6 (created by Scott Lobdell and Gus Vasquez inn 1998, first appearance in 2008) is a Japanese government-funded superhero team responsible for protecting the country, much like the Avengers. Big Hero 6 were recruited in a post-nuclear Japanese society; the team in the comics encounters a villain known as Everwraith — the corporeal embodiment of all the victims killed during the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings. In Everwraith’s monologue, “thousands of souls were released in a single instant [during the bombings]…instead of departing for the afterworld, they stayed…they became me, and I them” (Sunfire and Big Hero 6 # 3). Despite the devastation, Everwraith believes that the bombings made Japan a stronger, more unified nation and has set to instigate another nuclear attack to bring Japan a step closer to economic and social prosperity.
In this long-forgotten version of ThBig Hero 6, Hiroshima and Nagasaki set the stage for an epic conflict between two Japanese psyches affected by war – one that hopes to engender more fear to strengthen the nation, while the other aims to eliminate fear to create a more peaceful future. Intentional or not, this plot pays homage to the Japanese superheroes (Atomic Boy, Ultraman, among others) that emerged out of the postwar Japan otaku (geek) “art boom” focused on interpreting and internalizing the definition of survival after nuclear holocaust. As epic as this narrative sounds, Big Hero 6 only enjoyed four issues and several appearances in other Marvel universes. Today, it resurfaces as a family-friendly movie with similar thematic concepts (familial loss, technology’s ability to help and hurt societies — I won’t say anything more!), but departs from its darker premise.
Pop-culture enthusiasts saw Disney’s decision to dig deep into Marvel’s archives and select an unknown rag-tag bunch of comic superheroes for its next feature film as a genius business strategy that allows for recycling and re-imagining narratives. After all, artful remakes is an obvious perk of Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment, a company bearing a trove of throwback alternate universes that could engage modern young and adult audiences alike. But with that, one risks trading the soul of a story for another. Don’t get me wrong – I’ll take an endearingly awkward cute balloon bot any day, but all stories have multiple layers. This one has some pretty epic roots.