Saturday, 1 November 2014

James Bond or Iron Man? Cultural references in jetpack-related stories

Think of jetpacks, and chances are the image of James Bond from Thunderball (1965) leaps to mind. Or maybe, at least for the younger generation, an image of Iron Man leaps rather higher. Judging by a number of recent jetpack-themed stories in newspapers and other media outlets, Iron Man is now competing with James Bond as the main cultural reference for journalists reporting on developments in the jetpack industry.

The most recent jetpack-related story to receive widespread coverage concerned Martin Aircraft Co. Ltd, a New Zealand-based company that's planning to become listed on the Australian stock exchange to raise capital to develop its jetpack prototype, the Martin Jetpack. This was essentially a business story, and much of the coverage was characteristically dry as one might expect from the business pages.

Some of the articles, for example in the Sydney Morning Herald and the New Zealand Herald, contained no cultural references, but there were a few nods to popular culture in others. The Australian Financial Review, for example, ran the headline, “Martin Jetpack Brings James Bond to Life.” ABC Online commented that the jetpack was “every child's fantasy, with imaginations fuelled for decades by film and television,” including, it suggested, Thunderball. The Wall Street Journal's article, in contrast, focused on inventor Glenn Martin's own inspiration, The Jetsons, and other American science-fiction shows of the 1960s.

As with buses, one waits ages for a jetpack story, then two stories come along as once. A few days before the Martin Jetpack story hit the news, media outlets were excited by the craze for water-powered jetpacks, which are being offered as tourist experiences around the world. The Telegraph reported on the Jetlev-Flyer, a jetpack experience based at Wyboston Lakes, near Bedford, UK, with the headline, “Unleash your inner James Bond: strap on a jetpack,” which was described as “part 007 gadget, part oversized garden sprinkler.” Co-owner of the franchise, Catherine Wheeler, asked as she strapped reporter Ben Saunders into a jetpack, “So do you want to be James Bond or Iron Man?”

Another water-powered jetpack experience, run by Jetpack America, is available near Las Vegas at Pahrump, Nevada. The Los Angeles Magazine reported on the facility and alluded to “Rocketeer” fantasies. Last year, Yahoo News reported on a similar facility in Hawaii, though its story focused on concerns raised by Hawaii's fishermen, marine biologists and state officials. The story's headline stated, “'Iron Man' jetpacks spark concerns in Hawaii,” and asked, “Want to fly like George Jetson or Iron Man?”

In May this year, another type of jetpack, the 'Go Fast Jet Pack', was featured in the Daily Mail with the headline, “Travel like Iron man! Mini wingless jet-pack lets man zoom around at speeds of 77mph (but only for half a minute).” There was a second Iron Man reference within the article: “The 'Go Fast Jet Pack' may not be a sleek as Iron Man's but it allows people to fly after 100 hours of lessons, much like the fictional super hero.” The absence of references to Thunderball in this case is curious, as the jetpack's manufacturer, Jet PI, based the design on the model developed in the 1960s by Bell Systems, which was responsible for James Bond's jetpack. 

It is reassuring, and testament to the significance of James Bond, that after almost 50 years, the Thunderball jetpack meme retains cultural currency. But Iron Man is nipping at James Bond's heels, and it is to the superhero that editors are beginning to turn in their jetpack stories. The likelihood of there being an allusion to James Bond also appears to depend in part on where the story is published. A US-based media outlet is perhaps more likely than a UK-based one to refer to American aspects of culture, while British outlets will lean more strongly to British cultural memes. In other places, such as Australia, there might be more of a mix, though in the case of jetpacks, James Bond remains important.

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