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Table of contents :
Introduction: The Live-Action Superhero Genre
1 Hollywood Superheroes: Commercial Economy, Spectacle, and the Universe
2 Supermen and Wonder Women: Gender Ideals and Live-Action Superheroes
3 Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
4 America, Nostalgia, and Exceptionalism
5 Diversity and Marginalization
6 Spoofs, Parody, and Camp
Conclusion: Superhero Fatigue?
The Modern Superhero in Film and Television
Hollywood’s live-action superhero films currently dominate the worldwide box-office, with the characters enjoying more notoriety through their feature film and television depictions than they have ever before. This book argues that this immense popularity reveals deep cultural concerns about politics, gender, ethnicity, patriotism and consumerism after the events of 9/11. Superheroes have long been agents of hegemony, fighting for abstract ideals of justice while overall perpetuating the American status quo. Yet at the same time, the book explores how the genre has also been utilized to question and critique these dominant cultural assumptions. Jeffrey A. Brown is a Professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, USA. He is the author of Black Superheroes: Milestone Comics and Their Fans, Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture, and Beyond Bombshells: The New Action Heroine in Popular Culture.
Routledge Advances in Comics Studies Edited by Randy Duncan, Henderson State University Matthew J. Smith, Radford University 1
Reading Art Spiegelman Philip Smith
The Modern Superhero in Film and Television Popular Genre and American Culture Jeffrey A. Brown
The Modern Superhero in Film and Television Popular Genre and American Culture
Jeffrey A. Brown
First published 2017 by Routledge 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017 and by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2017 Taylor & Francis The right of Jeffrey A. Brown to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Brown, Jeffrey A., 1966– author. Title: The modern superhero in film and television: popular genre and American culture / by Jeffrey A. Brown. Description: New York: Routledge, 2016. | Series: Routledge advances in comic studies; 2 | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2016026537 Subjects: LCSH: Superhero films—United States—History and criticism. | Superhero television programs—United States—History and criticism. Classification: LCC PN1995.9.S76 B76 2016 | DDC 791.43/652—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016026537 ISBN: 978-1-138-89778-6 (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-315-70898-0 (ebk) Typeset in Sabon by codeMantra
For Hudson and Chance, my real superheroes
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Introduction: The Live-Action Superhero Genre
Hollywood Superheroes: Commercial Economy, Spectacle, and the Universe
Supermen and Wonder Women: Gender Ideals and Live-Action Superheroes
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
America, Nostalgia, and Exceptionalism
Diversity and Marginalization
Spoofs, Parody, and Camp
Conclusion: Superhero Fatigue?
This page intentionally left blank
Introduction The Live-Action Superhero Genre
Genres have been an important categorical strategy for Hollywood entertainments since the dawn of feature films in the early years of the twentieth century. As film (and later television) genres emerged and developed they typically carried on the core elements previously established in literature, theatre, and vaudeville. At times the unique creative properties of motion pictures meant that film genres introduced new components, developed a range of subgenres, or mutated into entirely unique forms in their own right. Hollywood has always diversified its content and produced a wide range of genre fare in an effort to attract as many ticket buying viewers as possible. Still, different moments in American culture have been closely aligned with specific film genres. In the silent film era slapstick comedies and melodramas ruled; during the Great Depression escapist musicals were popular; film noir represented a bleak view of the world informed by the trauma of World War II; the Cold War climate of the 1950s gave rise to science fiction horror; the ideology of the Ronald Reagan years were reflected in the muscular action movies of the 1980s, and so on. In these early years of the twenty-first century, superheroes have become the undeniably dominant American film genre. Live-action superheroes achieved some rare earlier successes on both the big and small screen. In the 1940s several superheroes were brought to life on film in popular adventure serials including Captain Marvel (1941), The Batman (1943), Captain America (1944) and Superman (1948). On television, programs like The Adventures of Superman (1952–1958), Batman (1966–1968) and The Incredible Hulk (1978–1982) proved popular with viewers at home. But the relatively small-scale success of these early live action portrayals of superheroes was dwarfed by the blockbuster potential of the genre that was exemplified most notably with Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). The current wave of superhero blockbusters consistently dominates worldwide box offices on an unprecedented scale. Twenty superhero movies are currently ranked in the top 100 grossing films of all time, a remarkable feat given how recently superhero films are being produced with any regularity. In fact, since The X-Men started the new wave of superhero feature films in 2000, there has been at least one superhero
movie in the top 10 grossing films each year, except for 2001 when none were released. In five of those years a superhero movie was ranked number one (Spider-Man 2002, Spider-Man 3 2007, The Dark Knight 2008, The Avengers 2012, Guardians of the Galaxy 2014) and seven of those years saw two or more superhero movies in the top ten. This is a remarkable trend that shows no signs of letting up. Dozens of high profile sequels, reboots and new franchises are about to be released, or are in production, including Warner Brothers’ Justice League and, Suicide Squad films, and Marvel/Disney’s Dr. Strange and The Black Panther, as well as the continuing adventures of characters like Iron Man, Captain America and Superman. Likewise, the popularity of live action superheroes has found its way onto television screens via network, cable and online distribution with series like Arrow (2012–current), Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013–current), Gotham (2014–current), The Flash (2014– current), Agent Carter (2015–2016), Daredevil (2015–current), Supergirl (2015–current), Jessica Jones (2015–current), and Powers (2015–current). Moreover, numerous other characters are set to receive their own live action series over the next few years including Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Punisher. The related merchandising for all of these popular properties also means that superheroes are more visible than ever before, well beyond their on-screen presence. Superhero t-shirts, bags, shoes, phone cases, collectibles, hats, and thousands of other products are available everywhere. In short, superheroes are having their greatest moment in the Hollywood spotlight and in the American imagination. In characteristically hyperbolic comic book terms, the twenty-first century is a new golden age for superheroes. The immense popularity of live action superhero adaptations, and Hollywood’s relatively recent embrace of comic book characters, reflects a shifting range of cultural, political, economic, industrial and technological issues. The purpose of this book is to outline and analyze the myriad reasons why the current Hollywood version of superheroes has come to dominate the entertainment industry, and to consider what this genre reveals about cultural concerns and beliefs. Despite the assumption often made by film critics, viewers and even some of the filmmakers that superhero movies are merely simple-minded and juvenile entertainment (derived from silly and childish comic books), there is no simple answer for why this genre is so appealing at this moment in history. There is a wide range of intersecting, interrelated, and even conflicting, themes that are particularly relevant to contemporary audiences. In the traumatized post9/11 climate, superhero movies provide a reassuring fantasy of America’s ability to withstand terrorist attacks, often metaphorically rewriting the tragedy of that horrible day. Superheroes also act out a comforting nostalgia for a simpler time, a less conflicted perception of America as not just a nation but an ideal, when the good guys were easy to spot and the bad guys were always defeated. Commercially, the genre represents the
climate of late capitalist consumerism and the entertainment industry’s reliance on tent-pole films to facilitate revenue streams across numerous multimedia platforms. The spectacular nature of these live action superhero films is also premised on the technological development of digital special effects that allow fantastical characters to appear believable, and most importantly, to provide a point of identification for viewers. Moreover, as the live action superhero genre develops and expands, it increasingly exposes, appeals to, and at times challenges cultural beliefs about racial politics, gender expectations, nationalism, morality and capitalism that are all too often glossed over as vague assumptions about “truth, justice, and the American way.” The incredible explosion of live action superhero movies and television programs since the start of the twenty-first century provides rather neatly delineated parameters for considering these texts as a distinct genre. Clearly, earlier films like Superman and Batman are important precedents and have influenced the modern development of the superhero film, but until recently there were simply not enough superhero movies to consider them a distinct genre. The few superhero films that did appear before 2000 were more accurately classified as variations within the genres of sci-fi and/or action. But, more recently, the superhero has clearly distinguished itself as a unique genre in its own right, with clear narrative conventions, formulaic situations, and recognizable character types. While the superhero genre has been around in its original comic book form since Superman was first published in 1938, the live action superhero has only become a legitimate genre in the last 15 years. The genre-specific overlap between the comic book superheroes and the live action ones complicates demarcating between the two mediums. The films and television programs are primarily loose adaptations of the characters, adventures, powers, costumes, relationships, and often very specific narrative events that have already occurred in the comic books. Comic book superheroes are typically directed towards a very small niche audience that is well versed in the minutiae of superhero histories and the internal logic of the genre. Comic book readers are used to, and expect, a certain degree of variation with superheroes. For example, depending on the writer and/or the artist, the personae and the appearance of the characters can change a great deal. But the live action version of superheroes in film and television, on the other hand, bring the characters to a much larger audience with varying degrees of familiarity with the overall genre. The current live action form of the genre introduces and solidifies a dominant conception of what the superheroes look like, their personalities, and their abilities. When superheroes are successfully embodied by specific actors they become a dominant and definitive version of the fictional character for the general public. For all intents and purposes, Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man, Chris Evans is Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth is Thor in the current era.
Figure I.1 Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man …
The incredible rise of live action superheroes over the past decade and a half has resulted in a fully developed and relatively compact genre. The films in particular are marketed and understood by audiences as interrelated parts of an overall genre. The importance and the efficacy of genres has been established in media studies, perhaps most dominantly within film studies, as a useful analytical tool for ascertaining the relationship between producers, texts, and audiences. Grouping together texts that share similar thematic, stylistic, and narrative qualities into an identifiable genre reveals a level of cultural importance that goes beyond the concerns expressed in any individual iteration. As an established genre, recognized as such by both the producers and the consumers, live action superhero adventures as a whole are more than the equal of the sum of its parts. The development of a genre corpus clarifies that there is something about the modern depiction of superheroes that has a massive and enduring appeal. As Leo Braudy bluntly described the relationship between the development of film genres and audience desires: “Genre films essentially ask the audience, ‘Do you still want to believe this?’ Popularity is the audience answering, ‘Yes’” (1977: 179). Following Braudy’s analogy, each new superhero film that breaks box office records is evidence that audiences are emphatically declaring: “Yes, we still want to believe in superheroes!” Grounding this book in a genre studies approach to live action superheroes allows a consideration of their common narrative structure and themes as they reflect contemporary cultural concerns. My interests are less with constructing a categorical definition of the live action superhero genre than with the cultural issues the narratives grapple with for viewers. As Barry Keith Grant breaks down the concept of genre to its most basic premise in the introduction to his influential film studies
volume: “Stated simply, genre movies are those commercial feature films which, through repetition and variation, tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations” (1986: ix). For my purposes, the live action superhero genre can be defined, at its simplest, as filmed stories about costumed and/or super powered characters, performed by actors, who battle villains and defend the greater community. Numerous conventions and themes exist across most of the texts within this genre, for example colorful costumes, secret identities, and traumatic origin stories, but these features are symbolic narrative and visual tropes that enhance, but are not essential to, the genre. Moreover, the superhero genre, writ large, obviously exists and circulates in other formats including comic books and animated film and television. But my focus is on the currently dominant version of superheroes in a live action format, embodied by real people and existing in a world that looks very much like our own reality. The “familiarity” that Grant stresses is a crucial part of the genre’s appeal to audiences. Viewers have become familiar with live action superheroes and flock to their adventures over and over again. As Rick Altman confirms in his landmark overview of film genre studies: “The pleasure of genre film spectatorship thus derives more from reaffirmation than from novelty. People go to genre films to participate in events that somehow seem familiar” (1999: 25). The existence of an identifiable live action superhero genre is effective for Hollywood studios, filmmakers and marketers who can regard superheroes as a product to be sold to consumers. Individual texts can be positioned as part of the whole, and thus, as a valuable and proven commodity. But as a cultural expression of familiar desires and fantasies that audiences actively seek out, the superhero genre serves a collective purpose beyond merely the financial. As Altman argues: Film genres are functional for their society. Whereas producers and exhibitors see genre films as ‘product,’ critics increasingly recognize their role in a complex cultural system permitting viewers to consider and resolve (albeit fictively) contradictions that are not fully mastered by the society in which they live. (1999: 26) As the following chapters will explore, superheroes on both the big and small screen function to preserve and challenge—resolve and rewrite— public beliefs about changing gender roles, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, national identity, and diversity. The familiar narrative formula and the visual iconography of the current superhero genre repeatedly act out fantasies of morally just, heroic white men, gifted with incredible powers and personal resolve, who overcome traumatic hardships in order to save countless innocent lives from attack by villains bent on destroying America. The slow inclusion of super powered female characters and superheroes of color is evidence that the genre is beginning to evolve. The cumulative effect of this
genre as it stands now, and its consistent appeal for audiences, demonstrates some very basic cultural concerns that may only be satisfactorily resolved in our fictions. As part of a genre, each individual superhero adventure contributes to our collective and personal understanding of the larger themes explored within the narratives. Every orphaned child who becomes a hero, every city saved, every colorful villain defeated, becomes emblematic of the overarching themes. As Thomas Schatz argues in his seminal work on Hollywood genres: It is not their mere repetition that endows generic elements with a prior significance, but their repetition within a conventionalized formal, narrative, and thematic context. If it is initially a popular success, a film story is reworked in later movies and repeated until it reaches its equilibrium profile—until it becomes a spatial, sequential, and thematic pattern of familiar actions and relationships. Such a repetition is generated by the interaction of the studios and the mass audience, and it will be sustained so long as it satisfies the needs and expectations of the audience and remains financially viable for the studios. (1981: 11) Despite the incredible number of live action superhero films and television programs to emerge since 2000, the genre is still in its early stages. In fact, the development and the interpretation of the live action genre is complicated by the simultaneous existence of the superhero genre in comic book format, and the fact that everyone has at least a passing familiarity with the genre’s tropes and conventions even if they have never read a superhero comic book or seen a superhero movie. What exactly works within the confines of live action superhero depictions is still being explored by filmmakers. As a relatively short-lived and still developing genre, every individual live action superhero story is a balance between repetition and variation, between convention and invention, between the familiarity audiences want and the novelty they desire. As the genre progresses it has the potential to shift into a number of different story types and to explore a wider range of topics. As Robert Warshow influentially pointed out: “variation is absolutely necessary to keep the type from becoming sterile, we do not want to see the same movie over and over again, only the same form” (1974: 147). The need to balance familiarity and novelty within a genre contributes to the ever-shifting narrative while the form typically remains relatively stable. Likewise, outside factors can result in both minor and major changes within a genre. Market over saturation, new creative filmmakers, technological developments, becoming too predictable, changes in real world conditions, and any number of other external conditions may affect the central genre narrative or appearance. Typically the development of a genre is understood in film studies as an organic cycle, and is regarded as a natural series of
transitions that every genre goes through. As Jane Feuer notes: “Film genres, especially long-lived ones such as the Western and the musical, follow a predictable life cycle” (1993: 88). Or as John Cawelti describes in more detail: One can almost make out a life cycle characteristic of genres as they move from an initial period of articulation and discovery, through a phase of conscious self-awareness on the part of both creators and the audiences, to a time when the generic patterns have become so wellknown that people become tired of their predictability. (1986: 200) Likewise, Thomas Schatz (1981) argues that genres cycle through clear developmental phases from an initial experimental period where the core elements are refined, to a classical moment where the narratives are fresh and unified, to a formalized stage when the films become too predictable and repetitive, then a self-aware or self-reflexive period, followed by either the genre’s decline into pure parody or a revisionist phase where the genre may be reinvented anew. As a constantly developing genre, the current live action superhero would perhaps be easiest to categorize as being in what Schatz refers to as the “formalized” phase. In general the kinks have been worked out, the formula has been clearly defined and repeatedly established, the films are still pleasing to audiences but are starting to risk being too predictable. But the implied linear progression suggested by Feuer and Cawelti, or the circular configuration described by Schatz, is not a clear-cut or definitive pattern for a genre as pervasive as the superhero. The audience’s general awareness of the superhero formula as it pre-existed in comic book form affects overall familiarity, as does the constant news, fan and promotional coverage of each new film. Moreover, the fact that many of the live action storylines are adapted from comic books that appeared at different points in the genre’s cycle in print, means that the films can occupy different genre phases simultaneously. For example, Zack Snyder’s film version of Watchmen (2009) was directly adapted from Alan Moore’s landmark revisionist superhero mini-series published in 1986. Watchmen dissects the history of superheroes and re-visions the characters as complicated and often corrupted figures. But the film was released shortly after the superhero film genre had just begun solidification in 2008 with the early adventures of Batman in The Dark Knight, of the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk, and the origin story of Iron Man. As a revisionist film Watchmen was out of place among a genre dominated by films in the “classic” era of the superhero genre. Moreover, the audience’s thorough understanding of the genre at an early point in its development allowed parodies, like Superhero Movie (2008) and Super Capers (2009), to flourish far earlier than in other genres. In any event, the superhero genre is developing and adapting at an incredible rate, with offshoots and variations clustering around the central formula. The superhero is such a clearly defined narrative and character type that a range of different perspectives
can be brought to the genre without necessarily undermining the central premise of the genre. As a full-fledged genre, superheroes are not restricted to specific mediums. In addition to film and television, the superhero genre is closely (over) identified with the medium of comic books—to the point that any distinction between the genre of superheroes and the medium of comic books is often erased by casual observers. But superheroes also appear regularly in other mediums and formats, including video games, novels, animation, stage, even music. All these various ways that superheroes appear in contemporary popular culture inform public perception of the genre as a whole, but for the purposes of this study I will be focusing specifically on live action versions of superhero adventures. Thus, while movies like The Incredibles (2004) and Megamind (2010), and television series like Teen Titans Go! (2013–current) and DC Superhero Girls (2016–current) help shape the overall cultural impression of superheroes, I will not be focusing on these animated versions of the genre. My concern is with the dominant and most wide-reaching depiction of superheroes that is presented in live action feature film and television series. Moreover, as the live action genre has flourished it has included a range of variations that are not based on characters that originated in the comics, but that are understood, nevertheless, by audiences as part of the current dominant genre. Superhero films like Sky High (2005), Hancock (2008), Super (2010), and Birdman (2014), as well as television programs such as Heroes (2006–2009), No Ordinary Family (2010) and The Thundermans (2013–current), all focus on original live action superheroes rather than characters adapted from comic books. Furthermore, the live action genre includes several works that are set within the superhero world but do not center specifically on superheroes. For example, on television Gotham is set in Batman’s world while Bruce Wayne is still a child; Agent Carter explores the rise of Marvel’s government agency, The Strategic Scientific Reserve, that will eventually be tasked with handling super powered beings; and Jessica Jones depicts a woman who has given up costumed adventuring but still has powers and has to deal with super villains from her past. Though costumed characters are rare in these shows, they are still an intricate part of the current genre of live action superheroes. Of course live action film and television adaptations of comic book source material is not restricted to superheroes by any means. The film versions of Sin City (2005) and 300 (2006) (both based on work by Frank Miller) were striking visual representations of noir and historical fantasy comic books. Other films, including Ghost World (2001), Road to Perdition (2002), American Splendor (2003), V for Vendetta (2005), and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), were adaptations of non-superhero comic series that were less adamant about reproducing the signature look of the comics. Likewise, television’s popular The Walking Dead (2010–current) is based on Robert Kirkman’s long running post-apocalyptic zombie comic series of the same name. And iZombie (2015–current) is a dramedy about a zombie medical
student working in a morgue that is adapted from a comic book series. While all of these widely different types of adaptations could be broadly lumped together with superheroes under a classification of “comic book movies,” I am more concerned with the genre specific themes explored in the immensely popular superhero format than in the general trend of comics-tofilm adaptations. Thus, this study is restricted to the live action superhero rather than to “comic book movies” in general. The technical and aesthetic issues associated with the general adaptation of comic book materials to live action (which are beyond the scope of this study) are thoroughly detailed in Liam Burke’s excellent book The Comic Book Film Adaptation (2015). Burke addresses the adaptive process and the varying degrees of fidelity to the source material that are exercised by current comic book movies. Superhero films are an important part of Burke’s study, but his analytical concerns are far broader than a single genre. The field of Comic Studies, and the superhero genre in particular, has experienced a significant increase in scholarly research over the last two decades. In addition to an ever-increasing number of excellent articles appearing in a range of cultural studies journals, several academic periodicals now focus specifically on comic book scholarship, including Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, The Journal of Comics and Culture, and the online ImageText: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. Likewise, numerous book-length studies have become more commonplace in recent years such as Adilifu Nama’s Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (2011), Jason Dittmer’s Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives and Geopolitics (2012), Ramzi Fawaz’s The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics (2016), and Carolyn Cocca’s Superwomen: Gender, Power, Representation (2016). Moreover, several book anthologies have collected together essays focused on important issues and/or highlighting the breadth of comic book studies, for example: Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods (Smith and Duncan eds. 2011), Comic Books and American Cultural History (Pustz ed. 2011), Black Comic Strips: Past and Present (Howard and Jackson eds. 2013), The Superhero Reader (Worcester, Heer, and Hatfield eds. 2013), Heroines of Comic Books and Literature (Bajac-Carter, Jones, and Batchelor, eds. 2014), Superheroes and Identity (Ormond and Gibson eds. 2014), and Marvel’s Civil War: How Comics Defined the Post 9/11 Era (Scott ed. 2015). As this wealth of recent scholarship suggests, the superhero genre in comic book format is a dynamic area of study. Superhero comic books provide unique and contained examples of how cultural issues are incorporated and worked through in modern fantasy narratives. The symbolic and hyperbolic world of comic book superheroes presents a rich case study for considering cultural perspectives on morality, violence, gender, racism, sexuality and many other issues. As such, the print version of the superhero has been explored from a variety of approaches and has laid much of the groundwork for
studying the genre in all of its various mediums. While my focus in this book is on live action film and television versions of the superhero genre, I will be utilizing many of the themes and findings explored in the established literature about superhero comic books. The current dominance of live action superheroes at the movies has begun to attract the attention of film scholars as well. In fact, superhero movies occupy a relatively unique position at the intersection of comic book studies and film studies. In addition to Burke’s thorough analysis of how comic books are adapted by Hollywood, film scholarship is increasingly addressing superhero movies as examples of digital spectacles, political metaphors, and industrial convergence. For example, the essays collected in the excellent Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital (Gilmore and Stork, eds. 2014) explore the importance of new filmic technologies for the portrayal of superheroes, and Dan Hassler-Forest’s intriguing Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age (2012) details the Bush-era political implications of the film genre. Several excellent anthologies have focused on the emergence of superheroes and other comics-based stories on screen from a variety of perspectives, such as: Film and Comic Books (Gordon, Jancovich, and McAllister eds. 2007), Comics as a Nexus of Cultures (Berniger, Ecke, and Haberkorn eds. 2010), and The 21st Century Superhero (Gray and Kaklamandou eds. 2011). Most of the film scholarship that has thus far considered the developing superhero genre has been focused on specific films. Each individual film is a rich text that can be analyzed for a range of cultural issues that it exposes. Some of the most popular superhero movies and their sequels have received a great deal of attention, for example Spider-Man (see Purse 2007, Koh 2009, Richmond 2012, Holland 2012), the X-Men films (see Baron 2003, Lebel 2009, Hicks 2011), the Dark Knight trilogy (see Muller 2011, Bordoloi 2012, Johnson 2014, Joye and Van de Walle 2015, Winstead 2015), and The Avengers (see Taylor 2014, Hagley and Harrison 2014, McGrath 2016). While every individual film is a rich text, and reveals much about the whole of the genre, my goal in this study is to explicitly consider the entire live action genre for its cumulative meanings and variations. These films and television programs are all consumed by the same audiences, are marketed and positioned in relation to each other, and are interrelated within shared universes and across competing properties. Taken as a whole, the genre can help explain why fantasies about super powered people in costumes are so important and so popular in contemporary culture. While it would be impossible to consider every superhero movie and television series that has emerged in this new millennium, I have endeavored to incorporate as many as possible in order to capture the consistent generic expressions of the modern superhero figure. One of the difficulties of a project like this one is that new films and programs are constantly appearing at an incredible rate. Every new live action superhero narrative reinforces many of the genre’s central issues but also, potentially, moves the genre in
new directions. Rather than focusing on specific films or characters, this book is organized around the central themes that run throughout the genre, both within the narratives and in the genre’s corporate, political and marketing aspects. With each new superhero movie released, much of the press coverage surrounding the films focuses more on their record breaking box-office returns than it does on the story, the quality of the film, or the acting. The public attention to the incredible profits generated by most superhero films is a stark reminder that Hollywood is first and foremost a part of the entertainment business. As a genre superhero films and television programs are a profitable commodity, and as long as they remain profitable the genre will continue to expand. The business of superheroes is addressed in the first chapter precisely because industrial interests and profit margins are the bedrock on which the genre is based. Live action superheroes appeal to audiences for a variety of cultural and personal reasons that are explored in later chapters, but their preeminence in contemporary popular culture is based on their ability as tent poles to support franchises. With their built-in audience recognition, years of back stories, and larger-than-life adventures, superheroes are ideal figures for media synergies and cross-platform promotions and merchandising. Superheroes facilitate the type of special effects driven spectacles that have become synonymous with high-grossing blockbusters. Characters who can fly, project lasers from their bodies, or throw tanks around become a perfect canvas for showcasing amazing digital technologies that can bring viewers to the multiplex time and again. Moreover, the sheer number of superheroes that already exist in the comic book worlds of Marvel and DC Comics, and their “shared universe” integration established in the comics, allows their parent studios (Disney, Time-Warner, and to a lesser extent Fox and Sony) to create a new type of inter-related franchising. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe has shown, and the DC Universe is beginning to reproduce, superhero characters can simultaneously exist within their own film series’ and across different franchises. The cross-promotional prospects are endless and are redefining what exactly a franchise is in modern Hollywood. Within the comics, superheroes have always represented masculine fantasies about mild-mannered men who become super men or timid teenagers who become amazing. This simplified cultural ideal of masculinity is reconfirmed and updated in the current wave of superheroes appearing in movies and on television. Likewise, the modern representation of superheroines perpetuates a standardized sexualization of women in the media. Considering the immense popularity of the films, and the genre’s appeal to young viewers in particular, superheroes effectively promote very narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity as natural. The central importance of gender is explored in Chapter 2 through both the bodies and the characterization of these idealized male and female figures. The super men
represent over-exaggerated images of hegemonic masculinity as points of identification for viewers. The consistent emphasis on the visible muscularity of the superheroes and their unquestionably tough personas, enact a gendered fantasy wherein any average male can become a hero, and that heroism is defined by one’s ability to physically dominate others. And while women are underrepresented as heroines in the genre (more often women are reduced to mere damsels in distress and/or romantic prizes for the hero), when strong women do appear they are typically subjected to standard Hollywood eroticization. Whatever powers and abilities superheroines may have, their primary function all too often is to look sexy in their costumes. The form fitting costumes of Invisible Girl, Black Widow, Catwoman and their like tend to overshadow their heroic feats. The most progressive depictions of women in the genre have developed on television in series like Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, and Supergirl. These small screen heroines are far less sexualized and are permitted to grapple with issues like misogyny and sexual assault that suggest new ways that powerful women can address serious issues within the genre. The terrible events of September 11, 2001 marked an enormous cultural shift that the world is still struggling to come to terms with. The modern superhero film genre provides one way that America has symbolically addressed the cultural trauma of 9/11 and sought a fictional corrective to feelings of vulnerability to terrorist attacks. The endlessly repeated scenes in superhero movies that suggest or reenact the horrors of 9/11 allow a safely contained and controlled fictionalization of the attacks, and works to excise persistent social fears. Countless popular media commentaries and scholarly considerations have pointed out that the popularity of superheroes in a post-9/11 world is a rather transparent wish-fulfilling fantasy where costumed avengers always emerge at the last minute to save New York (or its fictional doubles like Gotham and Metropolis) from destruction by outsiders. Chapter 3 reviews much of the literature that addresses the various ways that superhero narratives rewrite the tragedies of 9/11 so that America emerges victorious. Chapter 3 also argues that the modern grim-and-gritty and thoroughly traumatized superhero functions as an effective proxy for a traumatized America in general after 9/11, and reconfirms a perception of the nation as innocent, resilient, and morally justified in any acts of retributive violence. Moreover, the process of masculinization undergone by the superhero within almost every narrative parallels a larger project of remasculinizing the nation itself after the foundational belief in America’s superiority and invulnerability was shattered. Furthermore, as the superhero genre develops and as America slowly moves past the trauma of 9/11, the films have begun to address a wider range of issues affecting post-9/11 society: from government-sanctioned torture to illegal surveillance to the economic crisis. As icons of morality and justice, and as fictional symbols of American superiority, superheroes appeal to very specific cultural needs in an era when everything seems unstable.
Figure I.2 … and Iron Man knows how to deal with terrorists.
Though superheroes have an indisputable appeal worldwide, with the films often earning as much or even more profits in foreign markets, they are still a quintessentially American genre. Superheroes were first developed as a comic book genre in America just prior to the onset of World War II and quickly became a popular representation of national ideals and ideology. Chapter 4 focuses on the modern film versions of the two most iconic American superheroes: Superman and Captain America. These two superheroes have long been associated with notions of American superiority, morality, justice, freedom, egalitarianism, and strength. Superman and Captain America have always existed as fictional symbols of American exceptionalism, and continue to confirm a sense of the nation as extraordinary in a current atmosphere where many doubt the core national values. In their most recent movie incarnations Superman and Captain American represent the genre’s larger project of bolstering America’s self-perception and confidence. These characters manage to leverage nostalgic impressions of mythic simpler times when America’s righteousness was seen as indisputable and the bad guys were easy to identify and to vanquish. Moreover, as patriotic links to America’s past whose adventures now take place in a complicated post-9/11 setting, Superman and Captain America allow the films to address and symbolically reconcile beliefs about American exceptionalism and the political reality of modern times. As enduring symbols rife with cultural importance, Superman and Captain America offer an image of the nation that is both nostalgic and progressive. They demonstrate within their narratives that America is still exceptional, still physically (militarily) and morally superior, and able to withstand any external or internal threats. American ideals and beliefs may be compromised in the real world but the nationalistic superhero presents a comforting parable that America will prevail. The current wave of live action superhero films and television programs have rightfully received a great deal of criticism for almost exclusively featuring white men as heroes. To date, there is a noticeable lack of diversity among the ever-increasing roster of cinematic superheroes. Since the X-Men
movie kicked off the modern superhero craze in 2000, Hancock is the only non-white lead who has managed to muscle his way into the genre (and the narrative of that film was primarily concerned with containing Hancock, making him more socially acceptable). Chapter 5 considers the various ways that the genre has reframed diversity in a manner that excludes or minimizes real-world cultural differences. Where issues of diversity, discrimination, and marginalization have appeared, the genre has conveniently reinscribed the racial dynamics so that white characters can assume the position of the disenfranchised. In all of the X-Men films the category of mutants stands in for any number of marginalized groups (Jewish, queer, black) as a way to leverage discrimination as a plot device while still featuring a primarily straight, white, male stable of heroes. Charles Xavier and Magneto intentionally reference the opposing views of the Civil Rights era as embodied by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, but they do so as a feint, without engaging with the racial politics that inspired the original storylines. Moreover, the superhero genre’s obsession with remasculinizing the nation in this post-9/11 era, has transferred marginalization to the dominant white male superhero at the expense of people who are typically disenfranchised in American culture. The slow inclusion of super characters of color in the live action genre, for example The Falcon in Captain America and War Machine in Iron Man, hold out a promise for the eventual diversification of the genre. The announcement of solo films for Marvel’s Black Panther and DC’s Cyborg, and a stand-alone television series for Luke Cage, suggest that the genre is moving toward a wider pallet for who can be considered a superhero. The popularity of the superhero genre, and the inherent ridiculousness of stories about grown men wearing tights to fight crime, has led to a number of comedic films and television programs spoofing the very idea of superheroes. The increasing audience familiarity with the conventions, the formula, and the symbolism of superhero narratives makes the genre a ripe subject for spoofs and parodies. Since parodies operate in general by deconstructing the genre and ridiculing absurdities, they have a great potential to question many of the genre’s underlying principles and subvert them. Chapter 6 analyzes superhero parodies, specifically focusing on the 2010 movies Super and Kick-Ass, and argues that while superhero parodies mock the genre they also, ultimately, reinforce its construction of hegemonic masculinity. Both films mock the concept of costumed vigilantes and start with the central premise of putting an ordinary person in the role of superhero. Super and Kick-Ass effectively ridicule the genre’s presentation of ridiculously ideal bodies, of the hero’s ability to easily win every fight, of clearly demarcated lines between good and evil, and the levels of seemingly bloodless violence portrayed as normal in the mainstream films. But for all of their comedy and their condemnation of superheroes as ridiculous, both films allow their foolish titular heroes to defeat the bad guys and get the girl of their dreams. Rather than undermining the premise of superheroes as
aspirational models of hegemonic masculinity, Super and Kick-Ass suggest that even the least likely man can become a hero by putting on a costume and beating up criminals. The immense popularity of the live action superhero genre, its dynamic stories and increasing variations, make it a particularly rich text for cultural analysis. There is a wealth of other themes that could be effectively explored in relation to the superhero genre. And the business side of the equation is a subject that is only beginning to be studied as a model of industrial change. Likewise, the role of fandom and audiences’ enthusiastic engagement with the genre could reveal a great deal about how people internalize and personalize the characters and the narratives for their own purposes. My goal in this study is to unpack several of the most prominent themes at the heart of the genre’s appeal in this new millennium. With dozens of new films and television series already announced for the next five years, the genre has the potential to shift into new subject areas and to engage with issues from a variety of perspectives. Like the fictional heroes at the center of the stories, the superhero genre will endure and can take on any number of guises.
Hollywood Superheroes Commercial Economy, Spectacle, and the Universe
During the opening routine of the 2015 Academy Awards, host Neil Patrick Harris performed a whimsical song about the importance, emotional appeal and inspiring power of Hollywood films. Part way through the number, comedian Jack Black, who was sitting in the audience, interrupted with a more critical verse. Black sang: “This industry’s in flux, it’s run by muckymucks, pitching tents for tentpoles and chasing Chinese bucks. Opening with lots of zeroes, all we get is superheroes. Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Jedi man, sequel man, prequel man. Formulaic scripts.” After a brief exchange, Harris resumed his optimistic song and Jack Black returned to the audience in mock disgust. But the intrusion of an alternative perspective voiced by Black humorously exposed some of the tensions that circulate around superhero movies. While the Academy Awards are designed to praise the best of the film industry there is no denying that Hollywood in the twentyfirst century is dominated by superhero franchises. In fact, while the 2015 Awards celebrated the industry’s artistic achievements in 2014, the more important results of box-office success proved that Black was right. Six of the top 12 earners in 2014 were superhero movies (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Big Hero 6, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) … seven if you count The Lego Movie that included a satirical version of Batman as a central character. The commercial dominance of superhero movies is indicative of the genre’s overwhelming popularity with moviegoers around the world. It also exposes the financial and corporate appeal of these characters for studios. Superheroes are the current bedrock of economic stability that helps sustain multi-billion dollar media empires. The overwhelming dominant genre of live action superhero films (and, to a lesser extent, television) is a product of industry changes within Hollywood’s corporate structure since the late 1990s, and reveals a complex commercial arrangement designed to capitalize on global markets, digitization and transmedia properties. As perhaps the most visible component of the modern media landscape, Hollywood films have become increasingly important properties well beyond just their box-office revenues. While the movie industry has always been profit driven, the necessity for a select few film franchises to anchor the profit margin of multi-media corporations has become more and more crucial. Hollywood’s relatively recent large-scale embrace of superheroes is
born out of economic necessity as much as it is from cultural desires to see comic book heroes brought to life. In his chronicling of the shifting corporate structure of the Hollywood film industry, Thomas Schatz argues: “The most salient development in contemporary Hollywood has been the formation of the so-called Big Six media conglomerates and their hegemony over the American film (and TV) industry” (2009: 21). Changes to corporate legal and international regulations in the late 1980s and 1990s led to sweeping merger-and-acquisitions in order to consolidate and maximize entertainment distribution and profits. The resulting Big Six of American media corporations include Disney, Time-Warner, Viacom, NBC Universal (GE), CBS Corporation, and Newscorp. Between them these conglomerates are estimated to control over 90 percent of all the media produced in America. Each of these six parent corporations own dozens of film studios, television networks, publishing organizations, internet properties, record labels, radio stations, gaming studios, theme parks, and shopping outlets. The complex industry model utilized by all of the Big Six corporations relies on being able to leverage their entertainment products for maximum exposure and profit through all of their interrelated holdings. As Tino Balio notes in her discussion of contemporary Hollywood: “The CEOs of the media companies are clear and unequivocal about what they want from their movie studios – more and bigger franchises that are instantly recognizable and exploitable across all platforms and all divisions of the company” (2013: 25). In this context, superhero films satisfy a corporate need and represent the pinnacle of millennial Hollywood industrial practices. Early big budget superhero movies provided evidence of the efficacy and profitability of marketing and selling single characters across a range of formats. The unprecedented success of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) starring Christopher Reeves demonstrated the immense popularity of superhero movies and enjoyed a significant boost from the sale of related merchandising. More importantly, the release of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), starring Michael Keaton, established the enormous impact that cross-media promotions and corporate synergies could create around a single popular film. The merger of Warner Communications Inc. (which had purchased DC Comics in 1971) with Time Inc. just months prior to the release of Batman positioned DC Comics and their characters as subsidiaries of the newly formed media giant Time-Warner. DC Comics granted the rights to a Batman film to independent filmmakers Peter Gruber and Jon Peters who produced the film for distribution under Warner Brothers. With the newly consolidated Time-Warner funding and distributing the property, Batman became a juggernaut of cross promotion marketing and merchandising through multiple Time-Warner media holdings. In her insightful analysis of Batman as a corporately owned commercial intertext, Eileen R. Meehan (1991) charts the various ways that Time-Warner promoted and capitalized on Batman via in-house subsidiaries including their music division for the soundtrack and related albums, their publishing division for book and comic book adaptations, MTV for repeated airings of the Prince “Batdance” video,
and so on. “The film per se becomes only one component in a product line that extends beyond the theater,” Meehan argues, “even beyond our contact with mass media, to penetrate the markets for toys, bedding, trinkets, cups and other minutiae comprising one’s everyday life inside a commoditized, consumerized culture” (1991: 49). This type of synergistic cross-promotion of a single intertext—Batman the movie—became a corporate model for maximizing the potential profits made available by superhero characters. Of course, it is also a strategy utilized to great affect by a range of popular culture properties, like Star Wars, Harry Potter and James Bond, but the long history and cultural recognizability of superheroes increases their stock market potential. With the benefit of being in-house Time-Warner properties, the Christopher Reeves’ Superman franchise and the Michael Keaton Batman (though Keaton was replaced by Val Kilmer and then George Clooney for the third and fourth films) allowed DC Comics’ superheroes to greatly outpace their rivals at Marvel in feature films. Despite the drastic decline in the quality and popularity of each series’ later installments, Superman and Batman established the possible blockbuster status of superhero feature films. In contrast, Marvel, without the economic and industrial security of a major media corporation behind them, suffered financially throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. In fact, by the late 1990s Marvel was in bankruptcy as the comics industry went into sharp decline following an early 1990s boom period when fans and speculators flocked to comics and a range of new creator-controlled publishing companies flooded the market. To augment their losses, Marvel was forced to license out some of their most popular characters to different film studios which resulted in several unremarkable low budget films, including The Punisher (1989) starring Dolph Lundgren, The Fantastic Four (1994) with little-known actors, and the made-for-TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (1998) featuring David Hasselhoff in the title role. The fortunes of Marvel based feature films began to turn in 1998 with the somewhat surprise success of New Line Cinema’s adaptation of Blade. Blade is a relatively minor character in the Marvel Comics line-up, but one with a dedicated fan base, who straddles the superhero and horror genres as a half human and half vampire who hunts monsters. The film version of Blade, starring Wesley Snipes, emphasized the vampire hunter aspect of the character rather than positioning him as a superhero. Blade made over $70 million at the box-office and garnered two sequels, Blade II (2002) and Blade: Trinity (2004), and a television series Blade: The Series (2006). Following the success of Blade, the Marvel based films X-Men (2000) from 20th Century Fox and Spider-Man (2002) from Sony-Columbia became landmark blockbusters and ushered in the current era of superhero feature film dominance. Directed by Bryan Singer, X-Men earned $158 million and spawned seven sequels/reboots/spin-off films thus far. Likewise, the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man made over $400 million at the box-office and has had four sequels and reboot films, with several more on the horizon.
Inspired primarily by the popularity of the Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man series, as well as the smaller successes of two Fantastic Four films (2005 and 2007) by 20th Century Fox, and bolstered by the profits from licensing out these characters, Marvel took the bold step in 2005 of establishing their own film production division, Marvel Studios, in order to maintain creative control of their remaining characters and with the goal of developing an interrelated universe of superhero adventures. Not all of the Marvel licensed properties developed by various studios performed as well at the box office as was hoped. The 2003 films Daredevil by New Regency Pictures and Hulk by Universal Pictures each earned over $100 million but were derided by critics and comic book fans, thus threatening the overall appeal of Marvel movie franchises. While Marvel had exerted some influence on the development of the film characters licensed out to various Hollywood studios, primarily through the executive production of Avi Arad and Kevin Feige, the executives at Marvel believed their fully developed and integrated comic book universe could provide a new model for feature film franchises that would maximize cross-promotion, and could appeal to a wide audience. Marvel Studios’ first independent release Iron Man (2008) was a critical and financial triumph ($320 million) and established a new approach to film properties. As Derek Johnson (2012) argues in his excellent review of Marvel Studio’s development of industrial convergence: “Marvel launched a unique model for cinema production in the age of convergence: an independent company with expertise in a different media industry drove blockbuster film content” (52). Under the leadership of Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios built upon the success of Iron Man and its sequels (2010, 2013), with the feature film versions of The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). The distinctive value of the Marvel Studio brand was leveraged in the promotional material for each new project with the posters for Thor declaring “From the Studio that brought you Iron Man” and the one for Captain America noting “From the studio that brought you Iron Man and Thor.” The coherent and interrelated vision Marvel Studios brought to their films proved popular with audiences as every film they developed became more and more profitable. The Marvel film division became so lucrative that in 2009 Disney bought Marvel for just over $4 billion and retained Feige to continue developing Marvel feature films. By setting all of the Marvel Studio films in the same fictional world, both before and after being purchased by Disney, Marvel was able to create the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that mirrors the world of Marvel comics. All of the events and characters in Marvel Studio films exist in the same reality, which not only pleased fans but also facilitated promotion of the entire Marvel Cinematic brand across films (and television, games and merchandising). The unprecedented interlinking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe began with the conclusion of Iron Man during a post credit scene where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) approaches Tony Stark
(Robert Downey, Jr.) about possibly joining the Avengers Initiative he is putting together. Similar scenes appeared at the end of The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger, thus setting the stage and whetting audience anticipation for the mega-blockbuster team-up The Avengers (2012). Moreover, characters started cross-populating each other’s films in cameos and supporting roles, and several key objects (or Easter Eggs as fans refer to them) from comic book storylines, like the Cosmic Cube and the Infinity Stones, appeared in various films to lay the groundwork for major integrated plotlines that will become the focus of future MCU films. By crafting a cohesive diegetic universe rather than just a series of completely distinct and self-contained superhero franchises, the MCU could develop any number of other Marvel properties that do not have the built-in recognition of some of their biggest characters. The “From the studio that brought you…” tagline on promotional materials allowed past successes to be an endorsement for more unusual heroes. For example, the film version of little known Marvel comic book Guardians of the Galaxy declared on its early posters that it was from the makers of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Avengers, thus firmly situating an outer space adventure as part of the superhero genre and the Marvel Universe. Even more explicitly crossreferenced was the campaign for Ant-Man with a series of posters depicting the tiny, shrinking hero perched on Iron Man’s shoulder, on Thor’s hammer, and on Captain America’s shield with the text declaring “From the studio that brought you The Avengers. No Shield. No Hammer. No Problem.” The general public may not have known who Ant-Man was but the campaign clearly marked him as a hero in the same vein as Marvel’s other successes. It was this push for an interconnected universe that made Marvel Studios a desirable property for Disney CEO Robert Iger. Many critics and market analysts derided Disney’s $4 billion dollar purchase of Marvel because several of the company’s most popular characters were already under license to rival studios, including Spider-Man to Sony and the X-Men to Fox. Disney’s stock value actually sank significantly when the Marvel purchase was announced. But when Iger met with Feige in 2008, he recognized the potential of a franchise not linked just to specific characters. “They live and breathe Marvel full time just like the Pixar folks live and breathe Pixar full time,” Iger claimed in interviews, comparing Marvel to Disney’s most profitable film acquisition to date, And then there were the films Marvel had in development. They were interconnected and primed the audience for not just one Avengers feature but also a sequel. They had a huge road map that took them well into the future. (Leonard 2012: 68) The continued success of Marvel films under Disney has disproven industry naysayers and demonstrated the appeal of interweaving storylines that
contribute to the sense of a cohesive cinematic universe. In contrast to traditional franchise economics that assume a 10–30 percent decrease in returns, the sequels to Iron Man, Thor and Captain America have actually seen an increase in ticket sales. Moreover, the pinnacle of this interconnected universe, The Avengers, became the third highest grossing film of all time, earning over $1.5 billion and a sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, which grossed over $1.4 billion. The incredible popularity of the Joss Whedon-directed Avengers films was not solely due to their quality as films and the elaborate lead up to combining multiple characters from different individual movies. The Avengers was also a high point in modern media convergence, advertising, and crosspromotion with the full weight of the Disney empire invested in its success. As an article about Kevin Feige and Marvel films in Bloomberg Businessweek noted: The Avengers didn’t triumph at the box office only because it was a good movie. Until then, most of Marvel’s films had been distributed by Paramount Pictures. Disney threw every division of the company, from theme parks to television to consumer products, behind The Avengers. “All Paramount cares about is the distribution fee,” says Iger. “Now that we distribute these movies, it’s not about a fee. It’s not even about box office. It’s about the entire entity doing well, which ultimately lifts the Disney stock.” (quoted in Leonard 2012: 68) With a five-year plan leading up to the summer 2012 release of The Avengers, Disney promoted, merchandised and licensed The Avengers to maximum effect across every conceivable platform and targeted multiple demographics. For children there were toys, games, costumes, clothing, candy, cereal, and new cartoons including The Super Hero Squad Show for pre-schoolers, and The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Marvel’s Avengers Assemble for grade school kids. Clothing, shoes, skateboards, hats and a variety of computer games were targeted at teenagers. For adult consumers there was a range of higher priced merchandising from clothing to limited edition statues and replicas to automobile promotions. Disney set up hundreds of licensing and retail deals for Avengers products with the likes of Hasbro, Hallmark, Lego, Under Armour, Dr. Pepper, Wal-Mart, Toys ‘R’ Us, Target, and Forever 21. According to the merchandising trade magazine License! Global: The evolution and expansion of The Avengers is not only an example of Disney Consumer Products’ commitment to franchise development, but it is also a benchmark case study of how a big screen blockbuster is morphing into a bona fide, year-round tentpole brand. (Lisanti 2013: 122)
In a larger sense, the MCU solidifies the Marvel brand as a financial juggernaut well beyond just a blockbuster film. The License! Global Article also noted that while the film made an impressive $1.5 billion in ticket sales, even that phenomenal earning paled in comparison to the profits from related merchandise: “on the licensing side of the business, the Marvel franchises represent $6 billion in retail sales of licensed merchandise worldwide in 2011” (Lisanti 2013: 126). Where other entertainment brands have been extended well beyond their original medium, most of these have focused on a single marketable character or property (e.g., James Bond, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games). The establishment and promotion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, on the other hand, increases the entire Marvel brand—rather than just a few specific superhero characters—that can be extended and spun-off in an almost infinite number of ways across every media platform. “Through industrial convergence,” Johnson notes in his discussion of the Marvel films, Marvel developed a unified brand for itself and for Avengers at the same time that it sought a diversity of approaches to mobilizing the characters that made up that brand. So while Marvel’s textual strategies were not historically unique, they did extend explicitly from contemporaneous patterns and practices of convergence whereby the firm sought to organize the production and consumption of its comics content across media platforms. (2012: 8) Likewise, using slightly different terminology, Aaron Taylor (2014) argues: “These contemporary blockbusters exemplify the new industrial logic of transmedia franchises – serially produced films with a shared diegetic universe that can extend within and beyond the cinematic medium into correlated media texts” (182). Moreover, while the style, tone, characterization and appearance of the Marvel superheroes as embodied by specific actors as presented in the feature films may dominate public perception to a certain degree, this larger branding of Marvel does not exclude other variations. The image of Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man or Chris Hemsworth as Thor exist side-by-side with comic book, video game, retro style clothing, and cutesy Funko and Chibi style plush toys and figure versions of the characters. While the MCU continues to expand in live action feature films, broadcast television programs like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter air on the Disney owned ABC network, and on subscription services like Netflix’s Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, the larger Marvel brand remains open ended and mutually promotive. This Marvel model, adapted from its comic book origins, of branding an entire universe as a related franchise, has proven incredibly profitable and Disney has stated their desire to replicate it with the Star Wars universe that it purchased from George Lucas in 2012 for $4 billion. Taking note of
Disney’s success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the other Big Six media corporations are striving to expand their properties into entire universes. J.K. Rowling and Time-Warner are expanding the Harry Potter universe through prequels and spin-offs, NBC Universal is updating and extending its classic horror properties into a Monster Universe, and Viacom’s Paramount has plans to develop a larger and more cohesive Transformers Universe. Most importantly, Time-Warner has moved to mimic Marvel’s success integrating their multiple DC Comics properties into a unified DC Extended Universe. As an editorial in Time entitled “How Superhero Movies Are Saving Hollywood” declared: The message is clear: Blockbusters of the future aren’t driven by actors or directors or stories – they’re driven by universes. And not just any universes, mind you, but huge, sprawling, dynamic universes designed to dominate both the big screen and small. (Dodds, April 29, 2014, para. 4) The pre-established fictional universes of Marvel and DC Comics provide a wealth of characters and stories that can be mined for decades. Moreover, the spectacular, world-saving adventures that are the foundation of fantastically powered costumed heroes lend themselves perfectly to the special effects-driven formula of Hollywood blockbusters. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven the popularity and the profitability of the franchise universe approach; Time Warner still needs to prove that they can match that success with an integrated DC Universe. While the tidal wave of superhero films in the twenty-first century has been dominated by Marvel properties, DC has been widely criticized for failing to properly leverage their own superheroes. The criticism is not entirely fair in that the Christopher Nolan-directed trilogy of Batman films has produced three of the highest grossing and most acclaimed superhero films. The combined grosses for Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) topped $2.3 billion. But the studio’s rebooting of Superman, the most iconic superhero ever, in Superman Returns (2006) failed to impress critics or fans even though it earned a respectable $200 million, and necessitated another rebooting with Man of Steel (2013) that earned a more impressive $668 million. And the feature film version of DC’s Green Lantern (2011) turned into a cautionary tale of superhero film failure when it cost $200 million to produce and only made $116 million in returns. But with a roster of superhero characters as extensive and well known as Marvel’s catalogue, Time Warner has embarked on a plan to integrate their own cinematic universe, first with the much anticipated Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and the villain centered Suicide Squad (2016) to be followed by solo films for Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, Aquaman, Cyborg, The Flash, and a team-up series of Justice League movies. DC superheroes have already proven successful on
network television with Arrow (2012–current), The Flash (2014–current), Supergirl (2015–current) and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (2016–current). These television superheroes are already integrated with each other, regularly appearing in crossover episodes, but remain separate from the planned film universe of DC superheroes. The shift in industry thinking about franchises as entire universes accords with Henry Jenkins (2006) influential media studies consideration of “Convergence Culture” as an emerging new paradigm for entertainment. In recognition of the developing industry forms that circulate media content faster, farther and more pervasively across a range of platforms, Jenkins argues that all of this “convergence” does not just occur within the technologies but represents a cultural shift that includes audiences as active participants. As Jenkins characterizes this contemporary media dynamic: By convergence, I mean the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want. Convergence is a word that manages to describe technological, industrial, cultural, and social changes. (2–3) To think of this new era of highly integrated media content disseminated worldwide through multiple platforms as just an industrial or technological change would, according to Jenkins, be to miss the point of audience involvement and passionate embrace of this new model of entertainment. “Instead, convergence represents a cultural shift,” Jenkins continues, “as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content” (3). The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been particularly effective in courting and encouraging audiences to make connections across all of their offerings. From “Easter eggs” hidden throughout their films for keen viewers and comics fans to discover, to major and minor references about events or characters in other films, comics or television shows, to exclusive online content, and special screenings and star interviews at fan functions, Marvel endeavors to foster passionate audience participation. In creating an interrelated and multi-platform universe, Marvel has constructed a form of “converged” media that encourages active rather than passive audience consumption. The larger-than-life characters and the extreme action sequences typical of most superhero films make them an ideal blockbuster formula ripe for cross media convergence. The film industry has long recognized that big screen spectacles are an essential ingredient for maximizing ticket sales. Cinema can uniquely offer striking visual experiences that are most awe inspiring at the theatre, particularly when accompanied with cutting edge sound systems, increasingly massive screens and/or 3D effects. The highest
grossing films of all time were uniformly spectacular, offering a visual representation of the impossible: floating alien landscapes and battle in Avatar (2009), the magical world of Harry Potter, the epic battles between hobbits, orcs, and dragons in all of the Lord of the Rings movies (2001, 2002, 2003), dinosaurs brought to life in Jurassic World (2015), and the continuing interstellar adventures in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). The inclusion of both Avengers movies, as well as two of each of the Iron Man, Dark Knight, and Spider-Man series, and several other superhero movies to the top-50 list of highest grossing films is not a surprise. What movies with superheroes offer is a genre based on spectacle and action, features that have a proven worldwide appeal. Dan Hassler-Forest (2012) notes that the spectacular and expensive nature of superhero films has become a central element in their marketing and the appeal for viewers: The vast expense represented by the spectacular visual effects functions as a selling point in and of itself, with both critics and audiences celebrating the excessive production costs of such blockbusters by enthusiastically confirming that “the money is up there on the screen” – to quote a commonly used phrase. (14) The extensive use of modern visual imaging, digital special effect and CGI characterizations allow superheroes to appear realistic even as they fly and shoot laser beams from their eyes and ice from their fingertips. Superhero films allow audiences to marvel at the sight of Tony Stark flying in a large metal suit and shooting repulsor rays from his palms, of SpiderMan gracefully swinging between skyscrapers high above the streets of Manhattan, or Superman toppling humongous alien spaceships. The blockbuster style emphasis on the spectacular look and the exhilarating, visceral action of the characters facilitates an easy transition across media platforms. With contemporary superhero movies dominating at the box office and in almost every conceivable category of merchandising and promotion, there has come an increasing criticism that these films are nothing more than spectacle. Ever since the visually remarkable Star Wars dominated the movie industry in 1977, pundits have bemoaned a perceived lack of artistic quality in favor of pure spectacle. Earlier epics like Gone with the Wind (1939), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) were sweeping spectacles, but the post-Star Wars emphasis on special effects and kinetic action sequences have been ridiculed as a loss of narrative that the earlier films did not suffer. From the early 1980s dominance of muscular action movies starring the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to the late 1990s SFX showcases like Independence Day (1996), Armageddon (1998) and The Matrix (1999), big-budget, effects-driven action movies have been regarded by many critics as the triumph of the visual over story. As the quintessential modern blockbuster, superhero movies seem to
represent a culmination of Hollywood’s embrace of the spectacular. As live action superheroes become more and more ubiquitous in popular culture an increasing number of critics have begun to complain that their appeal resides only in their extravagance. That by focusing on formulaic stories merely as a framework for elaborate SFX action scenes, variety and depth of story are being lost. Expressing his frustration, film reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in a piece for Salon.com entitled “Superheroes Suck!” that the films “tend to be visually adept and dramatically inert,” and that the entire genre blurs “into one endless, roiling mass of cackling villains, stalwart knights, tough/ sexy dames, and pyrotechnic showdowns that invariably feature armored vehicles (or armor encased men) bashing into each other” (May 6, 2010, para. 4). And, four years later, for rogerebert.com, Seitz argued that superhero movies have not improved and are essentially just scenes of “burning/ exploding/punching/collapsing/roaring/stomping” (May 6, 2014, para. 5). Even reviewers who were mostly favorable to recent superhero films have taken to complaining about the excessive and predictable spectacle. For example, the mixed reviews of Man of Steel (2013) noted: “You get giant special-effects sequences every 20 minutes, and astounding as they are, they become routine” (Rodriguez, June 13, 2013, para. 4); “By the end, Man of Steel has mutated into just another superhero action movie, with explosions galore and city buildings toppling like so many Legos. Lather, rinse, repeat” (Darling, June 13, 2013, para. 5), and: What’s particularly disheartening about Man of Steel is that its hero’s originality – Superman’s primacy – has been forsaken for an excess of high-end generic effects. At least an hour of Man of Steel’s excessive running time is devoted to the sort of crash-and-burn, slamming-intoskyscrapers CG fight scenes that we’ve already seen in The Avengers and Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Spider-Man. (Rea, June 14, 2013, para. 8) Similarly, even the otherwise positive reviews for Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) complained: “Yet the numbing visual familiarity of so much of it, particularly in its computer-generated effects generic and grinding, prolonged sequences of massive destruction and clobbering hand-tohand combat provokes a series of anxious sighs in some members of the audience” (Phillips, May 8, 2014, para. 4); and the Niagara Falls’ worth of movie budgets expended on blockbuster special effects are now wasted on this white-flag-waving viewer. I can barely distinguish or remember who fell off what spaceship onto what exploding aircraft carrier from movie to movie, so ubiquitous and overextended and loud have such scenes become. (Stevens, April 3, 2014, para. 7)
And: It’s a product of the highest quality, but at the end of the day that’s what it is: a machine-made, assembly-line product whose strengths tend to feel like items checked off a master list rather than being the result of any kind of individual creative touch. (Turan, April 2, 2014, para. 5) Similar complaints are becoming increasingly common in reviews for most superhero movies.
Figure 1.1 All the heroes leap into spectacular action at the start of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The emphasis on spectacular special effects and action sequences is undoubtedly part of the superhero genre’s appeal, even if critics are tiring of its formulaic redundancy. In many ways the modern superhero movie can be likened to the early era of film that Tom Gunning (1986) has characterized as a “cinema of attractions.” Gunning argues that with the advent of motion picture technology, cinema prior to 1906, by creators like Lumiere and Melies, was structured “less as a way of telling stories than as a way of presenting a series of views to an audience, fascinating because of their illusory power … and exoticism” (1986: 382). Furthermore, Gunning maintains that this early emphasis on what film can show overtly engages viewers: “The cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle – a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself” (384). After 1906 classic Hollywood narrative style became firmly entrenched and film’s appeal as a means merely of providing visual spectacle declined in preference for self-contained stories. The special effects and action sequence-driven modern blockbusters seemed to many commentators to be a reversion to the pre-narrative style of film. By the late 1990s the apparent lack of narrative in favor of pure spectacle in Hollywood
blockbusters was debated in film scholarship, with some arguing that much of cinema was simply reverting to an era of “attractions” and others exploring the various ways narrative functions differently within spectacle heavy films. “Hollywood blockbusters are commonly described by both critics and publicists as ‘thrill rides’ or ‘rollercoasters,’” Geoff King (2000) summarizes in his comparison of the analogous experience offered by films and amusement park rides; “Some commentators have implied that the period of dominance of ‘classical’ narrative structure has come to an end, shown to be merely an interlude between the carnival-style attraction of early cinema and its contemporary equivalent” (2). Moreover, King notes: “Narrative concerns are said, more or less explicitly, to have been surrendered to an emphasis on purely visceral thrills” (2). The spectacles offered by superhero movies are grounded in the visceral thrills of 1980s and 1990s action films, but have exponentially increased the extravagance. Superheroes are spectacularly larger-than-life characters, not restricted by gravity, logic, or the laws of physics. They are strong, powerful, resourceful, magical, and impossible figures constantly in motion, dashing from one incredible adventure to another. The remarkable action sequences paced throughout the films are meant to be pure adrenaline rushes for the viewer, but they are also part of the narrative, as they are in all action movies. As David Bordwell (2006) maintains: “every action scene, however ‘spectacular,’ is a narrative event” (104). The action scenes may revel in the spectacular but they also advance the plot through conflict with the villain, or saving the needy. These scenes also establish important character traits such as the nobility, determination and superiority of the hero. The kinetic motion and thrills provided by superhero film spectacles are essential and expected ingredients that are part of the experience, the feel, of the narrative fantasy. Writing about the Christopher Nolan-directed trilogy of Batman films Steen Christiansen (2013) argues that the kinetic frenzy of superhero films (all those explosions, fights, and chase scenes) appeals to audiences as a type of ADHD, or hyper attention, narrative experience. “This new perceptual mode correlates with a kind of post-attention state,” Christiansen notes, “where the movies reconfigure our attention according to new ways of seeing” (145). In other words, we do not just see, but through seeing the kinetic spectacle we also feel the action as we ride along with the heroes. It is vicarious identification not just with the characters but also with the action. The movements, the explosions, the dangers assault us visually and sonically and make us part of the fantasy. As Scott Bukatman (2003) has argued in relation to science-fiction and action movies in general: “Spectacular displays depended on a new mode of spectatorial address – essentially, you are there (even though you are not) – linked to new technologies of visual representation” (89). For Christiansen, the superhero becomes a perfect proxy, or anchor, for the viewer during these kinetic moments that can induce anxiety or apprehension. Viewers are safe in the knowledge that Batman
(or any other hero we identify with) is in control of the chaos. “To boldly go where no one has gone before is the premise of superhero movies and provides a spectacle that is very literally out of this world.” Christiansen insightfully notes, We relish these moments of sheer delightful terror because there is in fact something to hold onto: The superhuman cinematic body … The fascination of feeling more than oneself, to be taken beyond (but not out of) one’s body for a little while, while still safely in one’s seat is the adrenaline rush of the 21st century. (2013: 155) The fantastic powers, incredible adventures and amazing milieu brought to life in current superhero movies has been made possible by major advances in computer-generated visual effects. As CGI technologies became increasingly common and effective in the 1990s film theorists began to debate the aesthetic and identificatory implications of the trend. Michele Pierson (1999) considered the films of the early 1990s as evidence of increased CGI use that created a new techno-futurist aesthetic sense and an entertainment experience that celebrated the hyperreal. Yvonne Spielmann (1999) deconstructed the conceptual changes involved in the shift to new digital technologies in film and their influence on modes of perception. Likewise, Warren Buckland (1999) focused on Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) and The Lost World (1996) to explore the relationship between CGI technologies, mimeticism, narrative and the films’ ability to create aesthetically realistic possible worlds. The use of computer generated visual effects to enhance a film’s settings or to depict action sequences in novel ways was generally considered merely an extension of Hollywood’s devotion to the spectacular as a means to set itself apart from other media. But the use of CGI characters in pivotal and/or primary roles, like those brought to full fruition in some superhero movies, mark a significant shift in the presentation and affect of film. CGI characters are both special effect and the core of the narrative. On a technical level, computer animators are striving for the perfect mimesis of a real world referent, but the commercial principles of big-budget cinema require that the mimetic skill be recognizable. Computer generated characters are first and foremost promoted as special effects that will “astound and amaze” audiences. Julia Moszkcowicz (2002) refers to the computer animated films’ emphasis on naturalistic spectacle as a technological imperative. “Indeed,” Moszkcowicz writes in her discussion of Shrek (2001), “audiences are being encouraged to read the film in ignorance of its traditions, treating it as a series of images without equal” (300). In their alignment with special effects and spectacle, CGI characters would seem then to necessarily be what Andrew Darley (2000) describes as “the direct antithesis of narrative” (104). Current CGI proficiencies have reached a point where they allow live action film to approximate the look and kinetic action of the comic books.
Significant portions of the movies are dominated by SFX showcases of largescale battles and spectacular exhibitions of super powers. Many scholars and critics fear that the integration of CGI versions of characters shifts feature players from points of identification to mere spectacle. Film viewers’ ability to identify with characters on screen has long been assumed as part of the imaginative appeal of movies. The pleasure of identifying with characters is central to much of the most influential theories in film studies over the last 50 years, including the work of Laura Mulvey (1975), Christian Metz (1982), Theresa de Lauretis (1984), Mary Ann Doane (1987), Judith Mayne (1993), and countless others. Discussing action films and CGI characters specifically, Lisa Purse (2007) points out: action cinema’s dramatic and visual force lies in a kind of embodied identification with the hero that is dual in nature. The spectator must identify with the character on a narrative level (with his/her personal quest, psychological motivations, and so on) and on a bodily level, with the hero’s material body as it exerts and endures. (9) CGI characters bring this possibility of identification into question. “There is no doubt,” Barbara Creed (1999) notes in her influential essay about CGI characters, “that the presence of cyberstars in films will significantly alter the relationship between the spectator and the image” (79). For Creed, the fact that there is no referent in the real world for CGI characters problematizes the viewers’ understanding of the film experience. Most importantly, the absence of a real-world referent for the CGI actor brings into question our ability to identify with a performer who exists nowhere but in a computer program. What difference will it make if the spectator knows that the actor, or composite actor, who appears to be a figure of flesh and blood was “born” in a virtual world? The cyberstar is not subject to the same experiences as the living star, experiences such as mothering, oedipal anxiety, hunger, loss, ecstasy, desire, death. The cyberstar has no repressed desires or primal traumas. In short, the synthespian does not have an Unconscious…. How much of the power attached to the experience of identification is derived from the spectator’s awareness—conscious or not—that the star on the screen has undergone experiences common to the human subject? To what extent will the virtual nature of the star’s image induce in the spectator a sense of depthlessness in his/her relationship with the figure on the screen? (Creed 1999: 80) What Creed, Moszkcowicz, and Darley were concerned with is the inhuman quality—the spectacular nature—of CGI characters as distancing viewers
from identifying with protagonists and from becoming immersed within the narrative. With current superhero movies CGI versions of characters often supplant flesh-and-blood actors entirely. Once Bruce Banner transforms into the Hulk he is entirely CGI rendered with only his face still reflecting an essence of the actor’s persona within the imagery thanks to motion capture technology. At its best motion capture technology allows a seamless integration of the actor and the CGI character, but for many action scenes the technology takes over completely. When Spider-Man swings through New York, for example, the action can only be depicted with an entirely computer generated character rather than actors or stuntmen. In contrast, the scrawny version of Steve Rogers featured in the first half of Captain America: First Avenger is a marvel of computer rendering with actor Chris Evans’ face superimposed on a different body. In other films, like Guardians of the Galaxy two of the five team members are Rocket, a talking raccoon, and Groot, an anthropomorphic tree, that receive equal screen time and characterization despite being entirely CGI. Briefer moments when CGI versions of superheroes replace actors in suits are common in almost every movie, perhaps most significantly in Man of Steel, Ant-Man, Thor, and Iron Man. And while superhero films are often promoted and enjoyed as incredible special effects showcases, it would be a mistake to assume the abundantly spectacular nature of these films reduces the narrative or eliminates viewer identification with the characters. The popularity of these entirely CGI (or heavily CGI augmented) characters demonstrates that audience identification is not erased by the spectacular effects of men in flying armor or talking raccoons. Of course, the ever-increasing veracity of the visual effects is a significant factor in facilitating identification and effectively integrating spectacle into the narrative. On the few occasions when superhero movies have bombed at the box-office, most notably the first version of Hulk (2003) and Green Lantern (2011), critics and fans cited the unrealistic CGI of the main characters as an important contributing factor. The CGI improvements to the Hulk in his subsequent solo and team outings were applauded by audiences and contributed to the films’ overall believability. In addition to more and more believable CGI renderings as the technology advances, superhero movies have endeavored to unite the spectacular with the real, and to promote identification, in other ways since the beginning of this current wave films. The phenomenal success of Spider-Man is due, at least in part, to the film’s balancing of a human presence with unabashed spectacle. Though the titular character is performed almost exclusively by CGI rendering, the narrative goes to great lengths to establish a sense of Peter Parker’s humanity before introducing the computer simulated “spectacular” Spider-Man. Director Sam Raimi understood that for audiences to identify with a central character, who is nothing more than a digital effect for some of the most crucial scenes in the film, it would be important to
Figure 1.2 The CGI Hulk in the Avengers movies fit seamlessly amongst the ensemble cast.
establish a strong sense of the character’s underlying humanity. In other words, the identification with Tobey Maguire’s performance of Peter Parker extends a sense of the character’s presence into the fully CGI version of Spider-Man. Raimi explained to the special effects journal Cinefex that his goal was to unobtrusively draw viewers into the character before shifting them into the realm of the impossible: I wanted to present all of Peter Parker’s human interaction in a very personal, intimate way,” stated Raimi, “so most of the time I did not want to make the audience aware of the use of camera technique, to draw them into the characters. I then applied a second stylistic approach, with the help of my great team of storyboard artists and animators. Once Peter became Spider-Man, moving in a way that none of us could move, I wanted to capture the brilliance and the beauty of this ballet, fifty stories above Manhattan, but I didn’t want to present this with a cut. I wanted to identify with the human being, then blossom into the hero with him. So when he was the hero, we could soar with him in very long, uncut takes where we felt we were Spider-Man, swinging with him on these tremendous arcs high above the streets. (Fordham, 2002: 20) Raimi’s strategy to allow viewers “to identify with the human being, then blossom into the hero with him” made it possible for audiences to become completely wrapped up in the actions of a digitally rendered character. Owen Gleiberman’s review of the film in Entertainment Weekly surmised the vicarious thrills afforded audiences at the moment that Spider-Man supplants Peter Parker: “At that point he is gone—prancing from building to building, swinging through New York City as if it were a concrete jungle gym. His movements become as effortless as his thoughts, and we’re with him every step—and leap—of the way” (May 10, 2002, p. 47). In a sense, the entire purpose of the film is to suture us into identification with Spider-Man as
both human and fantasy. “Who am I?” Peter Parker’s voice-over asks in the very first dialogue of the film. By the end we know the answer as well as he does, we feel the answer as well as he does; “I’m Spider-Man!” The fact that Spider-Man is a costumed character afforded a unique advantage in promoting viewer identification. As often as the story would allow, Raimi filmed Spider-Man unmasked so we could see Peter Parker’s anguished face—so we have evidence of a real person within the computer generated image of a body. Likewise, the nearly seamless integration of the CGI Spider-Man with scenes of Maguire (and various stuntmen) in costume helped to blur the audience’s perception of just when they were looking at a living performer and when they were witnessing a digitized special effect in human form. Rather than detracting from narrative principles, the effective use of CGI characters and spectacular visual effects, in fact, enhances the complicated narratives offered in superhero movies, particularly in the intertwined Marvel Cinematic Universe and the developing DC Extended Universe. Superhero films have a narrative logic of their own that relies on the spectacular but also grounds the action in clear characterizations. As “transmedia franchises,” instances of “convergent culture,” or the central component for “commercial intertexts,” superhero movies have developed uniquely open-ended narrative and visual styles that appeal to multiple audiences and across multiple platforms. As the most spectacular, most profitable and most superhero packed film to date, The Avengers is an example of the unique importance of narrative within the genre. Given the scale of The Avengers and the sheer number of superhero characters involved, the film could have easily been mere spectacle. And, as Devin Leonard (2012) noted in his Bloomberg Businessweek article, Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige was concerned that the film’s narrative elements might be lost: When it was time for Marvel to make The Avengers, Feige was nervous. Combining Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk would sell tickets, but making a film with so many superheroes meant more action, more fights, and more mayhem. That may sound splendid to a modern producer, but it might not leave room for the dramatic elements that draw larger and repeat audiences to Marvel films. “I was afraid the movie would just become a bunch of explosions and visual effects,” says Feige. (68) The producers at Marvel/Disney wanted to ensure The Avengers was more than just a spectacle; that the film was also a good enough story to justify sequels and to boost the entire MCU brand as it carried on through subsequent individual and team-up movies. The film succeeded narratively by focusing on character interactions, personalities and individual motivations as much as on the action sequences. The balance of spectacle and narrative employed with The Avengers is indicative of the larger narrative structure of live action superhero movies. Moreover, these films need to satisfy a massive general audience as stand-alone movies, and appeal to the core group of
comic book fans that expects a certain amount of fidelity for the characters, and who can often affect perceptions of a film before it is even released. In his discussion of the MCU, Aaron Taylor (2014) rightly points out that the shared diegetic universe that occurs across multiple films and platforms facilitates a broader range of a viewer’s possible knowledge about narrative elements: “the narrative comprehension of single entries within such franchises requires an increasing degree of media literacy or at least a residual awareness of the intended interrelations between correlated media products” (182). Various storylines and characters are interwoven through the MCU, and while extensive knowledge of how they all go together may not be required to enjoy a specific film or television program, these interrelated threads deepen and extend the narratives and reward viewers attuned to them. For example, a supporting character like Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who first appears as an ally and love interest for Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger, reappears in her own television series Agent Carter that explores her 1940s contributions to the Strategic Scientific Reserve agency and the rise of multiple super villain organizations. But Peggy Carter also makes important cameos in a WWII backstory on the television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and in a 1970s set sequence in Ant-Man as a middle-aged leader of the SSR. Carter also appears as an elderly character in the modern set film Captain America: Winter Soldier, and as a young woman in a dream sequence in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Beyond film and television platforms, Peggy Carter appears in multiple video games targeted to different age ranges such as Captain America: Super Soldier and Lego Marvel’s Avengers, both voiced by Hayley Atwell. And Marvel published a comic book mini-series Operation S.I.N.: Agent Carter set in the 1950s, and though the illustrated Carter looked different than the live action version, a picture of actress Hayley Atwell as Carter was used for the cover of the trade paperback collection. How exactly Peggy Carter fits (or other characters like Howard Stark, or objects like the Infinity Stones or vibranium metal) in the cohesive narrative logic of the entire MCU is not necessary for any of her individual appearances to make sense, but her presence does establish continuity and cohesion for the MCU and provides narrative puzzle pieces for knowledgeable audiences. While each individual film or television series has their own narrative, there is also an overarching MCU narrative that viewers are either tangentially aware of, or fanatically attuned to. As live action adaptations of characters that first appeared in comic book form, it is logical that the cinematic superhero universes are an attempt to replicate the type of superhero universes that Marvel and DC established decades ago. In both the Marvel and DC comics universes the bulk of the characters exist on the same Earth, often in the same cities. The heroes and villains know each other and are free to team up as the writers and editors see fit. The events in one title can affect the characters in another series, and large-scale, crossover storylines regularly encompass the entire fictional
universe as every character is called upon in their own series to fight off a massive alien attack (Marvel’s “Secret Invasion”), or when the world is nearly destroyed by an angry god who uses fear as a weapon against all the heroes (Marvel’s “Fear Itself”), or to battle versions of themselves from alternate dimensions (DC’s “Infinite Crisis” and “Convergence”), or to deal with the dead returning to life (DC’s “Blackest Night”). This relatively unique fictional model of interrelated stories and characters pioneered in comic books has been adapted by the MCU and is planned as the basis of the DCEU. Taylor (2014) argues that the narrative importance of this new cinematic model, what he calls “the economics of continuity,” is of the utmost importance to the appeal of Marvel’s superhero films. This model contributes to an understanding and appreciation of larger and multiple intersecting storylines touched on within individual adventures. It also fosters an audience acceptance of dangling or incomplete stories that will be picked up again in sequels or in the movies of different Marvel characters. When The Avengers: Age of Ultron concludes with Thor leaving the team to investigate the recent appearance of different Infinity Stones, and Iron Man walking away after discussing his ideological differences with Captain America, these sequences are not regarded as a lack of narrative closure, but as narrative threads that point towards future films for the “Infinity War” and “Civil War” storylines, respectively. The cinematic adoption of comics’ superhero universe model also caters to the core audience of fans. Dedicated comic book fans may be a relatively minor market but they are regarded by producers as a type of litmus test for how successful adaptations can be. If the fans of Superman or Spider-Man or Ant-Man are not happy with their films, how can the studios expect nonfans to enjoy them? All of the major studios now actively seek fan approval long before a film is released in order to generate positive buzz about a property and to ensure the attendance of a core audience. A-list stars and film clips are trotted out at major events like Comic-Con International in San Diego and the New York Comic Con, online marketing campaigns target superhero fans, and studios take note of fan enthusiasms (the blockbuster Deadpool (2016) was only greenlit by 20th Century Fox after fans went crazy for leaked test footage of Ryan Reynolds as the wise-cracking and excessively violent “Merc with a Mouth”). The studios also seek to bolster their credibility with comics fans and “nerd culture” by hiring creators that have been identified as fan favorites, and indeed as fans themselves. The selection of Joss Whedon to direct The Avengers is perhaps the clearest example of assuring fans that the characters are in good hands. Whedon had already achieved enormous status as quality purveyor of “geek culture” entertainments as the creator and director of cult favorite television programs, movies, and web series, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Firefly (2002), Dollhouse (2009), Serenity (2005), and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008). Whedon is also a self-professed superhero geek and has often written comics, including a notable run on Astonishing X-Men and further
adventures of Buffy. Marvel/Disney wisely circumvented fan concerns by hiring a director that had unquestionable geek credentials. This attention to fan desires and preferences is evidence of some of the participatory aspects of convergence culture that Henry Jenkins (2006) highlights. Comic book universes have long had a close and interactive relationship with readers. Both Marvel and DC have worked to engage readers and to produce the type of stories that will engross them. Furthermore, fandom has found its way into the industry, as today’s editors, writers, and artists were yesterday’s fans. The degree of fan/producer integration in comics is part and parcel of their superhero universes and has carried over in a modified form to the cinematic universes as well. The larger stage that superheroes now occupy in film, television, and all of the multiple platforms that they now circulate within moves them beyond just a niche audience of devoted comic book fans. The logic of a cinematic superhero universe is accessible, and is evidently being embraced by a general audience not versed in the minutiae of superhero lore, and is, in effect, making devoted fans on a much larger scale than merely the subculture of comics fandom. The current popularity of live-action superheroes seems to have made fanatics of us all.
Supermen and Wonder Women Gender Ideals and Live-Action Superheroes
The current wave of live action superhero movies and television programs, like the comic books they are based on, present ideals of masculinity and femininity in very basic terms. The focus on fantasies of heroic men of action and beautiful women (usually in peril) were tailor made for the original target of young male comic book readers. The preoccupation with gender ideals has remained an important part of the superhero formula in film and on television. Even the names of many of the characters that have been adapted recently to live action formats reveals the basic importance of gender: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The X-Men, Ant-Man, Birdman, Supergirl, Hit-Girl, Wonder Woman and Catwoman. The superheroes that currently dominate movie theatres and television screens model extreme versions of our culture’s strict ideas about gender. For the male characters the genre is a very rudimentary fantasy of masculine empowerment. Time and again, superhero films revolve around the symbolic transition of the main male character from 98-pound weakling to he-man, from mild mannered Clark Kent to Superman, from timid teenager Peter Parker to the amazing Spider-Man. Female super characters often enjoy a sense of empowerment as well, but they are also typically subjected to an accompanying degree of sexual fetishization that male characters are exempt from. Whatever their powers, female super characters are expected to remain beautiful and reveal some skin during their adventures. Modern superheroes reveal and reinforce gender norms about how we assume men and women are supposed to look and act. Given the popularity of superheroes and how widely the genre is being disseminated to young and old viewers alike, these characters have become exemplars of very restrictive rules about gender. This chapter outlines what exactly the genre reveals about masculine and feminine ideals under the guise of purely escapist fantasy adventures.
Super Men Despite decades of comic book source material featuring a wide-range of storyline complexity, superhero films have thus far demonstrated an almost obsessional preoccupation with origin stories. While the initial film for each character logically requires some exposition about how and/or why they
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become superheroes, in most cases this transformation becomes the main story rather than just background or motivation. The spectacle of transformation serves as both the emotional and the narrative centerpiece of most of the films. Narratively the first films for each character focus on the protagonist becoming the superhero; the subsequent showdown with the super-villain almost seems like a perfunctory conclusion. A significant amount of screen time is given over to Bruce Wayne learning the physical skills and acquiring the equipment he needs to become Batman in Batman Begins (2005). Likewise, the majority of Iron Man (2008) is about Tony Stark’s miraculous construction of the titular suit of armor that keeps his heart functioning and allows him to fight the villains, first building it in a cave and then again in his high-tech home laboratory. In cases where the transformation is more or less instantaneous rather than a long process, the scene still functions as the spectacular heart of the film. For example, the CGI-reliant transformations of the weak Steve Rogers into a strapping super-soldier in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), or the repeated morphing of scrawny scientist Bruce Banner into a green behemoth in The Incredible Hulk (2008). Even second and third installments in superhero film series tend to dwell on plot points related to the heroes’ origins. After three blockbuster X-Men films (2000, 2003, 2006), the studio decided to focus on prequels about the origins of Wolverine, in the aptly titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), and of Professor Xavier, Magneto, and the earliest mutants in X-Men: First Class (2011). Furthermore, despite the genre’s relatively short existence, there has already been a focus on rebooting franchises and retelling character origins. The Hulk has already had two origin films (2003 and 2008), as has The Fantastic Four (2005, 2015), and Spider-Man (2002 and 2012) with a third origin film currently in production. Daredevil was retooled as a hit Netflix series (2015–current) after the feature film Daredevil (2003) starring Ben Affleck underperformed at the box-office. Moreover, a reboot of the Batman franchise was announced even before the third and final Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight Rises (2012) was released. Ironically, the Batman reboot has seen Ben Affleck assuming the cape and cowl first in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and then in his own solo series. The insistent focus on superhero origins in film and television depictions seems disproportionate given that most viewers are already familiar with how the characters got their powers. As the genre became ubiquitous in popular culture some film critics bemoaned the repetitive nature of these origin tales. In an Entertainment Weekly review of Man of Steel entitled “Why is Every Superhero Movie an Origin Story?” Adam Markovitz complained: Having found that origin stories are a handy narrative tool for kicking off a franchise, Hollywood decided that every superhero movie should be an origin story, dropping our spandex icons into a Groundhog Day
Supermen and Wonder Women 39 loop of childhood traumas, first kisses, and clumsy jumps off high roofs. The intro portion that used to take 10 minutes at the beginning of a movie is now filling entire movies – franchises, even. (December 12, 2012. para. 3) Likewise, in The Guardian, Noah Berlatsky complained: Superhero origin stories are a problem.… Superhero tales are about extraordinary superbeings bashing each other with ridiculous powers. Origin stories are about ordinary people suffering some sort of transformative trauma. The first is exhilarating, fanciful – fantastic. The other tends to be a somber downer. (August 11, 2015, para. 4) The predominance of superhero origin stories does more than just lay the narrative groundwork for a film series or a television season; the origin presents and represents the important moment where the man becomes a super man. As Markovitz noted in his review of Man of Steel: “creation stories show us the exact moment when a normal guy goes from being Just Like Us to being somehow better, faster, stronger. It’s the bridge between the relatable and aspirational parts of the hero myth” (December 12, 2012. para. 2). This obsessional focus in the films on the moment that the regular man becomes the superhero is a ritualized presentation of masculinization. The shift from “less-than-ordinary” to “extraordinary” masculinity is literally and symbolically written onto the hero’s body. In his discussion of the limitations of superhero films, Scott Bukatman (2011) points to the character’s physical alteration as the primary convention of the genre: The central fascination in the superhero film is the transforming body, whether of hero or villain. Much attention is given to the body’s discovery of its own transformation, which explains why superhero films are even more obsessed with origin stories than the comics themselves. (121) This physical transformation at the core of the films stresses the genre’s alignment with the valorization of traditional masculine ideals such as physical strength, resiliency, power, and heterosexual desirability. Despite all the advanced technology within the films, and the cutting-edge digital imaging used in making the movies, the modern superhero movie is grounded in a very conventional understanding of gender roles. This is perhaps to be expected since the core origin stories that are the obsessive center of the genre are based on tales that first appeared in the comics in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. “What becomes obvious in watching these films,” observes Sabine Lebel, (2009) “is that they are not only traditional in terms of the superhero narrative but they are positively regressive in terms
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of their portrayal of male and female bodies, and gender relations” (56). Though the stories and the superhero characters have been updated for the twenty-first century their depiction of gender is very traditional: men are heroic, strong, and brave; women are damsels in distress, love interests, and romantic prizes. Of course some rare exceptions do exist, but the dearth of feature film superheroines is indicative of the genre’s preoccupation with masculinity. Even when female characters have headlined their own films, for example Catwoman (2004) or Elektra (2005), the films failed miserably. The fantasy of superhero transformation seems to be a specifically male ideal. Superhero films present a very narrow definition of masculinity within a narrative designed to foster viewer identification with the character’s empowerment. The assumption that men identify with superhero stories because they can vicariously experience the dream of super-masculinization is not new. Umberto Eco, in his seminal 1972 essay “The Myth of Superman,” succinctly points out that: Clark Kent personifies fairly typically the average reader who is harassed by complexes and despised by his fellow men; through an obvious process of self-identification, any accountant in any American city secretly feeds the hope that one day, from the slough of his actual personality, there can spring forth a superman who is capable of redeeming years of mediocre existence. (108) This fantasy of identification that lies at the heart of superhero comics merges well with theories of gender-aligned identification in film studies. Inspired by Laura Mulvey’s (1975) argument about the dominance of the male gaze, techniques of identification and the objectification of women, subsequent theorists detailed the ways that masculinity was likewise presented in film according to a cultural logic of gender normativity. Directly building on Mulvey’s work about femininity, Steve Neale’s article “Masculinity as Spectacle” (1983) was one of the first and most influential efforts to explore how masculinity is prescribed by film. Central to Neale’s argument is that images of men at the movies offer viewers a form of “narcissistic identification” with the masculine fantasies of “power, omnipotence, mastery, and control” (11). Most of the discussions about masculinity at the movies, Neale’s included, address the various ways that mainstream films compensate for any implied objectification or feminization of the male heroes whose actions and bodies are put on display. Common conventions such as sports, torture, violence, or other “manly” activities have been used as a way to display ideal masculinity, and ideal male bodies, while maintaining identification with the character rather than reducing them to a mere sexual spectacle in the same way women are. What is taken as the obvious and commonsense starting point is the recognition that the main
Supermen and Wonder Women 41 appeal of most films is the identification with heroes like The Ringo Kid, Sam Spade, James Bond, Dirty Harry, Indiana Jones, Rambo, Jason Bourne, Batman, and Captain America. As Christian Metz describes it, the films “suture” us into the narrative as we adopt the heroes’ point of view, are privileged to the heroes’ insights, and share in their victories. We identify so deeply with the characters and the vicarious thrills of their adventures that we cannot help but adopt some of their beliefs and assumptions about masculinity. What Hollywood films offer is a clear example of Western culture’s dominant vision of masculinity as strong, powerful, resourceful, smart, and triumphant. Superhero movies perpetuate this traditional conception of masculinity and carry it to an extreme. The transformation at the heart of the modern superhero movie conveys the message that every man can become a paragon of masculinity who can single-handedly defeat entire armies, save grateful innocents and win the heart of the beautiful girl. The extreme version of masculinity modeled by cinematic superheroes is a clear example of what R.W. Connell (1987) describes as “hegemonic masculinity” in that it serves not just as a standardized ideal but represents a pattern of characteristics and practices that allows misogyny to remain intact. According to Connell: Hegemonic masculinity was distinguished from other masculinities, especially subordinated masculinities. Hegemonic masculinity was not assumed to be normal in the statistical sense; only a minority of men might enact it. But it was certainly normative. It embodied the currently most honored way of being a man, it required all other men to position themselves in relation to it, and it ideologically legitimated the global subordination of women to men. (Connell and Hammershidt, 2005: 832) The currently popular fantasy of all-powerful, super-heroic men who defeat all evils, and whom women swoon over, hegemonically normalizes rigid gender relations. The square-jawed, all-powerful superhero presents a fantastic and fictionalized version of “a minority of men [who] might enact it.” The abstract ideal of masculinity in Western culture can be extrapolated to such an extreme that only muscle-bound and CGI enhanced protagonists from science fiction can model it. In his reconsideration of the term, Connell points out: “hegemonic masculinities can be constructed that do not correspond closely to the lives of actual men. Yet these models do, in various ways, express widespread ideals, fantasies, and desires” (Connell and Hammershidt 2005: 838). The majority of cinematic superheroes are aspirational models of masculinity, very rigidly drawn, and demonstrate a presumption of traditional gender roles, political ideals and American values. The dominant mainstream superhero film genre then can be seen as conservative, even
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downright misogynistic, not just in its on-screen depiction of genders but via its ideological influence on viewers. Hegemonic depictions of masculinity are the bedrock of superhero films. Despite the slow inclusion of a few select superheroines in feature films, Christine Adamou (2011) argues: the majority of the genre’s protagonists are still male, rendering masculinity the “structuring norm” of the genre. Masculinity also functions as the structuring norm of femininity, since heterosexual gender stereotypes are based on binary oppositions and are thus defined through the exclusion of each other’s characteristics and their antithesis. (94) In discussing comic book depictions of masculinity elsewhere (Brown 2001) I have argued that the firm gender binary that our culture assumes as a default typically defines masculinity as a cluster of desirable traits in opposition to undesirable, or “feminine,” ones: hard not soft, strong not weak, reserved not emotional, and active not passive. Symbolically, these abstract traits are literally embodied and exaggerated in the figure of male superheroes. In the comic books male superheroes are routinely illustrated with bulging muscles, flexed and ready for action, their impossible abs, biceps, and chests highlighted by their skintight costumes. Visible muscularity, the type taken to extremes in comic books, is one of the key indicators of gender differentiation in our society. Superheroes, both on page and on screen, perform masculinity and embody it to an extreme. In her landmark analysis of modern gender images in the media Susan Bordo argues: “Of course, muscles have chiefly symbolized and continue to symbolize masculine power as physical strength, frequently operating as a means of coding the ‘naturalness’ of sexual difference” (1993: 193). The representation of masculinity that Bordo describes as symbolized through the obvious and “naturalized” muscular excess of the body positions comic book superheroes as hypermasculine physical ideals. In his ethnographic analysis of bodybuilders, Alan Klein (1993) notes the influence of superheroic bodies as an elusive model of perfection. Klein argues that: “Comic book depictions of masculinity are so obviously exaggerated that they represent fiction twice over, as genre and as gender representation” (267). “Moreover,” Klein continues “the reader is set up to be simultaneously impressed by the superhero and dismissive of the alter ego, a situation that underscores the overvalued place of hypermasculinity for readers of this genre of comic books” (268). As “readers” have become “viewers” the muscular male superhero body has maintained the emphasis on physical hypermasculinity as a negation of passivity, softness, and weakness. Furthermore, because the films and television programs feature real people rather than mere illustrations, the naturalness of this difference is emphasized, as is its imagined attainability. “The Body, as an external signifier, has then come to represent
Supermen and Wonder Women 43 all the conventions traditionally linked to assumptions of male power and masculinity,” Yann Roblou (2012) summarizes, and, as a heavily inscribed sign, the muscular body clearly marks an individual as a bearer of masculine strength and superiority, all the more so in fiction. Muscles symbolize masculine power as physiquederived, operating as a means of coding the performative nature of the superhero – he does what he does because he physically can. (78–79) Time and again, we witness the ordinary, or less than ordinary, male protagonist magically transform from wimp to warrior. The pre-transformation characters are depicted with a plethora of unmanly attributes, of “feminine” qualities, that need to be eradicated in order to become a hero. In Spider-Man (2002) Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker is the quintessential high school nerd at the beginning of the film. He is shy, weak, and awkward. Peter pines after the girl-next-door, Mary Jane Watson, who barely knows he is alive. Peter is bullied by the jocks at school and is unremarkable in every way. But, after Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider on a scientific field trip, he transform into the amazing Spider-Man. Peter does not just become incredibly strong and develop the ability to climb walls and shoot webs from his wrists. His transformation from wimp to hero is signified by his body change. When Peter wakes up from the feverish faint brought on by the spider bite, the first thing her notices is his newly muscular body. Peter flexes his muscles while admiring himself in the mirror. In a nod to the phallic implications of his new hard body, Peter even looks under his waist band and smiling to himself declares it “a big change.” The scene is an obvious allegory for puberty, Peter goes from timid teenager to a Spider-Man, and the fantasy is complete by the end of the movie when he defeats the bad guys and gets the girl. Likewise, in Captain America: First Avenger, Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers is depicted throughout the first quarter of the film as short, scrawny, and asthmatic. In a marvel of digital special effects, Evans’ face is morphed onto an obviously inadequate male body. Rogers may have a big heart and wants to do his part for World War II but he is repeatedly declared 4F at recruiting stations. To make matters worse, girls ignore him and arrogant men ridicule and bully him. Rogers volunteers for a top-secret military experiment and is transformed in a super-soldier. Viewers witness the remarkable transformation as the emaciated Rogers is sealed in a tube and injected with an experimental formula and bathed in gamma rays. When the tube opens minutes later, Rogers emerges tall, handsome, and muscular. His shirtless torso elicits admiration and Special Agent Peggy Carter, who Rogers has a crush on, can’t help but longingly reach out and touch his heaving chest. This type of fantasy physical transformation is so conventional now that it has almost become a joke. When Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) wakes up from a coma after being hit by the lightning that would give him his super-speed powers on television’s The Flash (2014–current), he looks at his shirtless self in
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the mirror and asks: “Lightning gave me abs?” In the superhero genre to become a hero—to become a man—one must have the visible muscles that signify masculinity. When the excessively muscled superhero body derived from the comics is impossible to replicate, as is the case with the Thing or the Hulk, modern CGI technologies allow the character to still appear as authentic and realistic within the mise-en-scene. Male superhero bodies have become so extreme that even the gigantic Mr. Universe, Lou Ferrigno, who played the Hulk in the 1970s television show, seems tiny next to the current version in various Marvel films. In the movies, when the meek scientist Bruce Banner (whether he is played by Eric Bana, Edward Norton, or Mark Ruffalo) transforms into a green-skinned mass of muscles, the Hulk is depicted as an enormous monster around 18 feet tall and almost as broad. Stressing the spectacular and the gendered nature of CGI bodies like the Hulk, Sabine Lebel (2009) points out: “These bodies literally erupt and demand to be looked at, and the CGI body is a spectacle to be visually consumed.… The body becomes the site on which the narrative is played out and enacted” (58). And Lebel concludes that the CGI bodies of characters like The Hulk are marked as heroic figures: “signified and emphasized, through built muscles” (61). Moreover, the muscled, hard-body of the superhero is so important to the overall image of hegemonic masculinity offered through the characters that even when the hero is fully clad in a protective suit, the suit itself replicates muscles. Unlike the unflattering Bat-suit worn by Adam West on Batman (1966–1968) that revealed his average physique, the modern Bat-suit worn by Christian Bale is full body armor sculpted to look like ripped abs, massive pecs, and bulging biceps. Likewise, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark constructs his Iron Man suit to look like a steel sculpture of a bodybuilder. While both Christian Bale and Robert Downey, Jr. had to work out strenuously and muscle up their bodies, the Batman suit and the Iron Man suit further emphasized the hardness and the masculinity of the heroes. The importance of ideal muscularity for the role of superhero is reinforced by the publicity coverage of the actors’ own physical transformations before filming even begins. “Before and After” pictures of the actors circulate on television, in magazines, and on the internet documenting the remarkable bodily changes of the actors from skinny or flabby to muscular and ripped. The actors’ dedication to working out for the role and their exercise routines are celebrated. Actors that have bulked up significantly for superhero roles—like Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Henry Cavill (Superman), and Hugh Jackman (Wolverine)—are routinely featured on the cover of exercise magazines as part of a film’s publicity. The implication of these promotions is not just to align the muscularity of the performers with the fictional characters, but to suggest that readers can achieve the same masculine status by following the “superhero work-out.” The cover of Men’s Health for May 2011 promised: “Chris Hemsworth,
Supermen and Wonder Women 45 How He Became the Warrior-God of Thor,” and then again in August 2011 declared: “Captain America Chris Evans gives you the secrets of superhero size.” Muscle & Fitness (July 2013) exclaimed: “Henry Cavill! Man of Steel, His Super Routine Revealed.” These fitness magazines that promise the secrets to achieving a superheroic physique are the modern equivalent to the famous Charles Atlas advertisements that ran in the comic books for decades and catered to young readers’ fantasies of transforming from wimps to muscle-men. One of the most remarkable muscle makeovers was Chris Pratt for his role as Peter Quill (a.k.a. Star-Lord) for The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Pratt remade himself from his persona of the overweight and dimwitted Andy Dwyer on the sitcom Parks and Recreation (2009–2015) to a buff leading man. Pratt received so much media attention for his newly trim and buff body that he joked during his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live that he “lost 60 pounds on the ‘Hey fat ass, get into shape so you can be in my movie’ diet.” Pratt’s physical transformation, and his joke about it, reveals just how important the appropriately masculine look is for superheroes. The carefully constructed superhero body, designed to signify the hegemonic masculinity of the character, also repeatedly enacts its superiority. In direct contrast to the nerdy, skinny, and feminized secret identity or “before” transformation persona, the superhero is a preeminent man of action. The superhero does not just look like he can beat everyone up; he does it. Immediately after transforming from 4F Steve Rogers into Captain America he takes off on foot to pursue a spy through the streets of New York. Rogers can suddenly outrun and leap over cars, rip doors off their hinges and even punch his way through a submarine window. As soon as Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk he goes on a wild rampage smashing buildings and helicopters. Tony Stark dons his first roughly made Iron Man suit and can deflect bullets and defeat an army of terrorists. In essence the superhero’s body becomes a weapon in and of itself. Of course the narrative for superhero stories always has the hero emerge victorious no matter the odds or the scale of danger. So complete is the superhero’s hegemonic masculinity that he can defeat hordes of underlings and any powerful supervillains. He is stronger, faster, smarter, more determined and more pure of heart than anyone else. The superhero does not just eradicate any softness within himself to assume a hegemonically masculine position, he also thoroughly vanquishes other (lesser) men and proves his superior manliness. Where the ideal of hegemonic masculinity may be an illusion in real life, an impossible status for anyone to truly achieve, in fiction the superhero embodies and performs it. While the ideal muscular hard-body of modern live action superheroes neatly symbolizes that character’s eminent masculinity through implied strength, it also runs the risk of positioning him in the feminized position of an erotic spectacle. In accentuating the hero’s muscles, the camera tends to linger on bulging biceps, chests, and sculpted abs. Viewers are repeatedly
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treated to the sight of shirtless beefcake scenes featuring Clark Kent emerging from the ocean looking for clothes, Bruce Wayne exercising or getting out of bed, or Peter Quill being hosed down for space prison. The sexual implication of displaying these perfected male bodies is often carefully incorporated to boost the masculine stature of the characters. Kept within PG-13 heterosexual parameters, the films often clarify the sexual desirability of these bodies for women. For example: Peggy Carter is immediately entranced when Steve Rogers emerges extremely muscular from the experiment and cannot resist touching his bare chest in Captain America: First Avenger; in Thor when the female scientists, Jane Foster and Darcy Lewis, see the god of thunder without his shirt they leer at him and discuss his hotness; and in Ant-Man Hope Van Dyne checks out Scott Lang appreciatively when he lifts his shirt to inspect an injury thus exposing his ripped torso. At a narrative level, the erotic possibilities of the superhero’s body further establishes his hegemonic masculinity not just as a weapon, but as a body that women cannot resist. In many ways, the hero’s ability to always “get the girl” confirms his masculinity and validates the assumed natural preference for hypermasculine bodies. The romantic subplot employed by every superhero film and television program also defines the hero in relation to and in contrast with women. In her discussion of CGI superhero bodies, Lebel notes: Hulk and Spider-Man are both defined against and in relation to a feminine love interest, who restores and defines them. Heterosexual romance is central to both the action of the Hulk and Spider-Man films and to the changing bodies of the heroes. (2009: 61–62) All of these superheroic love interests, like Betty Ross in Hulk and Mary-Jane Watson in Spider-Man, confirm the hegemonic male’s sexual desirability, his heterosexuality, and often function as narrative motivation and/or as damsels in distress for the hero to demonstrate his abilities.
Figure 2.1 Steve Rogers’ transformation makes him an icon of masculinity to men and women.
Supermen and Wonder Women 47 The insistent need to confirm the superhero’s heterosexuality is the flip side of depicting their bodies as spectacles. The binary gender logic of looking first explored by Laura Mulvey (1975), wherein men look, women are looked at, and the assumption that the camera is by default a part of “the masculine gaze,” means that any prolonged displays of male bodies risks placing them in a feminized position. Given the feminizing implication of displaying male bodies on screen, visual mediums have adopted clear rules for justifying and remasculinizing characters. Richard Dyer (1982) has detailed the techniques employed in photographs of male pin-ups, such as the male subject looking away from the camera in disinterest or staring back at the viewer challengingly, and creating a ridiculously hypermasculine mise-en-scene through exercise, muscles, weapons, or tools. One of the most common techniques used to rationalize the display of male bodies in film without feminizing them has been through torture. Critics like Steve Neale (1983), Kaja Silverman (1992), Susan Jeffords (1994), and David Savran (1992) have argued that the incessant and spectacular depiction of male torture in action movies functions to both eroticize the male body and to deny that very eroticism. As Neale notes: “male heroes can at times be marked as the object of an erotic gaze,” thus “it is not surprising that ‘male’ genres and films constantly involve sado-masochistic themes, scenes, and phantasies” (1983: 13). Similarly, Susan Jeffords points out: “The chief mechanism in mainstream cinema for deferring eroticism in the heterosexual male body is through establishing that body as an object of violence, so that erotic desire can be displaced as sadomasochism” (1994: 51). Both symbolically and narratively the ideal body of the superhero denies being feminized, denies being a mere erotic object, through its endurance of violence and suffering. The superhero model of unassailable masculinity does not mean that he does not suffer; in fact it requires suffering as evidence of his superiority. While the superhero is incredibly powerful and impenetrable (sometimes literally as with Superman, the Hulk, and Luke Cage), he also demonstrates his masculinity through his endurance of physical and emotional pain. Like all good action heroes, the superhero has to be tested and wounded, and he has to overcome his own agony and rise from the ashes to defeat evil. The superhero’s ability to overcome suffering is a necessary part of proving his exceptional masculinity. Tim Edwards (2008) argues that heroism, masculinity, and masochism are critically intertwined: “cinematic presentations of masculinity depend much on the notion of heroism which in turn centres on processes of masochistic spectacle whether through the display of physical, emotional or spiritual suffering in defence of honour, an ideal or self” (176). The melodramatic formula of the superhero genre has always been rooted in suffering. Even before becoming a hero, most of the characters experience an early personal trauma that contributes to their life-long mission of defending innocents. The death of a hero’s parents is a standard cliché that modern film and television depictions dwell on: young Bruce Wayne’s
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(Batman) parents gunned down by a mugger; Uncle Ben’s fatal encounter with a random criminal that Peter Parker (Spider-Man) failed to stop; the sacrificial deaths of Jor-El and Lara and the entire planet of Krypton as the infant Kal-El (Superman) is rocketed to Earth … and then the death of his adoptive father Pa Kent; boxer and single father Jack Murdock is killed by mobster for not throwing a fight leaving 10-year-old Matt (Daredevil) blind and alone; Peter Quill’s single mother dies of cancer just moments before he is abducted by aliens in Guardians of the Galaxy, etc. etc. Overcoming these early personal and emotional tragedies marks the character with pathos and provides them with motivation, but it also indicates their heroic ability to overcome heartbreak. Furthermore, for many of the superheroes the moment of transition itself is portrayed as a physical pain to be endured: Steve Rogers screams in agony during the experiment that turns him into Captain America; Bruce Banner’s body practically tears him apart when he changes into the Hulk; young Matt Murdock is blinded by chemical waste and suffers from extreme sensory overload before learning to control it and become Daredevil; even the pre-teen Clark Kent is shown in Man of Steel as physically and emotionally tormented by his alienating and painful superhuman abilities. These original traumas are repeatedly stressed in the modern film and television version of superheroes through the obsessive focus on origin stories. But, as individual films or TV episodes in ongoing series (as with the monthly comics they are based upon), overcoming new and increasingly painful trials in each outing lies at the heart of superhero hegemonic masculinity. Much of the scholarship about masochism in action movies has focused on torture (my own included, Brown 2002 and 2014), because torture scenes are so often repeated and neatly present the hero as simultaneously vulnerable and able to withstand pain. From early adventure films to iconic action heroes like Rambo, Martin Riggs, and every version of James Bond, torture is a common narrative device to display the male body and to demonstrate its ability to endure unspeakable physical pain. While torture scenes are common in superhero comics they have generally been downplayed thus far in the films and television series. Superheroes have been explicitly tortured in films such as Wolverine and Deadpool, and on television in Smallville, Arrow, and Daredevil. Moreover, the superhero does regularly have to overcome torturous, even crippling, pain inflicted by the bad guys to prove his worth. Contemporary superheroes are shot, burned, beaten mercilessly, depowered, and generally battered and bruised beyond anything that a normal human could stand. Perhaps the most succinct example of the superhero overcoming suffering to emerge triumphant occurs in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) when the villain Bane breaks Batman’s back and then leaves him crippled in a barbaric underground prison. Yet, through hard work and sheer force of will Batman is able to recover (within a few short weeks it seems), escape, and ultimately defeat Bane and his allies. Less condensed, but certainly no less masochistic, is the first season of Daredevil on Netflix. Freed from the
Supermen and Wonder Women 49 network restrictions of cable television, each episode of Daredevil featured a surprising degree of violence. A review in Esquire described the series as “drenched in shadows and blood,” (Patches, April 1, 2015, para. 2) and The Hollywood Reporter claimed: “it’s almost shockingly grotesque in its depiction of violence” (Goodman, April 8, 2015, para. 1). And, while Daredevil dishes out plenty of the violence on his own, the fledgling superhero is often the subject of the most brutal violence as he takes to the streets to fight an array of small-time criminals and eventually faces off against the Kingpin. Throughout the season Daredevil is repeatedly shot, stabbed, dropped from buildings, and otherwise beaten to a bloody pulp. Other characters are repeatedly shocked by the wounds Murdock receives and tell him that he needs to get some kind of body armor if he wants to survive. So brutal are the constant injuries he suffers that a sympathetic nurse, Claire Temple, becomes a major character. Claire first meets Murdock when she finds his bloody body thrown into a dumpster, and she continues to patch him up after each beating. But, like every superhero, Daredevil never gives up and emerges again and again to clean up the streets of Hell’s Kitchen.
Figure 2.2 Daredevil’s body displays the wounds that he must endure to prove his masculinity.
It is the superhero’s ability to rise again and emerge victorious, despite the physical and emotional pain and suffering inflicted upon him, that solidifies his status as a hegemonic male. The superhero’s idealized hypermasculine body inspires awe, and his sufferings inspire pathos, but his ultimate triumph confirms his superior masculinity. In his discussion of action heroes
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and masculinity, Paul Smith (1994) argues that it is this moment when heroes rise from the ashes to vanquish their enemies and restore order that is the most important. “[T]he heroic man is always physically beaten, injured, and brought to the breaking point,” Smith observes, but more significant is the obvious third stage, in which the hero is permitted to emerge triumphant within the movie’s narrative line; this stage conventionally cannot occur before the first two. This third stage obviously provides the security and comfort of closure and is a crucial element in the production of spectatorial pleasure. (1994: 156) When Batman and Daredevil, or any of the other superheroes, overcome their own pain and rise up to continue the fight, they enact a clear vision of ideal masculinity as defiantly strong, invincible, unyielding, morally superior and divine.
Wonder Women As a reward for his heroic actions and as befits his alpha male status, the superhero almost always gets the girl in the end. It is a narrative cliché, especially in the movies, that the hero and the beautiful woman will end the film in each other’s arms. The consistent use of this trope in superhero films, films for which most critics and viewers assume the central pleasure is the spectacle of superheroic action sequences, may at times seem forced or heavy-handed, but it is necessary to complete the masculine fantasy of empowerment. Tony Stark wins Pepper Potts in each of the Iron Man movies, Captain America earns Peggy Carter’s love even if they cannot live happily ever after, Peter Parker is embraced by Mary Jane Watson in the original Spider-Man trilogy and by Gwen Stacey in the reboots, and even Bruce Wayne is last glimpsed in a European café in a loving relationship with Selina Kyle (Catwoman) at the conclusion of the Dark Knight trilogy. For the most part, female characters in superhero movies and television programs serve as romantic rewards and/or as damsels in distress. Compared to the men, very few women have been featured as superheroines in the current wave of the genre. The failure of early ventures headlined by female super characters, most notably the short-lived television series Birds of Prey (2002) and the films Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005), limited the development of superheroine properties. But as the overall genre has prospered and expanded a number of superheroines have emerged. Despite their amazing powers superheroines have been treated very differently than superheroes and reveal how deeply rooted our cultural expectations about feminine ideals are. Just as superheroes embody masculine fantasies, superheroines embody fantasies about women. Live action superheroines have had to deal with a range of gender specific issues including eroticization, sexism, and minimization in ways that reconfirm
Supermen and Wonder Women 51 society’s binary conception of masculinity and femininity. But, several of the most recent superheroine ventures offer promise that the genre is perhaps slowly moving towards a more challenging message about gender issues and a more egalitarian approach to superheroics. While heroines have gained significant ground in recent years within the broader category of action movies (see Brown 2015), with the phenomenal successes of film series like The Hunger Games (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015) and Divergent (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017), superheroines have lagged behind. When DC’s solo Wonder Woman movie scheduled for a 2017 release finally hits screens it will mark the first female lead superhero movie since Elektra bombed in 2005. Planned to join Wonder Woman roughly a year later will be Marvel’s first female lead film featuring Captain Marvel. Female super characters have fared somewhat better in recent years on television with the Captain America spin-off Agent Carter (2015–2016), Supergirl (2015–current) and Jessica Jones (2015–current). In feature films superheroines have been relegated to supporting characters or part of a team of super-powered heroes. For example, the green-skinned alien warrior Gamora was the lone female team member in Guardians of the Galaxy, Catwoman was a supporting character in The Dark Knight Rises, Sue Storm, a.k.a. The Invisible Woman, was the only female hero in the various Fantastic Four movies (2005, 2007, 2015). And while several super-powered female mutants are part of the X-Men ensemble movies, they often took a back seat to male characters like Wolverine and Professor X. Undoubtedly the most recognizable superheroine to appear in recent films is the Black Widow. Performed by A-list actress Scarlett Johansson, Black Widow has been significantly featured in five movies (Iron Man 2, both Captain America sequels, and both Avengers movies) but has yet to receive her own solo film. This unequal depiction of superheroines reflects and reinforces broader cultural trends of female representation. The most obvious difference between male and female super characters is the additional level of erotic fetishization that superheroines are expected to conform to. Male superheroes may be handsome and muscular spectacles but the films actively work to reposition their erotic appeal in order to avoid feminizing them. In gender binary terms, the men remain subjects while the women are positioned as objects. As performed by leading sex symbols like Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique in The X-Man: First Class series 2011, 2014, 2016), Jessica Alba (Invisible Woman), and Zoe Saldana (Gamora), there is an expectation that the actresses’ beauty will be emphasized. When Gal Gadot was cast as the iconic Wonder Woman much of the surrounding press coverage chose to stress her past status as a beauty queen, Ms. Israel in 2004, rather than her acting credits. The use of sex symbol actresses in films approximates the exaggerated depiction of the superheroines as they appear in the comic books. In superhero comics, an industry still dominated by male writers, artists, and editors, and still targeted primarily at young male readers, superheroines are usually illustrated
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in such a stylized and sexual manner that they verge on the pornographic. Novelist Michael Chabon notes that: Boobs were a big part – literally – of the female-superhero package. Almost every superwoman, apart from the explicitly adolescent characters like the original Supergirl or the X-Men’s Kitty Pryde, came equipped as if by the nature of the job with a superheroic rack. Furthermore, the usual way of a female-superhero costume was to advertise the breasts of its wearer by means of décolletage, a cleavage cutout, a pair of metal Valkyrie cones, a bustier. Today’s female costumed characters tend to sport breasts so enormous that their ability to simply get up and walk, let alone kick telekinetic ass, would appear to be their most marvelous and improbable talent. (Chabon 2008: 198 and 201) Similarly, Scott Bukatman (1994) has argued that in regards to comic book superheroines: “The spectacle of the female body in these titles is so insistent, and the fetishism of breasts, thighs, and hair so complete, that the comics seem to dare you to say something about them that isn’t just redundant” (112). In comic book form superheroines are exaggerated sexual ideals. Their faces are always beautiful, their hair long and flowing, and the too-tight or too-skimpy costumes are designed to show off their large breasts, long legs, and firm buttocks. In replicating the characters and the visual iconography of comic books, live-action film and television often continues the depiction of men as hypermasculine and women as hypersexual. Moreover, according to the dominant binary perceptions of gender, the idealized male characters have to be hypermasculine to fend off any hint of feminization while the tough and powerful female characters have to be depicted as hypersexual in order to fend off any accusations of being masculinized. This emphasis on the sexual desirability of the heroines as a defining characteristic in the male-dominated world of comic books makes it difficult to adapt superheroines to feature film and television. In order to appease fans Hollywood attempts to be faithful to the comic book origins of the characters, both narratively and visually, and since the comics genre is so firmly rooted in adolescent male fantasies the adaptations magnify unequal gender representations. In his discussion of the few superheroines who have appeared on screens over the last decade, Richard J. Gray (2011) argues: When the superheroine is brought to film, if the creators are truly going to tap into that male sexual desire that will bring men to watch such films, she must be portrayed in a way that the male of the species (and parts of the female audience, for that matter) finds sexually appealing: lots of flesh, or in leather jumpsuits, fishnet stockings, spiked heels, etc. (78)
Supermen and Wonder Women 53 The rudimentary logic that superheroines need to be sexy to attract a male audience, the logic apparently subscribed to by studio executives, shifts the focus from potentially strong female characters to standard Hollywood fetish objects. In a genre where bodies can mutate into green monsters or red skulls, the superheroine body remains beautiful at all costs. “In these films,” Lebel argues, “the female body consistently remains surprisingly ‘intact.’ Neither the mutation nor special effects work to visually disrupt, dismantle, or change the surface of the female form” (2009: 65). Even when the female body is obviously mutated, as is the case with Mystique, she is still eroticized rather than turned into a grotesque. Mystique may have blue-skin and strategically placed scales, but she otherwise vamps around in the nude and is performed by the already celebrated bodies of Rebecca Romijn in the original X-Men films and by Jennifer Lawrence in the X-Men: First Class series.
Figure 2.3 Black Widow is a strong character but typifies how superheroines are fetishized.
As the most prominent superheroine thus far in feature films, Black Widow typifies the sexualized treatment of female characters. Despite having no actual powers Black Widow is still a skilled fighter and an expert in espionage; yet her primary “superpower” seems to be her sexuality. First introduced to viewers in Iron Man 2 as an undercover agent posing as Tony Stark’s personal assistant, Natasha wears tight clothes that accentuate her figure and she has to flirtatiously fend off Stark’s constant propositions. When she reveals herself as Black Widow, she is able to leap into ass-kicking action but has to do so in her trademark form-fitting black jumpsuit … usually unzipped enough to show off ample cleavage. Her first scene in The Avengers shows Natasha clad in only a little black dress and stockings,
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bound to a chair and being beaten by several vaguely European bad guys. But rather than emphasizing her plight, the scene confirms her sexual powers. Black Widow flirts with the villains even as they interrogate her—“Do you think I’m pretty?” she asks flirtatiously as she bats her eyelashes and shoves her chest out. She eventually frees herself and subdues her captors, but this first scene establishes her desirability as the defining feature of her character. In the first chapter I briefly mentioned the advance posters for Ant-Man that linked him to the Marvel Cinematic Universe by posing the tiny character on Iron Man’s shoulder, Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s shield. It is worth noting that in response to this campaign fans circulated mock posters on the internet of Ant-Man with Black Widow’s most iconic features: standing atop her breast, nestled in her cleavage, and posed heroically on her buttocks. The fans are well aware of how important Black Widow’s sexuality is to her identity. For Black Widow and other superwomen like Mystique, Emma Frost, and Catwoman, their overabundance of sexuality is narratively presented as a weapon to disarm men. In Mary Anne Doane’s (1991) terms the hypersexualization of superheroines could be understood as a conscious strategy, as a “masquerade of femininity.” By employing an exaggerated masquerade of femininity strategically to dupe men, women can maintain a critical distance from the demeaning implications of being perceived as weak, flighty, helpless, and sexually available. Narratively, this notion that superheroines use their sexuality as a skill makes sense. Viewers bear witness to the heroine’s competence alongside her sexuality. But the unequal insistence on this sexual manipulation as only and always a female trait ultimately reinforces the perception of superheroines as primarily about sexual spectacle rather than heroics. Moreover, most costumed female characters are depicted as being less powerful than their male teammates and/or their powers are associated with stereotypical female qualities. Black Widow has no powers even though she fights alongside a Norse god, a super-soldier, a green behemoth, and an ironsuited genius. And in her discussion of the X-Men films Lebel points out: “The powers attributed to female superhero bodies are linked to traditional notions of female power, including manipulation, sexuality, and masquerade (rather than brute physical or muscular strength)” (2009: 65). The strict adherence to gender rules when it comes to superheroines is even clearer in the marketing of the films than it is within the narrative. I have discussed elsewhere (Brown 2015) how the blatantly sexual marketing of Black Widow on the posters for The Avengers resulted in accusations of sexism from many fans and media critics. In the main poster for the film all of the heroes except Black Widow are posed heroically, ready to spring into action, amid the rubble of New York City under alien attack. While the men face forward with their fists clenched and weapons at the ready, Black Widow is posed rather seductively with her back to the viewer and her upper body twisting sideways so both her buttocks and breasts can be highlighted. A cartoon spoof of the poster featuring all of the male characters displaying
Supermen and Wonder Women 55 their asses made the rounds on the internet. The criticism was sufficient enough that the studio released an alternate version where Black Widow was also facing forward. Similarly, superheroines have been treated very differently in the merchandising of the film characters. Several action groups have heavily criticized the almost complete absence of superheroine toys. Dozens of different types of action figures were available on store shelves for the male Avengers and the male Guardians of the Galaxy, but Black Widow and Gamora were almost completely excluded from some toy lines on the assumption that girls don’t play with action toys and boys don’t want to play with female heroes. The discrepancy has been so obvious that even the actors and directors (Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Mark Ruffalo, and Joss Whedon) have called for the manufacturers to create more superheroine toys. This minimization of superheroines and their powers in contrast to the abundance of infinitely powerful superheroes has led to a number of critics and fans calling for better representation within the genre. For years critics asked why the Wonder Woman movie was taking so long. The November 26, 2010 issue of Entertainment Weekly ran a feature article entitled “What About Wonder Woman?” (Svetkey) detailing frustrations with attempts to bring the Amazon princess to life again. The headline of a Time article asked: “Why Don’t We Have a Wonder Woman Movie?” (McMillan, August 30, 2013). And the popular science fiction magazine SciFiNow (March 2014) ran the article “Where on Earth 1 is the Wonder Woman Movie?” (Ward) that detailed the film industry’s dismissal of the character and the frustration of fans. In The American Prospect (August 15, 2008) Alyssa Rosenberg wondered: Why is it that a film industry will cast loveably schlubby Seth Rogen as The Green Hornet and will take a serious chance on an Ant-Man movie but can’t get it together to make a Wonder Woman flick? Or any true superheroine movie at all? (39–40) Responding to public pressure and hoping to expand their roster of profitable superheroes the Wonder Woman movie is finally being made. But to address the imbalance Wonder Woman will need to be joined by other serious superheroine films. As headlines in major media outlets repeatedly ask: “Where are all the movies starring female superheroes?” (New York Post, Tucker 2014), “Why won’t cinema embrace female superheroes?” (BBC News, Moloney 2013), and “Why are there no female superhero blockbusters?” (The Daily News, Sacks 2013). Progress may come slowly in Hollywood but the demand for newer and better superheroines is a positive sign that cultural expectation about gender and heroism are changing. Interestingly, the feature film Ant-Man sparked some controversy and ultimately a promise of more superheroines. The Scott Lang version of Ant-Man that the film focuses on is a relatively minor and comedic character
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within the Marvel Comics Universe. The choice to elevate Ant-Man to solo blockbuster movie status ahead of more prominent female characters like Black Widow, Captain Marvel, or the She-Hulk was met with disbelief by many fans. While the film was still a success and broadened the Marvel cinematic brand into a more action-comedy variation, it was criticized for the way it explicitly sidelined women within the narrative. In the film Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, is an elderly and reclusive scientist looking for an heir to assume the role of a hero who can shrink to microscopic size and communicate telepathically with insects. In the comics Pym’s wife, Janet van Dyne, is a major character known as The Wasp, but in the film she is only briefly glimpsed in a flashback when Hank recalls a mission gone wrong and Janet had to shrink too small and died while stopping a missile. To compound the emphasis on heroism as the domain of men at the expense of women, the film has Hank Pym select Scott Lang, a petty criminal, to inherit the Ant-Man suit and technology rather than his own daughter Hope van Dyne. While Scott is likeable and smart, he is also a joker and unprepared for the world of superheroics. Hope, on the other hand, is smart, determined, a master of martial arts and already knows how to use the Ant-Man technology. But despite Hope’s repeated insistence that Scott is not the right person for the job, she is reduced to training him in how to fight and use the technology properly. Her father’s reasoning is that he could not bear to lose her as he did her mother, but many viewers interpreted that as an excuse to valorize yet another male hero over a possible superheroine. Of course, as the movie progresses, Scott demonstrates that he was in fact the “right man for the job,” saves his own daughter, defeats the villain, and wins Hope’s romantic affections. As a caveat, the end credit sequence revealed a new Wasp costume had been made for Hope. And, after the film proved profitable enough to garner a sequel, it was announced that the next installment would be entitled Ant-Man and the Wasp, promising that more equal treatment of superheroines was drawing near. Female super characters have fared better headlining their own adventures on television than in feature films. The longer format of a television series allows storylines to fully develop characters rather than reduce them to one-dimensional sex objects. And while there is enormous pressure on a program to become a ratings success, there is still more leeway to explore different themes when there is not the need to produce a blockbuster franchise spawning film. Still, even on current television, female characters were initially relegated to supporting roles on male centered superhero series like Arrow (2012–current), Gotham (2014–current) and The Flash (2014–current). Notably, Arrow quickly elevated super women like Black Canary and the Huntress from minor characters to significant and pivotal roles. 2015 turned out to be the most significant year for live action superheroines with the successful launch of three very promising television series: Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, and Supergirl. While all three programs
Supermen and Wonder Women 57 premiered within a year of each other and are based on comic book heroines, they are very different in tone and style. Agent Carter, which aired on ABC and is set in 1946, follows the post-War and post-Captain America adventures of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) as she struggles to assert herself within a sexist clandestine government agency. Jessica Jones is the second of four planned Marvel series to appear on Netflix (following Daredevil but preceding Luke Cage and Iron Fist). Set in modern-day New York Jessica (Krysten Ritter) is an ex-superheroine turned hard-boiled private investigator facing off against her greatest nemesis, the mind-controlling Kilgrave. While Supergirl, which airs on CBS, is a relatively traditional superhero series about Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist), Superman’s cousin striking out on her own. Promisingly, all three of these series have met with critical acclaim and decent enough ratings to be renewed. But more importantly these three titular heroines are presented as far more than just spandex-clad sexpots, and they each address some of the gender specific problems faced by strong female heroines. Agent Carter picks up a year after the end of WWII and the loss of Captain America, Peggy’s comrade and love interest in Captain America: First Avenger. Despite being an extremely competent and decorated officer during the war, Peggy Carter finds herself struggling to adjust to a significantly reduced role within the male-dominated Strategic Scientific Reserve agency designed to deal with exceptional (re: super powered) crimes. Though Carter is obviously far smarter and tougher than any of the men at SSR, they dismiss her as merely a woman. They tell her to just answer the phones and make coffee, leave all the investigating to the men. But when some of Howard Stark’s (Tony’s father) miraculous inventions are used as weapons, Stark begs Carter to help clear his name and the bulk of the first season sees Carter working secretly undercover to retrieve the weapons and to dismantle a Soviet conspiracy. Peggy Carter may not have any actual superpowers but she is the strongest and most heroic character in a fictional 1940s where superpowers are beginning to emerge. In an unusually progressive move for a television series based on a comic book character, Agent Carter does not just make a passing nod to the sexist workplace environment. Though Carter fights against Hydra agents and Soviet spies, the real villain of her story is sexism. Fans and critics reacted favorably to Agent Carter, especially Peggy’s refusal to be any less of a hero just because she is female. “Like a 40’s movie idol,” according to Time Magazine’s review, Atwell’s Carter is more woman than girl, in her bearing, history and confidence. She’s as convincing wielding a crisp insult as an improvised blade, conveying the control and deftness Carter requires to run a covert operation under the patronizing gaze of her inferior superiors in the SSR’ boys’ club. (Poniewozik, January 6, 2015, para. 4)
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Likewise, The Atlantic declared: Carter’s not a superhero, per se. But as a supersized allegory for a downtrodden woman who suddenly gets new powers – a sense of purpose imparted by a fulfilling, demanding job – Carter is a worthy equivalent to the rest of the heroes in Marvel’s oeuvre. (Kilkenny, January 6, 2015, para. 9) By the end of the first season, Peggy Carter has proven herself to be the real hero. Carter solves the mystery and defeats the bad guys (with only a little comical help from her sidekick, Stark’s butler Jarvis), while all the men of the SSR are left chasing their own incompetent tails. But, the program does not imply that Carter’s exploits somehow earn her all the respect she deserves, nor that her achievements magically erase sexism in the workplace. Her male colleagues receive most of the credit, but viewers know that Carter is the hero and will continue to battle villains and sexism for the rest of her career. While Agent Carter addresses sexism amid its 1940s adventures, Jessica Jones is a modern-day neo-noir series far darker in tone and deals with the trauma of a woman who survives horrendous sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of a supervillain. Based on Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydo’s comic book series Alias (2001–2004), published under Marvel’s MAX imprint for mature readers, that chronicled the exploits of the hard-drinking and foul-mouthed Jessica Jones, an ex-superheroine turned private eye. In the Netflix series, as in the comic, Jessica is really strong (enough to sort of lift a small car), durable (but not bullet proof), and can almost fly (more like jumping really high). But Jessica has given up her costume and only reluctantly uses her powers. The series slowly reveals that Jessica’s surly demeanor, self-destructive behaviors, and her general self-loathing stem from having spent a year of her life under the complete control of the heinous Kilgrave. His power is mind control, and people have to do anything Kilgrave tells them to, from throwing hot coffee in their own faces, to abandoning an infant on the side of the road, to leaping off a tall building. Kilgrave used Jessica as his enforcer and as his sexual consort. The series depicts Jessica’s struggle to cope with the overwhelming abuse she suffered under Kilgrave, her terror when Kilgrave returns and begins targeting Jessica and her friends in a bizarre attempt to get her willingly back under his control, and her eventual defeat of him. The basic formula at the core of most superhero narratives is an allegory for adolescent puberty and a male wish-fulfilling fantasy of becoming a pinnacle of hegemonic masculinity, but Jessica Jones breaks with genre conventions to construct an allegory for physical and psychological abuse. As a review in The New Yorker noted: “In a genre format that is often reflexively juvenile about sexuality, Jessica Jones is distinctly adult, an allegory that is unafraid of ugliness” (Nussbaum, December 21, 2015, para. 7). Likewise, The Atlantic argued: “This is a show about a survivor of rape and abuse, and although it occasionally dances
Supermen and Wonder Women 59 around definitive language on the subject matter, its engagement with it is sensitively done and powerfully affecting” (Sims, November 19, 2015, para. 4). The abuses suffered by Jessica are never presented as titillating, nor is it suggested that she somehow “deserved” or “wanted” Kilgrave’s attention, nor is her recovery an easy process free of guilt and self-doubts.
Figure 2.4 Jessica Jones is terrorized by her abuser but finds the strength to fight him.
By featuring a superheroine who refuses to don a spandex costume and slink around fighting bank robbers or aliens, Jessica Jones offers a mature character and an intimate story of abuse and its effects that expands not just the Marvel Universe, but the possibilities for female characters within the genre. Critics and fans, especially female ones, appreciated the solemnity of the series and the humanizing of a complex female heroine who also happens to have super powers. For example, Sarah Marshall’s review of Jessica Jones in New Republic praised the program as a bright spot for a genre that usually treats women and violence in a juvenile manner: The show forces us to get to know Jessica – to care about her, to empathize with her, to see her dark places and cheer for her all the same – before we get to revel in her powers. Long before we savor a showdown between heroes and villains, we have to understand the more familiar traumas of Jessica’s life – the same traumas that any woman, superhero or not, might face. We have to recognize that Jessica’s struggles with PTSD are as brave and harrowing as any fight against an invading army, and that a woman is not rendered worthy of our attention simply by her ability to don a latex cat suit and rattle off one-liners. And before the show’s plot can swing into motion, and Jessica can summon her powers to reckon with her old tormentor, she has to overcome an even bigger hurdle: herself. (Marshall, November 25, 2015, para. 3)
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The success of Jessica Jones demonstrates that female characters in the superhero genre can be more than eroticized figures appended to a male fantasy of empowerment, catering to the dominant male gaze. In fact, New York magazine claimed Jessica Jones “is a rare show that can truly be said to have a female gaze” (Seitz, November 20, 2015, para. 6). Though the lead actresses, Krysten Ritter as Jessica and Rachael Taylor as her best friend Trish Walker, are both former models and have played sexualized roles in the past, in Jessica Jones women are never filmed as erotic spectacles. Jessica marks a huge departure from the standard depiction of women in live action superhero narratives. Both Agent Carter and Jessica Jones break new ground for women in the superhero genre by diverging from some of the most basic conventions. Peggy and Jessica do not wear costumes, do not use super powers gratuitously, do not have secret identities, nor do they rely on men. The fact that both characters are not really comic book superheroines, at least not on the level of cultural recognition that Batman and Captain America are, allows the programs to explore new ways to depict a woman as heroic in a world of super powers. The network television series Supergirl, on the other hand, presents a familiar and very conventional superheroine character undertaking orthodox adventures. But, while Supergirl follows the traditional elements of the genre (she wears a costume, has a mild-mannered secret identity, relies on her spectacular powers, etc.), the series still avoids depicting Supergirl as a sex object and instead focuses on her heroic achievements. As The Huffington Post declared: Supergirl has all the elements of a mainstream superhero show: a kickass dreamy lead with a daffy alter-ego, capable and funny sidekicks, a potential love interest, a power-hungry villain and plenty of action. It also happens to have a distinctly feminist bent. (Gray, October 27, 2015, para. 1) Developed by executive producers Greg Berlanti, Ali Adler, Andrew Kreisberg, and Sarah Schecter, the same team behind the CW network’s successful superhero series Arrow and The Flash, the show’s creators were well aware that Supergirl was a unique opportunity to present a classic female character with all the formulaic comic book elements and to address an explicitly feminist position within a typically male-centered format. The show runners talked openly in interviews about their guiding principles for ensuring Supergirl (a.k.a. Kara Danvers) is treated respectfully. These rules include: never sexualizing her appearance, never cutting away from a fight just because she may be getting hurt, never ignoring or passively accepting sexist comments or actions, and never squabbling with other female characters about frivolous things. According to the executive producing team, the goal with Supergirl is to craft an upbeat superhero series in direct contrast to all the dark and brooding male heroes, Supergirl is about the joy of a young woman maturing and embracing her exceptionalness, and about subtly inflecting feminist principles within prime-time network entertainment.
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Figure 2.5 Supergirl is a conventional adventure series but is aware of the sexual politics it reflects.
The exceptionally strong premiere of Supergirl (13.9 million viewers) proved an immediate hit with critics and fans, and set the tone for its sunny and feminist informed approach to a superheroine. Sent to Earth as a preteen to care for her infant cousin Kal-El, Kara is delayed in the Phantom Zone so when she finally arrives she finds Kal has already grown to adulthood and assumed to identity as Superman. Kara is then raised by her adoptive parents, along with a slightly older human sister, and tries to remain innocuous and normal, leaving the superheroics to her established cousin. At the age of 24, Kara is struggling to find her place as a normal woman on her own in the city when she suddenly has to leap into action to rescue a falling plane that her sister is in. Flush with the thrill of using her powers to save people, Kara decides to embrace her powers and become a costumed hero. The premiere explicitly brings up gender issues, the importance of a female super character and the gender specific challenges they may face. When Kara’s media mogul boss, Cat Grant, dubs the new heroine “Supergirl” in a headline, Kara argues: “I don’t want to minimize the importance of this. A female superhero! Shouldn’t she be called Superwoman? If we call her Supergirl, something less than what she is, doesn’t that make us guilty of being anti-feminist?” Cat rationalizes the “girl” status as still empowering: “And what do you think is so bad about ‘girl’? I’m a girl. And your boss and rich and hot and smart. So if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent … isn’t the problem you?” Other times the importance of female role models is clearly spelled out for viewers, as when a waitress sees Supergirl on the news and blurts out: “A female hero? Nice for my daughter to have someone to look up to.” The program very consciously recognizes that they need to present this first modern titular superheroine in a progressive way given the over-riding masculine nature of the genre. As the review in
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The Globe and Mail noted: “Supergirl is delightfully self-aware that its ‘girl’ is operating in a man’s domain.… It doesn’t assert an agenda, but stealthily implies it’s time for viewers to embrace a ‘girl’ in the role of savior” (Fowles, October 27, 2015, paras. 4 and 11). The recognition by the program’s creators that Supergirl is the first traditional superheroine among the current glut of costumed heroes to headline her own series, leads the program to explicitly address some of the standard limitations placed on female characters. The most obvious expectation imposed on heroines has been her sexual fetishization through casting, costuming, and filming techniques. While actress Melissa Benoist is obviously beautiful, her performance crafts Supergirl/Kara as smart, competent, and joyful rather than as sexy and seductive. Nor is Supergirl ever filmed to accentuate her figure or beautiful face simply for the sake of positioning her as a sexual ideal. Moreover, Supergirl finally settles on a traditional costume that includes a skirt and knee-high boots, which is relatively modest. The program even mocks the standard eroticization inherent in superheroine costuming in a scene where Kara tries on a variety of skimpy outfits only to reject them as ridiculous. “It’s a series that’s in conversation with all the superhero entertainment that preceded it, and it speaks insistently and clearly to make absolutely sure that it’s being heard,” New York magazine argued, this is a feminist series that’s aware of the cultural and political implications of everything it is showing us, whether it is Kara taking issue with a prototype of a costume with a bared midriff or defeating a brawny, hateful, openly sexist foe by, essentially, destroying his symbolic phallus. (Zoller Seitz, October 23, 2015, paras. 1 and 2) Supergirl is a coming-of-age story like so many superhero stories before it, but as a modern tale fully aware of the gendered politics involved, Supergirl’s story is not just about defeating bad guys or winning a romantic partner. Supergirl is a case of a young woman who has tried to suppress her uniqueness and her passion in order to fit in (something many young women feel pressured to do), but is learning to joyfully embrace what makes her special. Though superheroines still have a long way to go to catch up with their male counterparts in film and television—in sheer number, quality of production and characterization—the popular and critical acceptance of Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, and Supergirl are an indication that things are changing. As the genre develops and explores more complex stories than the hero’s origin and first adventures, the very limited depiction of genders may expand. While rudimentary gender fantasies about mild-mannered men becoming super powerful and latex-clad seductresses will always be a core feature within superhero stories, the genre is broad enough to also challenge these basic conventions.
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
The traumatic effects of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 cannot be overstated. The horrific assaults on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania marked an abrupt cultural change in America, and the entire world. In the years following 9/11 desperate measures have been taken to safeguard America as a nation and as individuals. The Bush Administration’s War on Terror, The Patriot Act, wiretapping, torture reworded as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” etc., etc. But the intervening years have still witnessed a nation perilously unsafe from further terrorist attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing, from domestic terrorism like the attack at Fort Hood in Texas or the Navy Yard in Washington, the persistence of school shootings at places like Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, racially motivated shootings in a church in Charleston, South Carolina or on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and even natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina continue to foster a culture of fear. National feelings of trauma, vulnerability, xenophobia, and paranoia have dictated a dramatic shift in the American way of life and American beliefs. But the effects of terrorism in America also spawned a sense of unity, fantasies of violent retribution, and an ever-vigilant attitude. As dozens of film critics and scholars have pointed out, the current dominance of the superhero film genre is a direct result of post-9/11 anxieties. Time and again superhero films invoke the horrors of 9/11 only to excise our cultural fears through a fantastical fictional response. At least at the movies characters like Superman, Batman, Captain America and Iron Man can enact a comforting revision of 9/11 where exceptional heroes can triumphantly protect American cities from terrorism. The modern genre of superhero films was beginning to emerge just prior to the terrorist attacks of 2001. The initial X-Men movie was released in 2000 and marked the first entry in the current superhero cycle that would come to dominate Hollywood blockbusters. The genre may have flourished anyway, but the events of September 11 bolstered a cultural need for superheroes and provided the films with a common narrative theme of defending the nation from massive attacks. The unprecedented success of the superhero film genre in the years following 9/11 is due in large part to our cultural need to at least fantasize about larger-than-life heroes and to vicariously
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
cheer on their exploits as they defend the nation from assault. Superhero films are a means to collectively deal with the trauma of 9/11 and symbolically help make sense of the world again. As Adam Serwer has written in an editorial for the popular magazine Mother Jones: Superhero films provide a similar reassurance for a nation that, more than a decade after 9/11, still seems willing to forfeit just about any freedom in exchange for the feeling of safety. Superhero flicks often tell us that matters of good and evil are relatively simple to discern, and that in the end, someone is always going to save us. (Serwer, May 9, 2012 para. 4) Superheroes represent an effort to rewrite and reconfirm the belief in American exceptionalism. Specifically, the superhero genre counters fears of a nation that has grown soft, weak, and vulnerable, instead offering a narrative of toughening up, of remasculinizing America. As men who have been defined by trauma, just as America has, the superhero is able to rise up and prove himself stronger than any threats. Moreover, as the genre has persisted and expanded, the superhero movies have begun to explore the lingering implications of post-9/11 anxieties from a range of perspectives beyond simple violent retribution. One of the reasons why superhero movies have been appealing for audiences is because they are fantastical, escapist metaphors for 9/11 without ever addressing it as an actual historical event. Viewers do not really want to relive that horrible day; it is still too close, too traumatic. Even five years after the event the two major films directly about 9/11, United 93 (2006) and World Trade Center (2006), were controversial and failed at the box-office. But as an emotional and a psychological condition experienced at a massive cultural level, our society needs stories to help us understand and deal with the effects of terror. Superhero films help to construct a shared narrative that contextualizes and works toward resolving the trauma. Discussing superhero films, Dan A. Hassler-Forest notes: “by watching films that offer an indirect representation of the 9/11 attacks, it becomes possible for viewers to give meaning to events that were too sudden and traumatic to be understood as they occurred” (2010: 34). Other films have successfully invoked the specter of 9/11 through metaphor, including such blockbusters as The Day after Tomorrow (2004), War of the Worlds (2005), Cloverfield (2008), and World War Z (2013). And while these films were successful, their status as horror movies limits their ability to comfort audiences and help resolve anxieties. Superhero films, on the other hand, are a valuable means of narrating the trauma in a manner that reasserts a sense of order to the world. Philip Smith and Michael Goodrum (2011) have insightfully argued that: “the trauma narrative is an attempt to render that which is beyond comprehension, and even articulation, in more familiar terms.” (488) “By telling a story with a different location,” Smith and Goodrum continue, “happening
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
to different people and with different outcomes (essentially, by telling a different story) an event can be stripped of its immediacy and horror whilst still maintaining a certain kernel of truth which cannot otherwise be told” (488). Superhero movies as metaphors for 9/11, even if obvious ones, can allow enough distance for audiences to enjoy the fictional reenactment and more positive resolution. As Smith and Goodrum summarize: “By reliving the attacks through superheroes, a new narrative of the attacks becomes available, one with the crucial element of control inserted” (2011: 490). And, as Simon McEnteggart argues, each superhero film assuages anxieties of identity and reassembles cultural traditions and values that are seemingly under threat from external forces. Through the repetition sequelization induced, such fears are continually allayed to indoctrinate a sense of sociocultural “calm” and stability through patriotic confidence. (2010: 172) It is no coincidence that the genre of superheroes was initially created in the comic books during the onset of World War II and reinvigorated on screen in the years after 9/11. As Hagley and Harrison surmised: “The postSeptember 11 resurrection of the superhero genre, particularly in film, is a direct response to the feelings of helplessness and terror that Americans experienced in the days and years following the attack” (2014: 120). At its core, the superhero genre is a dream of colorful heroes overcoming evil. When Superman first appeared in 1938, the creation of two Jewish teenagers from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, he was an imaginative response to the atrocities of the rise of Nazi Germany and the onset of the war in Europe. While early Superman stories focused primarily on domestic social injustices his popularity with Allied troops once America joined the war is legendary. The creation of Captain America by the Jewish team of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in 1941, a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, was an overt attempt to rally American involvement in the war. The first cover depiction of Captain America socking Hitler on the jaw still stands as one of the most incredible wish-fulfilling scenarios ever depicted in popular culture. Superheroes are a particularly American fiction of heroism and righteous power. What other figure could so neatly and simply symbolize the hopes of an entire nation and fend off an overwhelming catastrophe on par with 9/11? To argue that superheroes in film consistently rewrite the events of 9/11 for a more positive outcome is really to state the obvious. As James N. Gilmore argues: “The superhero film, then, continues to replay a collective urban trauma, a cultural memory transformed into an uneasy spectacle” (2015: 53). In the Dark Knight trilogy Batman narrowly saves Gotham City from being destroyed by R’as Al Ghul, then the Joker, and finally from Bane and Talia Al Ghul. Spider-Man saves New York from Doctor Octopus’ mega-bomb. Captain America sacrifices himself to keep a Nazi/Hydra plane loaded with bombs from crashing into New York.
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
Superman defeats the evil Kryptonian zealots from eradicating Metropolis and all human life on Earth. The Avengers save New York City from an alien invasion orchestrated by Loki, a vengeful god. Even the Guardians of the Galaxy stop an alien religious fanatic from completely destroying a city and the entire planet of Xandar. The metaphor is not very complex: the cities may be different but they all represent New York, the heroes all represent a personification of the American spirit, and they always defeat the bad guys and save the city. There may be damage, the hero may be wounded, but at the end of the day the superhero and America are still standing. The turn to superheroes in the wake of 9/11 makes sense in that the horrors the world witnessed on that day, over and over again in seemingly endless news feeds, were described by many as something right out of a comic book or an action movie. Even President George W. Bush’s much repeated rhetoric in the days following the attack seemed taken directly from a comic book as he talked about “Evil-Doers,” an “Axis of Evil,” a “War on Terror,” and America as “the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” Unfortunately, the only thing missing was a hero who could swoop in at the eleventh hour and avert the disaster. Superhero films re-narrate the events with the inclusion of the hero. Interestingly, in comic books the superhero response to 9/11 was a different matter entirely. The far quicker turnaround time for producing comic books, compared to feature film, meant that the comics industry was able to react almost immediately to 9/11. The initial reaction by the comics industry was, like most of the nation, shock and a desire to help the victims of the attack. Marvel and DC Comics, as well as many of the other smaller publishing companies, quickly released tribute collections with all of the proceeds going to 9/11 charities. The collections featured numerous drawings and short stories by the biggest creative names in the industry. While many of the works incorporated superheroes, they did so solemnly with images of Captain America or Superman bowing their heads or crying in anguish as they looked over the wreckage of the twin towers. While a couple of the more bombastic superhero images suggested a desire for immediate and violent revenge, the overwhelming majority focused on the heroes mourning along with the rest of the nation. Moreover, the various collections also shifted the heroic focus to members of the police and fire departments and other first responders that were justifiably hailed as the true heroes. In the following months and years, as America struggled to come to terms with post-9/11 realities, the comics offered a more nuanced approach to 9/11 than any other popular medium. For a genre steeped in violent conflicts and conclusive victories through the superior strength of the protagonist, superhero comic books predominantly avoided simply rewriting the events of 9/11 so that a colorfully garbed hero could fly in and fix everything. When superheroes were first conceived on the eve of the Second World War the characters were used as a symbolic call-to-arms, an encouragement to fight fascism, but after 9/11, the comic industry’s use of super characters
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
was more complex. “As comic book artists and writers re-examined these familiar characters in the wake of September 11,” Henry Jenkins observes in his discussion of how the popular medium expresses political intervention, “the characters became powerful vehicles for pondering America’s place in the world” (2006: 79). In contrast to many of the superhero movies that would emerge, superhero “comics urged caution as we entered a new war against terrorism” (Jenkins 2006: 72). While fighting-the-good-fight and defending innocents is the superhero’s entire raison d’etre, Jenkins rightly observed that comic book creators: “rejected fisticuffs or vigilante justice in favor of depicting the superheroes as nurturers and healers” (2006: 79). Other comic studies scholars have pointed out that as specific 9/11 inspired storylines developed in monthly comic book series the industry explored the nation’s complicity in the attacks through decades of militaristic foreign policies. Even characters as symbolically patriotic as Superman and Captain America expressed concern about America’s complicated political status in relation to terrorism. For example, Jason Dittmer (2005) analyzes a Captain America story where he defeats a foreign terrorist but is forced to recognize that American military actions caused the anti-American zealousness. Dittmer concludes: While ultimately retrenching the status quo of territorially based American power both morally in the dialogue and physically in the action, Captain America serves as a voice for a resistant, counterhegemonic narrative that illustrates the connections between the American way of life and American military operations around the world. (2005: 641) Likewise, Matthew J. Costello’s (2011) discussion of how comic book superheroes were used to present dissenting views about American responsibility in relation to terrorism argues that the comics directly challenged what Patricia Leavy (2007) identified as the hegemonic official narrative of 9/11. Leavy notes that the “official story” as characterized by the Bush administration, and compliantly circulated and reinforced by the mainstream media, was that the terrorist attacks were an act of senseless violence perpetrated by evil-doers against a wholly innocent America. As Leavy notes, framing 9/11 exclusively in this context rendered the attacks beyond the realm of politics and deemed any dissenting views as un-American. Unlike mainstream media outlets (and the initial superhero films), Costello contends: Superhero comic books early and consistently cast doubts on this portrayal of both the attacks and the chauvinistic, nationalist response that Leavy sees as the media’s story. Superhero comics developed a 9/11 narrative that specifically challenged this story in two key aspects. First, the attacks are not characterized as a blameless massacre of
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America innocents by savages; instead the American government is often implicated in the attacks, either through explicit action or through accumulated grievances. This renders ambiguous the moral role of America and generates the second challenge – the portrayal of the American response not as a morally righteous act, but as the product of national hubris. Confronting a post-national conflict in terms of nation and state creates a contradiction at the very heart of cultural constructs of the 9/11 attacks and war on terror, making it difficult to sustain the myth of national exceptionalism and moral virtue. These two elements U.S. culpability in the 9/11 attacks and the problematic nationalist response – are central to how superhero comics remember 9/11. (Costello, 2011: 31)
The alternative, more critically counter-hegemonic, response to 9/11 proffered by comic book superheroes is radically different from the one offered by superhero movies. Furthermore, as a range of critics have explored (see Evans 2010, Packard 2011, Schlund-Vials 2011, Scott 2015, Langley 2015, McClancey 2015), comic book superheroes have continued to grapple metaphorically with the after-effects of 9/11 in complicated ways in such landmark storylines as Marvel’s “Civil War,” and “Secret Invasion,” and DC Comics’ “Final Crisis” and “Blackest Night.” As a fringe medium with a much smaller target audience, comic books could afford to use superheroes as a means to explore alternative perspectives regarding 9/11. Indeed, by utilizing characters that have developed over decades of revisions and increasing complexity, consumed by a niche audience of readers well versed in character personas, the comic book version of superheroes needed to develop critical stories in order to maintain continuity. The filmic version of superheroes, on the other hand, are financially dependent on appealing to the widest audience possible, and are less burdened by the accumulated history of specific characters. Elisavet Ioanniduo notes: superhero films simplify, by means of their mass culture implications, the process by which audiences become acquainted with superheroes and their stories. Prospective audiences do not need to engage in the hunt for the story anymore but can rather enjoy the adventures of the chosen superhero at a reasonable cost and usually within three hours. (2013: 234) The current superhero film genre is essentially a re-introduction of the characters for a massive audience with only a passing knowledge of their identity. Each superhero in film is presented as a wholly original character. The insistent emphasis on origin stories in every superhero film establishes the characters as new and unburdened by history. The cinematic superheroes are characters distilled to their most defining characteristics and conventions.
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
Perhaps the most defining attribute of superheroes is their core mission of fighting crime, defending the helpless, and safeguarding the community and the world from physical dangers. Superheroes have generally been regarded as champions of the status quo in that they consistently and vigilantly defend society and enforce law and order. As Umberto Eco famously pointed out in his pioneering 1972 essay about Superman, comic book heroes are narratively required to maintain the status quo, to return everything to normal after each adventure, so the stories can continue indefinitely. Likewise, in their specific analysis of Batman, Uricchio and Pearson (1991) argue: the Batman fights crime, and thus serves as an agent of political domination, safeguarding property relations and enforcing the law. Extratextually, the character and the bat-texts serve to gain consent for political authority and the system of property relations it enshrines, and thus supports the dominant hegemonic order. (1991: 207) In general, the same can be said for all superheroes. Their very reason for existing is to stabilize the status quo and to enforce the law. Dittmer refers to superheroes as: “a literary genre that is almost universally about the conservation of the status quo; superheroes are about the protection of life and property and almost never seek to fundamentally revolutionize the system” (2005: 642). In fact, any character that attempts to revolutionize or upset the system is by definition a villain in the superhero universe (see WolfMeyer 2003). As Richard Reynolds notes: “the villains are concerned with change and the heroes with the maintenance of the status quo” (1992: 51). The filmic version of superheroes, stripped down from their complicated histories and distilled to the core motivations of superherodom, vehemently defend the status quo. In a post-9/11 climate, there is no greater fictional defense of the status quo than saving New York City and its stand-ins, time and again, from terrorist attacks. Hollywood action movies have always provided American culture with larger-than-life heroic fantasies. As the currently dominant form of action film, superheroes are the latest expression of a deep-seated belief about American heroes, ones particularly well equipped to deal with massive threats like 9/11. In the 1980s there was a simple two-panel Hi and Lois comic strip where a young child asks: “What do you want to play? Terminator, Predator or Commando?” Their father wonders “Don’t kids play Cowboys and Indians anymore?” And his teenage son informs him: “Not since Arnold Schwarzenegger took over from John Wayne!” This strip was reprinted in the introduction to Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark’s landmark gender studies collection Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema (1993), because it so concisely illustrated that the figure of the muscular 1980s action hero had displaced earlier icons of heroism and masculinity. Twenty-some years later and the muscular action heroes
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
typified by performers like Arnold Schwarzenneger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Chuck Norris have been displaced by the likes of Chris Evan’s Captain America, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, and Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man. But there are useful themes from the analysis of these earlier action types that help contextualize the role of superheroes in modern film. As many of the contributors to Screening the Male discussed the gendered representation of these 1980s hypermasculine heroes, most notably Yvonne Tasker and Susan Jeffords, action films from the Reagan era often addressed America’s failure in the Vietnam War. An easy parallel can be drawn between the dominant 1980s action films that recontextualized the Vietnam War and contemporary superhero films that do the same for 9/11. In an oft-quoted bit of dialogue from Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), the most iconic of 1980s action movies, when Rambo’s former commanding officer asks him to return to Vietnam for a reconnaissance mission, Rambo asks: “Sir, do we get to win this time?” And, as the film shows, Rambo does get to win this time, despite being betrayed by corrupt and incompetent military commanders (like those, it is implied, who hindered American military men in the war). As Tasker and Jeffords insightfully analyzed Rambo and the entire genre of 1980s action movies, by metaphorically refighting and winning the Vietnam War action heroes reestablished white American masculinity as the pinnacle of toughness. In addition to the failures of Vietnam, the privileged status of American white, heterosexual masculinity was perceived to be in “crisis,” eroded by feminism, affirmative action, racial politics, Gay and Lesbian movements, and financial instabilities. “As part of a widespread cultural effort to respond to perceived deteriorizations in masculine forms of power,” Tasker argues, “Hollywood films of the 1980s—in conjunction with the premiere politician produced by that system, Ronald Reagan—highlighted masculinity (and Reagan’s collaborative nationalism) as a violent spectacle that insisted on the external sufficiency of the male body/territory” (1993: 246). Likewise, Jeffords links the muscular action hero to the political rhetoric of the Reagan administration: These hard bodies came to stand not only for a type of national character—heroic, aggressive, and determined—but for the nation itself. In contrast to what Reagan’s public relations workers characterized as the weakened—some even say “feminine”—years of the Carter administration, in which the United States government was brought to a standstill by a Third World nation, the Reagan America was to be a strong one, capable of confronting enemies rather than submitting to them, of battling “evil empires” rather than allowing them to flourish, of using its hardened body—its renewed techno-military network—to impose its will on others rather than allow itself to be dictated to. (Jeffords 1994: 25) The repetitive cycle of 1980s action movies reflected and gave evidence to the Reagan era narrative of remasculinizing America.
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
Whether literally or symbolically refighting the Vietnam War abroad in films like Uncommon Valor (1983), Missing in Action (1984), and Predator (1987), or domestically in such films as Commando (1985), Lethal Weapon (1987), and Die Hard (1988), the hard body heroes repeatedly emerged victorious in spectacular combat against foreign enemies. The ethnicity of these heroes functioned ideologically to affirm white heterosexual masculinity, the dominant cultural position and identity. In this cycle of action movies characters of color were routinely cast as foreign villains or sidekick/helpers, and women were primarily reserved as damsels-in-distress and romantic prizes for the heroes’ efforts. In Chapter 6 I will return to this emphasis on the hero’s whiteness to discuss how it affects the current genre of superhero movies and their lack of racial diversity. The notable focus on the heroes’ muscular bodies in the films of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and their ilk was emblematic of a remasculinized American identity. “US masculinity in Hollywood films of the 1980s was largely transcribed through spectacle and bodies, with the male body itself becoming often the most fulfilling form of spectacle,” observed Tasker, “Throughout this period, the male body—principally the white male body—became increasingly a vehicle of display—of musculature, of beauty, of physical feats, and of a gritty toughness” (1993: 245). The hard bodies of the 1980s action stars, which symbolized a hardening of American masculinity and of the state, eventually gave way to leaner and more realistic bodies in the 1990s like Keanu Reeves in Speed (1994), Antonio Banderas in Desperado (1995), and Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible (1996). But the muscular hypermasculine body has returned with a vengeance in post-9/11 superhero movies. In response to the cultural anxieties and fears of a weakened, vulnerable America caused by 9/11 (and continued concerns about dominant white masculinity being “in crisis” due to racial, gendered and sexual politics), superhero films have presented new hypermasculine white male bodies capable of protecting the nation. As the previous chapter about the depiction of gender in superhero films outlined, idealized forms of masculinity are a fundamental fantasy on offer with superheroes. The heroes’ bodies signify their physical strength, and their strength of character, through their physiques. The camera routinely focuses on the bulging biceps, sculpted pectorals, and ripped abdomens of Captain America, Thor, Superman, Batman, and all the other superheroes. The colorful costumes worn by the characters also enhance their masculinity by showcasing the actors’ muscles, or designing the replication of muscles into the fabric. If a character is completely covered in body armor, as Batman and Iron Man are, then the armor simulates a muscular build. At its most extreme, hypermasculinity is conveyed through incredible CGI depictions of excessive muscularity as with the Hulk or the Thing. Indeed, the cinematic superhero body goes even farther than the hard body action films of the Reagan era did because, while the earlier heroes may have seemed bullet-proof and inhumanly strong, superheroes actually are in many cases. The look of the hypermasculine superhero body metaphorically represents a hardening—a remasculinization—of the
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
nation itself. And the incredible feats the superhero is able to perform in defense of the nation demonstrates the imagined superiority of this dominant form of American masculinity. The body and the actions of these white male superheroes reestablish cultural stability by, what Smith and Goodrum refer to as: “restoring former positions of masculine order,” and “return[ing] hegemonic masculinity to a position of power” (2011: 487–488). Through the superhero America can still imagine itself as a masculine superpower, a defender of the helpless and a vanquisher of Evil-Doers. The depiction of fictional super-powered protectors is only one part of the process of remasculinizing the nation and refighting 9/11. The formulaic narratives of the films contextualize this hypermasculine character not as someone who has always been powerful, but as an individual who becomes powerful. Audiences witness the magical transformation, the incredible masculinization, the development from helpless victim to super men. The basic superhero origin story, which is obsessively retold in every film, may be taken directly from the comic books but the narrative weight and gravitas it is granted in movies seems tailor made for post-9/11 stories of American redemption. Each superhero is marked as a tragic figure despite their amazing powers and abilities. They are individuals thoroughly defined by personal traumas that they must endure and overcome. Every film and television adaptation of Batman depicts young Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents gunned down in an alley. The orphan Peter Parker fails to stop a thief who then kills his beloved Uncle Ben. Superman loses the entire planet of Krypton and then his adoptive Earth father as well. Young Peter Quill’s mother dies from cancer in front of his eyes just moments before he is abducted and taken into space. Steve Rogers, already an orphan as well, becomes Captain America but watches his only childhood friend die, then Rogers loses everyone he knew by being frozen for decades. Young Matt Murdock is blinded and then has his single father gunned down in a back alley. And so on, and so on… But viewers also witness these victims transforming into heroes. In Batman Begins we see Bruce Wayne training and developing all the skills he will need. We see Peter Parker learning to use all of his newfound spider powers. We see Clark Kent struggling to master his incredible abilities in Man of Steel. We witness Peter Quill growing into a selfless leader in Guardians of the Galaxy. We see scrawny Steve Rogers transformed into an ideal male and then immediately chase after a Nazi assassin in Captain America: First Avenger. And, in Daredevil, we see flashbacks of an adolescent Matt Murdock learning how to use his heightened senses and mastering the martial arts. What the movies and television programs make clear is that the superhero is a tragic figure, suffering from deep-seated trauma, just as all of America was traumatized by the attacks of 9/11. The accent on the superhero’s personal tragedies positions him as a victim and excuses his violent actions towards others. This necessary claim to victim status justifies any and all acts of redemptive violence, and it neatly mirrors the national belief
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
Figure 3.1 Young Bruce Wayne traumatized by the murder of his parents on Gotham.
in America as an innocent victim of terrorists that is required to rationalize an ongoing War on Terror. As Dan Hassler-Forest (2012) argues: the attacks of 9/11, as they were presented by American government and corporate-controlled mass media, were experienced by many as a moment of national trauma that allowed America to take on the role of the innocent victim in a new battle between good and evil. (73) Hassler-Forest goes on to note the important link between the traumatic narrative emphasis on superhero origins and the establishment of the characters’ position as a “heroic victim.” The heroic victimization of the superhero aligns him with the post-9/11 national status of a traumatized America as suffering from heroic victimization. Establishing each superhero as a sympathetic character promotes audience identification and sutures viewers into the hero’s mission and worldview. The superhero, like the viewers, is a heroic victim seeking violent redemption and a reestablishment of order, a return to the status quo. The heroic victim status so thoroughly ingrained in contemporary superhero movies parallels the national self-image of post-9/11 America and also characterizes the heroes as righteous, principled, self-sacrificing and ethical men. The superhero’s unquestionable morality is usually in direct contrast with the villain’s depiction as a monstrous Other. Based as they are on comic book super-villains, the bad guys of the genre lend themselves well to over-the-top caricatures of threats to the American way of life. In their lust for power and desire to destroy American cities all of the villains serve as symbols for terrorist Others. The most clearly analogous super-villains coded
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
as terrorists are the ruthless foreigners (Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins, the Russian Ivan Vanko in Iron Man 2, the Red Skull in Captain America: First Avenger), and the alien invaders (the Kryptonian General Zod in Man of Steel, Loki and the Chitauri in The Avengers, the other-worldly Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, the Kree Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy). This metaphorical externalization of terrorists in the films is identical to the strategy used in the comics. As Smith and Goodrum note: “The approach in superhero comics has been largely to externalize the terrorist and to emphasise his or her Otherness” (2011: 495). If the villain is not an external threat to America they are depicted as essentially domestic terrorists who are greedily self-serving and/or insane (the Joker in The Dark Knight, Norman Osborn a.k.a. the Green Goblin in Spider-Man, Aldrich Killian in Iron Man 3). Some of the later superhero films have moved beyond simple metaphorical terrorists as villains by depicting American businessmen and politicians as the real power behind the symbolic bad guys. But, as Chapter 6 will address in more detail, these powerful-old-white-guys as villains function in contrast with the heroes in order to valorize a newer form of white hegemonic masculinity over an outdated model. Whatever shape the villains take, they are the direct opposite of the heroes—morally, psychologically, and physically. And, of course, audiences are shown time and again that no matter how powerful the enemy is, the hero (and by implication, America) will defeat them. In gendered terms: “However dangerous such an enemy may be, they lack the ability to phallically threaten heteronormative masculinity” (Smith and Goodrum, 2011: 494). Or, to take a line directly from the movies themselves, as Col. Phillips tells his troops in Captain America: First Avenger: “We are going to win this war because we have the best men.” Through superhero movie narratives, and the heroic hard-bodied white men at their center, America can metaphorically express its traumatic victimization and rejoice in the symbolic retributive violence meted out against its attackers. While almost every superhero film is implicitly about rewriting the historical moment of 9/11, some are more obvious than others, and many of the later films have begun to explore this national trauma and its after effects in more complicated ways. The phenomenally successful movie The Avengers (the third highest grossing film of all-time) provides one of the clearest examples of how the genre is linked to a fantasy of rewriting 9/11. With the trickster god Loki and his army of alien Chitauri invaders neatly standing in for real-life terrorists, the film builds to an all-out final battle for the fate of the Earth among the streets of Manhattan. Innocent civilians scream and run in fear as buildings are laid waste around them and armed aliens descend from the sky. The only thing standing between the good people of America and the invaders are the Avengers—Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye—who have finally overcome their personal differences and fight as an invincible team. The Avengers was years in the making, establishing most of the
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
feature characters through earlier films, and represented Marvel’s ultimate consolidation of their cinematic universe. The association of The Avengers final battle with an opportunity to rewrite 9/11 was widely recognized as an important part of the film’s appeal. As New Yorker film critic Richard Brody succinctly put it: The Avengers is an impressive feat of cinematic engineering, a work of prodigious skill and efficiency that carries out its cartoonish mission while addressing graver concerns—the construction of a post-9/11 revenge fantasy that takes place against the backdrop of unpopular foreign wars. (May 4, 2012, para. 2) The scenes of Manhattan under attack were eerily reminiscent of 9/11 but this time, thanks to the superheroes, America is able to drive back the attackers … and viewers can rest easy with a vicarious feeling that the nation can and will survive any tragedy. “With films like The Avengers, we get all the unambiguously evil ‘bad guys’ we want, and we get to see them lose, over and over again” (Serwer, May 9, 2012 para. 6).
Figure 3.2 The Avengers fight alien invaders/terrorists on the streets of New York.
In their insightful analysis of The Avengers, Hagley and Harrison (2014) argue that as a post-9/11 revenge fantasy it was remarkably effective because as a “team-up” movie the narrative could explore and utilize a range of American perspectives. They describe the film as: a particularly well-designed expression of American political identity in the post-September 11 era: each character represents a distinct identity or kind of behavior with which the United States has
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America been struggling to reconcile itself while collectively representing the reactions of a nation to a direct, domestic attack. (Hagley and Harrison 2014: 120)
Captain America represents traditional concepts of patriotism and an unwavering faith in the American spirit; Iron Man epitomizes the military industrial complex that has come to understand a sense of responsibility for human lives; the Hulk embodies pure rage and the desire to smash everything he perceives as threatening; Thor signifies foreign allies of America whose support has waned but still recognize the evils of terrorism; and Black Widow and Hawkeye suggest the realm of espionage in the service of a greater good. While the film’s final epic battle is an almost painful recreation of the horrors that occurred on September 11th, 2001, “This time, however,” Hagley and Harrison write, “the heroes are successful in preventing disaster through the balanced combination of their American or pro-American identities and ideologies” (123). Just as Rambo asked if he was “allowed to win this time?” when considering returning to Vietnam, The Avengers demonstrate that through superheroes the nation is allowed to vicariously win 9/11 this time. Moreover, Hagley and Harrison argue that the more collective action offered in The Avengers “unpacks each element of the collective American response to terrorism and shows a somewhat romanticized victory in which every identity did absolutely what was necessary to succeed” (2014: 123). The Avengers stands as the most popular and the clearest corrective to 9/11—a cultural fantasy of a moralistic and clear-cut revenge against terrorism and evidence of American resiliency. The analogies to 9/11 that are relatively obvious in a film like The Avengers are replayed at various levels of displacement in other films. For example, Marvel’s space adventure Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which was initially deemed a risky off-shoot from the central superhero universe but became a surprise box-office success, presented one of the most explicit rewritings of 9/11 despite not even occurring on Earth. Critics described the film as a “zippy superhero treat … joyfully irreverent” (The New Yorker), “goofy, full of humor and even tenderness” (The Atlantic), “wonderfully silly” (The Globe and Mail), “a gleeful grab bag of action and heart” (USA Today), and “thoroughly captivating and breezily charming” (San Jose Mercury News). But, for all of its light-hearted comedy and escapist space adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy also revisions 9/11 with a rag-tag team of heroic victims, led by a white American male, saving an alien planet from a fanatical terrorist. The film’s central bad guy, Ronan the Accuser, is a thinly veiled symbol of the all-encompassing Middle-Eastern Other that stands as a constant threat to the West. “They call me terrorist, radical, zealot because I obey the ancient laws of my people, the Kree … and punish those who do not,” Ronan intones when he first appears on screen, “because I do not
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
forgive your people for taking the life of my father, and his father, and his father before him. A thousand years of war between us will not be forgotten!” Despite a nominal peace treaty between the Kree and the Xandarians, Ronan ravages the universe to acquire the magical Infinity Stone that grants him enormous powers so that he can destroy the Xandarian home world. In the film’s finale, Ronan’s massive war ship attacks the utopian capital city on Xandar from the air. The Nova Corps ships try to fend off Ronan’s attack with the assistance of a fleet of Ravagers (space pirates), and the Guardians who attack Ronan directly. Ronan’s forces suicidally dive-bomb the city before his main warship comes crashing to the surface. Buildings are toppled and innocent civilians scatter in fear amongst the ruins and the billowing smoke and fire. But just before Ronan can lay waste to the entire planet, the Guardians’ leader Peter Quill manages to grab hold of the Infinity Stone and thwart Ronan’s ultimate terrorist attack. Ronan looks on in disbelief that Quill can even hold the stone in his bare hand, supported by the other Guardians, asking: “You’re mortal … how is this even possible?” To which Quill replies, with a tone of tried-and-true American bravado: “You said it yourself, bitch! We’re the guardians of the galaxy!” Quill releases the energy from the stone and destroys Ronan, right after he asserts his masculine superiority over the terrorist and feminizes him as a “bitch.” Even in space, a white American male hero can avert 9/11-like catastrophes and prove he is harder and more masculine than an intergalactic terrorist. As revenge-fueled fantasy reenactments of 9/11 the superhero films do not skirt the devastating effects of terrorist attacks, nor are they quickly forgotten. Lives are lost and cities sustain heavy damages before the heroes can completely vanquish the invaders. Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe numerous films and television series that followed The Avengers referenced the alien assault on Manhattan as a cultural turning point akin to 9/11 in the real world. When Jane Foster meets Loki in Thor: The Dark World she immediately punches him and says: “That was for New York!” In the first season of Netflix’s Daredevil, the Kingpin and his criminal allies are profiting from the property destruction caused by the battle. And in the Jessica Jones series, Jessica and Luke Cage discuss how the very public battle in The Avengers has made everyone nervous about super powered people. Moreover, the massive destruction that accompanied the Avengers battle in New York (as well as in Washington in Captain America: Winter Soldier and in Sokovia in The Avengers: Age of Ultron) becomes a major device for establishing the rift between the heroes for Captain America: Civil War. But, for the most part, the narrative emphasis in each individual film is on the superhero’s ability to save innocent lives and avert even greater disaster by defeating the villain. To function as a comforting fantasy revisioning of 9/11 superheroes have to save the day and America needs to emerge relatively unscathed.
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) is one of the few superhero movies that mobilized the framework of 9/11 with less than satisfactory results for many critics and viewers. The bombastic fight between Superman and General Zod, a Kryptonian zealot set on eradicating all human life on Earth to make way for a new Krypton, dominated the last quarter of the film and was heavily criticized for its excessive levels of destruction. In a Variety editorial entitled “Does Man of Steel Exploit Disasters Like 9/11?” Justin Chang argued that, although numerous action movies metaphorically reenact 9/11: I’d say Snyder goes even further than those movies in the way he channels the specific terror and chaos of 9/11; you see it in those brief scenes of small planes hitting skyscrapers, and in the lingering shots of ash-covered Metropolitans being pulled, traumatized but hopeful, from the rubble. (June 17, 2013, para. 1) As the Kryptonian ships begin to terra-form Earth, blasting a laser beam through the planet from the skies above Metropolis, Superman engages Zod in an epic battle that contributes to the massive destruction the city endures. The evenly matched Superman and Zod punch each other through buildings and fly into each other with such force they unleash a devastating shock wave. The orgy of destruction visited upon the city in Man of Steel was controversially too close and too insensitive to the realities of 9/11, America’s greatest national tragedy only 12 years removed. In an effort to impress viewers with increasingly realistic special effects, Man of Steel was regarded by many as crossing the line from an escapist fantasy of violent retribution to a reckless and callous use of 9/11-like images for mere shock value. “This weekend’s Man of Steel is only the latest film this year to exploit familiar 9/11 imagery in ways far more extreme and blatant than anything we’ve seen on the big screen before, as though Hollywood feels the need to out9/11 itself,” wrote Kyle Buchanan for Vulture.com, noting horrific scenes of ordinary people trying to: dodge gigantic (and presumably populated) buildings as they crumble to the ground with eerie familiarity, an uneasy attempt to milk 9/11 imagery for excitement and suspense. As towers fall in the foreground and background, sending great plumes of smoke through the crowded corridors of Metropolis, citizens race toward us in low-angle shots that are blatantly familiar. (June 13, 2013, para. 3) The excessive devastation and the film’s callous lack of concern for the tens of thousands of people who surely would have died during these scenes was especially shocking to many fans in that Superman has always been regarded as one of the most noble superheroes—as a character who cared more about the loss of innocent lives than any other superhero.
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
Figure 3.3 Superman and Lois have time for a quick embrace while Metropolis is devastated.
The shocking destruction of a heavily populated city in Man of Steel was, for many viewers, far too close to the actual devastation of 9/11. The film’s defenders point out that within the larger narrative Superman saves billions of lives by defeating Zod and his allies. But the scale of lives surely lost in Man of Steel positioned the film as less of a fantasy corrective to 9/11 than a reenactment of it. “There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them,” Buchanan rightly lamented; “It’s a bloodless massacre of concrete, 9/11 imagery erased of its most haunting factor: the loss of life” (June 13, 2013, para. 3). Other superhero films have been able to tap into the imagery of 9/11, the fear and anxieties, the cultural memory of the tragedy in order to offer an alternative outcome where very few (if any) innocent Americans are killed. In fact, the persistent evocation of 9/11 in superhero films can be regarded as a de-historicizing of the event. By continually rewriting 9/11, the genre turns the attack into nothing more than a simulacrum. As postmodern theorists like Frederic Jameson and Jean Baudrillard argue, the repetitive fictionalization of historical events can have the effect of turning them into a glossy mirage, a signifier of events that is increasingly distanced from their actuality. Each time The Avengers or Spider-Man save New York, or the Guardians of the Galaxy save a planet, or Batman saves Gotham City, the events of 9/11 become a bit more sanitized, a little more of merely a simulation played out for our consumption and entertainment through popular culture. Where Man of Steel was jarring in its reenactment of 9/11 because it foregrounded the devastation to Metropolis without much indication of the superhero being able to save innocents, its simulacrum was insufficiently distant from the historical reality. Within the diegesis of the emerging DC Extended Universe, the trauma of Man of Steel’s terrorist attack is akin to our own reality, but it also becomes a 9/11 simulacrum in a larger sense as it sets up Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) where Batman regards Superman as a threat to America because he is assumed complicit in the devastation of Metropolis.
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
As one of the few non-super powered costumed heroes to transition to the current genre of superhero films, Batman has been used to offer a more complicated working through of post-9/11 trauma than any other hero. The Christopher Nolan trilogy of Dark Knight films are generally considered to be more serious-minded and of better quality narratively than most of the other superhero films which are seen as merely escapist summer popcorn movies. As a tightly interwoven trilogy, and with Nolan designated as a central author of the series’ viewpoint, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) present a sustained and much-debated perspective on a range of issues related to 9/11 and the subsequent political climate in America. With the critically acclaimed Christopher Nolan at the helm, the Dark Knight films were often regarded as an avant garde type of blockbuster movie in line with Nolan’s innovative works like Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002), and Inception (2010). In fact, there was a very public outcry of elitism when The Dark Knight was not nominated in the best picture category for an Academy Award (though the film did win numerous Oscars including a posthumous Best Supporting Actor award for Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker). As Martin Fradley notes in his review of the range of literature inspired by the trilogy: Indeed, Nolan’s patented brand of chin-stroking populism – a multiplex friendly “Cinema of Ideas” – is inscribed across the trilogy. Opening with Batman Begins (2005), the franchise has been widely interpreted as sensitively attuned to the anxieties of the sociopolitical moment, imbuing the holiday-season event film with a political intelligence and seriousness of purpose that have critically rehabilitated the most derogated of cinematic forms: the fantasy blockbuster. (Fradley 2013: 15) Like many of Nolan’s films, all three of his Batman movies were considered thoughtful and cerebral, but also ideologically ambiguous. The Dark Knight films clearly address 9/11 and other political and social issues, but what exactly the films say about them is often frustratingly unclear. Will Brooker (2012) details the incredibly contradictory ways that the political message of all three films were interpreted by critics and fans. The relative ambiguity of the films allowed them to be seen as both liberally progressive and firmly conservative at the same time. As Mark Fisher observed in a Film Quarterly editorial about The Dark Knight Rises: “It was almost as if Nolan went out of his way to give someone from practically any political persuasion some nugget of satisfaction to take away from the film” (September 2012, para. 5). And while this lack of ideological clarity may be frustrating to critics, it does reflect a more nuanced and complicated reaction to 9/11 than most superhero films’ straightforward corrective fantasy of simply rewriting a winning scenario for dealing with terrorism.
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
As a more serious-minded rebooting of the Batman franchise after the disastrous return to camp aesthetics that dominated the Joel Schumacher directed Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), Batman Begins focuses on the psychological trauma that drives Bruce Wayne to become a vigilante. The first half of the film details young Bruce’s fears, his witnessing of his parents’ brutal murder, and his self-exile as he travels the world accumulating the skills he will need to wage his war on criminals. Bruce Wayne’s sense of guilt for failing his parents and Gotham becomes a defining feature and firmly establishes him as a tragic victimized hero whose violent actions are completely justified and moral. A significant portion of the film is given over to Bruce Wayne’s recruitment by Henri Ducard (who is later revealed to be the villain Ra’s al Ghul) to the League of Shadows, an army of ninjas trained in the mountains of a generic mysterious Asian location. Under Ducard’s tutelage, Bruce perfects his fighting skills and learns methods of deception and how to instill fear. As a final test Bruce is required to execute a local villager. When he refuses to kill, to act as judge as well as executioner, Bruce is deemed a traitor to al Ghul’s mission and has to fight his way out of the temple and return to America. Home in Gotham, Bruce begins his career as Batman gathering his allies and the equipment he needs for his personal war. After taking on the mob and various random criminals, Bruce discovers that al Ghul and the League of Shadows have come to Gotham in order to destroy it, to punish the city for its decadent Western ways and its corruption. It is al Ghul’s attack on Gotham that clearly aligns Batman Begins with a metaphorical rewriting of 9/11, and demonstrates the superior American masculinity that is deemed capable of protecting the city. Al Ghul’s elaborate plan involves dispersing a fear toxin (courtesy of the Scarecrow) throughout Gotham and crashing an elevated train into the symbolic Wayne Tower in the heart of the city. In case viewers missed it, Batman Begins’ ultimate parallel to 9/11 was clarified by numerous critics. As Kim Newman’s review in Sight & Sound summarized: This America is riven by injustices – and is haunted by a fanatic eastern sect with a charismatic but impossible-to-catch figurehead which is bent on crashing a mode of transport into a skyscraper to trigger an explosion of panic that will destroy society. (2005: 21) Of course, as is conventionally expected, Batman defeats al Ghul and saves the city. In many regards Batman Begins is the film in the Dark Knight trilogy that most closely conforms to the broader superhero genre basics: a traumatized but morally pure white American male becomes strong and powerful in order to exact his own personal revenge and to protect innocent lives, ultimately defeating a maniacal terrorist-like figure and saving an
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
entire city from destruction. As Dan Hassler-Forest argues in his insightful analysis of the film in relation to neoliberal politics: The superhero fantasy of Batman Begins thus offers a way of incorporating traumatic historical events in a symbolic way that ultimately rewrites them as a narrative of simultaneous triumph and victimization. The September 11 attacks are metaphorically re-staged as part of a larger plot that places them in the framework of mythical narratives of good versus evil, which in this case revolves around Orientalist stereotypes and prejudices. This confirms the ‘common-sense’ way of understanding the 9/11 attacks and their associated sense of trauma on the basis of familiar patterns and relatable discourses. The reasons for the attack … hew quite closely to the usual reductionist answers prevalent in American popular culture and political speeches about how terrorists simply “hate freedom and democracy.” (Hassler-Forest 2011: 99) Still, the film’s narrative complexity raises issues beyond the simple wishfulfilling fantasy of retribution for 9/11. Batman Begins allows Batman to prevent a 9/11-like terrorist attack but it also addresses the slippery implications of vigilantism as a contributing factor to social chaos. Throughout Batman Begins the lines between right and wrong, good and evil, moral and immoral are constantly blurred. In most superhero narratives the lines are clear and the hero’s choices are righteous, but in Batman Begins morality is not as clear-cut. The substitute paternalistic relationship between Bruce and Ducard/al Ghul, and the fact that Bruce learned many of his Batman skills while training as part of a foreign-based militant group suggests an affiliation between American interactions internationally and terrorist alignments. Likewise, Batman Begins’ emphasis on Gotham as a corrupt city ruled by the mob and petty criminals, where any good people live in a constant state of fear, and Batman’s own personal doubts and temptations (specifically, when Bruce is tempted to kill the man who murdered his parents upon his release from prison), suggests that perhaps Gotham does not deserve to be saved. In the film’s final scene, Batman and Gordon— the only honest cop in Gotham and Batman’s ally—meet on a rooftop and Gordon expresses his concern that Batman’s presence will only escalate the dangers Gotham faces: “We get semi-automatic weapons, they get automatics. We get Kevlar body armor, they get armor piercing rounds. And you’re wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops.” In an astute analysis of the militaristic and consumerist aspects of Batman Begins Justine Toh (2010) emphasizes this final scene as an indication of the film’s more complicated depiction of superheroism. “Batman’s vigilantism does not ultimately work and cannot produce real safety or freedom,” Toh notes, “Instead, Batman’s preference for force destines him to become what he most despises: a villain. The film displays a self-critical awareness that, far from solving Gotham’s
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
problems, Batman instead recreates the conditions for their reproduction” (136). As Toh observes, the film suggests that Batman’s brand of redemptive hardbody and hard machine driven vigilantism is akin to Reagan-era conservatism that risks being a suppressive cultural form under the guise of “protecting freedoms.” But, as the most conventionally superheroic film of the trilogy, Batman Begins raises complex and philosophical questions only to ultimately confirm the hero’s superior morality and his responsibility—and ability—to protect the city from the threat of terrorists. The 2008 sequel The Dark Knight, on the other hand, presents a complex narrative that explicitly confronts post-9/11 anxieties and public responsibilities. The Dark Knight also marks a shift within the superhero genre as a whole that begins to move beyond mere 9/11 reenactments to incorporate a range of ideological themes that can be addressed through super powered characters. In many regards The Dark Knight maintains allusions to the traumatic events of 9/11 through numerous scenes of spectacular action: multiple firebombs, skyscraper windows blasting outwards, Batman standing amidst the wreckage of smoldering buildings, police cars and fire trucks exploding, helicopters crashing, etc. Moreover, in The Dark Knight both Batman’s butler/assistant Alfred Pennyworth and District Attorney Harvey Dent explicitly refer to the Joker as a terrorist. But the film also alludes to the controversial tactics employed by the Bush/Cheney administration in its ongoing War on Terror, most notably the reframing of torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a general erosion of civil liberties, and unlimited public surveillance via legalized wire-tapping and other technologies. The Dark Knight’s central conflict between Batman and the Joker is ostensibly positioned as a primeval struggle between good and evil, order and chaos, but the film also questions the morality of the struggle and the tenuous division between the two sides. As Christine Muller (2011) argues: The dark knight of the 9/11 world is one in which threats showcased by the attacks on New York and Washington, DC persist, but also one in which a both effective and just response seem to many at best elusive, at worst impossible. (57) Moreover, The Dark Knight signals its own awareness of this dilemma in the oft-cited line delivered by Harvey Dent in a conversation with Bruce Wayne: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” The dialogue concisely describes the narrative arc of the film and reveals a recognition of the complicated shifting dynamics of post-9/11 ideologies. The central plot of The Dark Knight revolves around the Joker’s elaborate attempts to push an already uneasy Gotham over the edge into complete chaos through seemingly random acts of murder and terror. In his prolonged battle with the Joker, Batman is aligned with the idealistic DA
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
Figure 3.4 An anguished Batman amid the rubble in The Dark Knight.
Harvey Dent and the pragmatic Commissioner Gordon. As a whole The Dark Knight evokes the aura of fear and paranoia that permeates a society under the threat of unpredictable terrorist attacks. The Joker’s chaotic violence defies logic; he is not motivated by money, politics, religion, or ideology. As Alfred explains: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” While Batman still fulfills his role in The Dark Knight as a tragic hero who saves the city from anarchy and unspeakable evils, at times the film marks the morality of Batman’s actions (and by extension those of America’s War on Terror) as uncertain. In a pivotal scene the Joker is in police custody but refuses to divulge the whereabouts of Dent and his fiancée Rachel Dawes (whom Bruce Wayne also loves), both of whom are trapped with bombs rigged to explode if they are not saved in time. After Gordon gets nowhere, Batman emerges from the shadows and tries to brutally beat information out of the Joker, under full view of the police. The Joker finally reveals his no-win scenario with the two captives in different locations—not because of Batman’s assault but because he wants to—but both Batman and the police fail in their rescue attempts. Dawes is killed in an explosion, and Dent is horrifically burned and psychologically broken, thus turning him into the villain Two-Face. The political allegory of Batman’s torture of the Joker in order to extract information is clearly a referent to real-world scenarios, but the film’s ideological position on torture is less clear. “Batman’s coercive ‘interrogation’ of the Joker, while in custody, evokes scenes of Guantanamo, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib and perhaps condemns the methods used there which amounted to torture,” observes Frances Pheasant-Kelly (2013) in her discussion of the film, “Though in many ways, the film seems to justify illegal, immoral, or subversive responses to extreme provocation” (140). Whereas Vincent M. Gaine’s (2011) analysis of the same scene notes: While it could be argued that torture is legitimate when lives are at stake and that the Joker deserves what he gets, torture in The Dark
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Knight is not presented in a positive light. Batman loses his usual tight control and his effectiveness as he roars and strikes his prisoner in frustrated impotence. (125–126) The use of violence to extract information from a prisoner by Batman, an undeniably popular all-American superhero, would seem a tacit endorsement of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” practiced under the Bush Administration at places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. But the ineffectiveness of the interrogation, coupled with the harsh brutality of the scene, also suggests that even when an individual as moral and just as Batman uses these techniques they are deplorable. Another politically indecisive scene occurs later in The Dark Knight when Batman feels that in order to locate the Joker he must use a citywide surveillance system that illegally taps into every cellular phone in Gotham. In a clear nod to the National Security Agency “Warrantless Surveillance” debates during the early 2000s, Batman’s desperate disregard for civil liberties and privacy rights could be interpreted as an endorsement of extreme measures necessary to protect the greater good. But the film also characterizes Batman’s use of the surveillance technology as morally reprehensible. Batman enlists the assistance of Wayne Enterprises employee Lucius Fox who describes the system as “unethical … dangerous … wrong.” Batman reluctantly agrees and promises that the illegal surveillance will only be used this one time, and that he is counting on Fox to destroy the system once they have located the Joker. By evoking several of the controversial tactics adopted by the American government in the years following 9/11 without clearly endorsing or refuting them, The Dark Knight seemed to straddle the ideological fence and could be interpreted in multiple ways depending on the viewer’s political beliefs. Christine Muller notes that reviews of the film were sharply divided: Specifically, some argued fervently that The Dark Knight’s themes transparently favored the Bush administration’s War on Terror in response to September 11, and some argued just as fervently that the film exposed this response’s flaws. These divergent perceptions of a single text point to the richness of a narrative that can elicit entirely opposed, yet equally committed, reactions. (2011: 47) The political ambiguity of The Dark Knight ultimately does not reflect right-wing nor left-wing beliefs; what it reveals are conflicted national perspectives on a variety of issues that a post-9/11 America did, and continues to, struggle with. Rather than simplistically declaring one perspective more valid than another, the film forces audiences to grapple with their own perspectives. The fact that The Dark Knight resists easy ideological interpretations and avoids traditional narrative closure positions it as a complex analogy for
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
post-9/11 society that just happens to be played out through the dynamics of a superhero story. The film is able to comment of the political climate without making any definitive claims about right and wrong in the real world. As Frances Pheasant-Kelly summarizes: Though Batman’s flight into the shadows at the film’s finale again suggests a need to act subversively, thus justifying his actions (and those of the Bush Administration), the film seems inconclusive. Narratively, it does not offer closure and resists the temptation of a “happy ending,” recognizing that 9/11 at that time, was still an open wound. (2013: 141) And, while 9/11 was and is still a source of anguish in America, the film was able to broach related issues in a manner that challenged viewers’ preconceptions. Christine Muller astutely contends that The Dark Knight is a more mature superhero film than most of its contemporaries because it requires audiences to question their own beliefs and their own reactions to 9/11 and the post-9/11 climate of fear and a desire for safety. As Muller argues: “Insinuations of causal connections between Gotham’s populace and the city’s perpetual troubles in the context of these historical associations afford viewers the opportunity to reflect on their own relationships to September 11 and its aftermath” (2011: 51). Rather than a simple 9/11 revenge fantasy where a superhero asserts his superior masculinity and decisively defeats the villain and saves the city, The Dark Knight demonstrates that the superhero genre can be utilized to address a far wider range of cultural issues. The third and final film in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, proved even more ideologically vague than the first two films. The film wrestles with symbolic references to 9/11 and terrorism, as well as class conflict, the financial crisis, and grassroots cultural unrest as expressed through the Occupy Wall Street movement. In The Dark Knight Rises Batman is forced out of his self-imposed exile from fighting crime in order to free Gotham from the terrorist Bane who has taken over the city and cut it off from the outside world. The now standard scenes of 9/11-like destruction are again plentiful, and Bane’s ultimate threat of a bomb that can level the entire city is an obvious referent to real world fears. But Bane is also characterized as an ideologically driven terrorist who spouts confusing rhetoric about class conflicts and the populace’s exploitation by the rich and corrupted businessmen and government officials. That Bane is ultimately a symbolic figurehead, a pawn working on behalf of the film’s real villain Talia al Ghul, the daughter of Rha’s al Ghul from Batman Begins, undercuts the legitimacy of his counter-hegemonic ramblings. Likewise, the fact that Batman, who as Bruce Wayne is clearly part of the financial elite—a “one percenter” in the vernacular made popular by the Occupy Wall Street movement— but also fights for the weak and disenfranchised, is the only one who can defeat Bane, muddles the positions of the confrontation. Drawing on the work of Richard Maltby (2003), who argues that as a business Hollywood
Superheroes Rewriting 9/11 and Remasculinizing America
films generally avoid clear ideological commentary in order to appease as large a paying audience as possible, Martin Fradley contends: Rather than having any legible political viewpoint, The Dark Knight Rises deliberately concedes to the individual viewer the authority to decide what it means. One might find in Bane a psychotic radical leftist whose muffled, incoherent proclamations and violent agenda provide a prohegemonic caricature of oppositional politics. Equally, the film deliberately grants Bane more than enough ingenuity, intelligence, and pathos to allow a less conservative viewer to interpret him as a heroic martyr…. The political incoherence of The Dark Knight Rises is thus a commercial strategy, a marker of its status as a shrewdly constructed commodity. (Fradley 2013: 19–20) By the conclusion of The Dark Knight Rises Batman has once again saved Gotham City and restored law and order. He has, in true superhero fashion, averted another 9/11 scenario and proven that even after suffering a broken back nobody is tougher than Batman. Ultimately, what the Dark Knight trilogy demonstrates is that the superhero genre can engage with the aftereffects of 9/11, and other sociopolitical issues, in rather sophisticated metaphorical ways, even if the films resist clear pronouncements. As the live-action superhero genre continues to develop and expand, with no apparent decrease in popularity, the stories are necessarily beginning to explore a far wider range of issues than just rewriting 9/11 over and over again. On Netflix Daredevil provocatively addresses the fine line between noble vigilante and psychotic killer, and Jessica Jones unflinchingly considers the dynamics of psychological abuse and its traumatizing effects. On network television Gotham shifts the focus to Detective Gordon and the conditions that will give rise to Batman, Agent Carter confronts 1940s misogyny, and Supergirl deals with modern workplace sexism. Deadpool (2016) introduced a sense of absurdist self-aware comedy to superhero action, and the in-development television sitcoms Powerless and Damage Control are set to explore the humor of ordinary people cleaning up after superheroes. The lower financial stakes for television shows, and their longer serialized format, make them particularly suitable for character development and for investigating a wider variety of themes. For big budget blockbuster films, still the most culturally dominant depictions of modern superheroes, there is a logical need to move past reenactments of 9/11 without completely divorcing themselves from such an important cultural touchstone. Excessive visual spectacles will always remain an important component for superhero films, as they are for all action movies. Likewise, the scale of conflict in superhero movies needs to be immense. Super powered beings fighting super villains, often bent on world domination, offer the larger-than-life kind of adventures that almost necessitate massive moments of destructive violence
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that are the foundation of modern Hollywood blockbusters. When studios are spending hundreds of millions of dollars producing and marketing each superhero film in the hopes of earning back billions in ticket and toy sales, there is a need to present an ever-increasing spectacle. In a post-9/11 world, the violent spectacle will always suggest, on some level, an association with terrorism and 9/11. In his interesting article about the continued symbolic suggestion of 9/11 in superhero movies, James N. Gilmore (2015) argues that the genre has entered a “post-post-9/11 cycle” wherein the massive urban destruction perpetuates a generalized culture of fear and suggests that even superheroes are powerless to allay our anxieties. “The genre’s relationship to 9/11 imagery just past the event’s tenth anniversary constitutes a new and far more complex cycle, one that acknowledges not just the historic actuality of 9/11 but the omnipresent fear of urban wreckage in everyday life post-9/11,” observes Gilmore. The superhero, once the force that could save New York and its stand-ins from any disaster, is now largely powerless to prevent mass destruction (even if he can still beat the onslaught of villains and atomic bombs that threaten total annihilation). The urban superhero needs to be eulogized in that he can no longer perform his function: he can no longer save the city. (2015: 54) While Gilmore is correct that films like The Avengers, Man of Steel, and The Dark Knight Rises continued visual references to 9/11 risk keeping viewers mired in the trauma of that event, more recent “post-post-9/11” superhero movies have begun to turn their focus in other directions. As the genre is moving into a new cycle narratively (which developmentally coincides with what the MCU calls their “Phase Two,” and with the DCU establishment of a shared cinematic universe), many of the films are opting to explore issues beyond the central incident of 9/11. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) branched out from the typical superhero story by crafting a narrative about government conspiracies and a climate of paranoia. Much of the press that accompanied the film’s release characterized it as a tense political thriller. Anthony and Joe Russo, the co-directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, repeatedly pointed out that their driving inspiration for the film’s tone was not previous superhero movies nor the comic books they were based on, but the cycle of 1970s Watergate-era conspiracy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor (1975), All the President’s Men (1976) and Marathon Man (1976). With S.H.I.E.L.D. infiltrated and corrupted by Hydra, Captain America, Black Widow, and Nick Fury have to expose and rout out high level government officials and politicians, all while not knowing who, if anyone, can be trusted. In Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Tony Stark’s well-intentioned but hubristic efforts to keep humanity safe results in the artificial intelligence of Ultron coming to
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life and trying to destroy all mankind. The superheroes are depicted as being the source of the danger rather than just a solution to outside threats. The tonal shift in both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron both lead into Captain America: Civil War (2016) which divides the heroes ideologically over a law requiring super powered people to register as government agents or else be labeled criminals. While all three of these films include spectacular scenes of cities under siege that suggest the persistent shadow of 9/11, the narrative emphasis more clearly revolves around contemporary sociopolitical concerns that have come to dominate public debates in the years after 9/11. The modern American sense of paranoia and mistrust of the government and national security agencies, the suspicion and the reality of the United State’s military industrial complex being complicit with foreign terrorist factions, and the internal strife that greatly divides left-and right-wing minded Americans, are all crucial issues metaphorically addressed by these films.
America, Nostalgia, and Exceptionalism
In these early decades of the twenty-first century superheroes have achieved an incredible degree of global popularity. People the world over are familiar with characters like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. Whether they recognize superheroes from their exploits in comics, films, and television, or through toys, clothing and other licensed products is almost irrelevant. But, despite the global appeal and recognition of contemporary superheroes, the figure of the superhero remains a particularly American character. When the young Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first created Superman in Cleveland during The Great Depression, the rise of Nazi Germany and the escalating conflict in Europe that would eventually engulf the globe in World War II, Superman was imagined as a powerful savior of the downtrodden. Quickly after first seeing print in 1938 Superman became synonymous with the American Dream, or, as his famous catchphrase has declared: “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Given that the entire genre of superheroes is rooted in the conventions first established in Superman, and that the majority of superhero fictions are still produced in America (most dominantly from DC and Marvel Comics and the Hollywood blockbusters and television programs based on their characters), it is no surprise that superheroes are intricately intertwined with the very conception of America as a nation and an ideology. While the post-9/11 boom in superhero films is grounded, in large part, within a national wish-fulfilling fantasy of American resistance to foreign (and domestic) attacks, the crucial “Americanness” of superheroes operates on several other levels to negotiate and reconfigure often contradictory and competing ideas of America. The various superhero narratives on offer in movie theatres and on television screens address notions of American nostalgia for simpler times, patriotic bravado, fictional evidence of deep-rooted beliefs about American exceptionalism, as well as concerns about systemic political and legal corruption, troubling foreign policies and American military intrusions, and conflicting understandings about American life and justice. The incredible worldwide success of contemporary superhero films also means that as a commercial property the American superhero functions as an agent of globalization, influencing a range of international perspectives about
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American ideologies and America’s place within the larger global context. Ultimately, superhero films manage to voice, and then symbolically resolve, a range of complex ideas about American culture, politics and morality. While most of the superheroes adapted to live-action film and television in the twenty-first century are American characters, Superman and Captain America stand out as particularly symbolic of America as a nation. Both Superman and Captain America are symbols of patriotic American values and function as personifications of abstract national ideas about American exceptionalism. Moreover, both Superman and Captain America fulfill a role in their respective fictional universes as, what Jason Dittmer (2013) calls, overtly “nationalist superheroes.” Dittmer characterizes a nationalist superhero as: “narratives in which the hero (or very rarely, the heroine) explicitly identifies himself or herself as representative and defender of a specific nation-state, often through his or her name, uniform and mission” (7). Nationality and culturally specific ideals are intricately intertwined with most superheroes but Dittmer’s work on geopolitics leads him to focus on the clearest examples of nationalist heroes such as Captain America, Captain Canuck (Canada) and Union Jack (Britain). Dittmer admits that it is a thin line that distinguishes between Captain America as an official nationalist superhero and Superman as a “prosocial” hero that fights for the American way without being formally aligned with government sanctions. But, given how definitively Superman has been identified and understood as an American icon for over 75 years, it would be an oversight not to consider how his modern big-screen representation reflects and reworks concepts of America. The ever-present aura of Americanness that surrounds the recent film adaptations of Superman and Captain America means that these movies influence ideas about America in a more direct way than most other superheroes. In a sense all superheroes fight for American values of justice, equality, and morality in a manner that preserves the dominant ideology and the American status quo. But “the nationalist superhero bears an additional burden that other superheroes do not – embodying the nation-state” (Dittmer 2013: 8). The nationalist superhero foregrounds concerns about the nationstate that may remain below the surface of other superhero narratives. As overtly nationalist superheroes both Superman and Captain America function as fictional focus points for American values and consolidate a range of abstract ideas about what makes America unique. At the core of America’s mythology, and its citizens’ perception of the nation’s assumed superiority and uniqueness, is the cluster of beliefs typically grouped together under the notion of American Exceptionalism. Core American political and cultural principles, like individualism, democracy, capitalism, egalitarianism, Manifest Destiny, and freedom, that are rooted in the nation’s revolutionary origins and remain bedrock ideologies today, contribute to the deep-seated belief that America is nobler than any other nation. Regardless of the everyday realities that challenge the purity or efficacy of these beliefs, America maintains a faith in its own exceptionality. The ambiguous concept
92 America, Nostalgia, and Exceptionalism of American exceptionalism is described by Godfrey Hodgson (2009) as: “The core of this belief is the idea that the United States is not just the richest and most powerful of the world’s more than two hundred states but is politically and morally exceptional” (10). The overriding importance of Superman and Captain America is that they embody and enact American exceptionalism. They each present examples of heroic American beliefs in action. Superman and Captain America are always honest, fair, fight for the common American good, never put themselves before or above others, and profess a faith in America’s ideological principles. Moreover their fictional victories in the face of overwhelming odds seem to give evidence to the rightness and superiority of these American beliefs. In a twenty-first-century era of declining American dominance in both military and financial arenas, and changing perceptions about domestic distributions of wealth and the honesty/morality of elected officials, figures like Superman and Captain America become an important tool for unifying the nation and maintaining a faith in its values. Taking the political message of comic book movies seriously may seem ridiculous at first glance. But under the guise of colorful heroes, big explosions and spectacular special effects, these summer blockbuster type of movies reach and influence a vast domestic and international audience. For many viewers, the films Man of Steel and Captain America: First Avenger do construct an innate sense of America as a nation-state. In his discussion of Captain Canuck comic books, Ryan Edwardson (2003) argues that: Distinctively national comic books (or superheroes) are vessels for transmitting national myths, symbols, ideologies, and values. They popularize and perpetuate key elements of the national identity and ingrain them into readers – especially given the primary audience, younger generations experiencing elements of that identity for the first time. (186) Where comic books may have traditionally influenced formative young readers, the modern superhero films featuring nationalist heroes reach a larger and more diverse audience but still perpetuate and ingrain national values. The appeal of these films to both domestic American audiences and international viewers necessitates a complicated balance between patriotic fervor and global concerns. These films seek to reconcile conflicting domestic beliefs about the American nation-state in a post-9/11 era, and to address America’s position in relation to other nations despite tumultuous political conditions and an increasingly complicated global economy. As symbols of America, both Superman and Captain America have adapted to changing cultural conditions just as the nation itself has evolved over the decades. Superman may have initially been presented in 1938 as an anti-establishment type of hero (fighting slumlords and abusive husbands in some of his earliest adventures), but the onset of World War II and America’s
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consolidation of patriotic rhetoric in preparation for the war effort shifted the character into a true red, white, and blue icon of American virtue. (For an insightful discussion of the shifting cultural symbolism of Superman in the comics see Andrae, 1980.) Superman may have quickly transitioned into an American symbol due primarily to the war, but Captain America was explicitly designed by writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby at Timely Comics (later becoming Marvel) in 1941 as the ultimate patriot and the personification of wartime American superiority. Specifically, Captain America’s creators conceived of the character as an image of American intervention in World War II. Captain America was a superhero explicitly designed to capitalize on patriotic zeal and to encourage America’s inevitable inclusion in the war. Where Superman comics avoided inserting the Kryptonian into the real world events of WWII, Captain America’s entire identity was based on participation in the war. In a bold move, Captain America #1, published in March of 1941 a full nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, featured a cover illustration of the star-spangled hero punching Hitler himself on the jaw. The hyperbolic cover, and the concept of America joining the war, appealed to many Americans and was an immediate success, selling over a million copies of the first issue alone. The national symbolism of both Superman and Captain America would stay with the characters long past the conclusion of WWII in 1945. Both characters have undergone vast changes, but both have remained fantastical embodiments of American ideals in the popular imagination, even as beliefs and perceptions about America have shifted both at home and abroad. When director Richard Donner’s feature film version of Superman, starring Christopher Reeves, was released in 1978 the studio was concerned that Superman’s status as the quintessential American hero would hamper the film’s appeal in foreign markets. In an attempt to avoid alienating non-domestic audiences Superman’s most recognizable slogan was altered to “Truth and Justice for All.” The comics followed suit and for years Superman was presented as a global force for good. But Superman’s true efficacy as a symbol of America was quickly reinstated after the devastating events of September 11, 2001. Early in January of 2002, while the nation was still reeling from the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the special 600th issue of The Adventures of Superman was released with a bold cover featuring a stoic looking Superman holding an American flag, with the firm declaration: “Now, More Than Ever—For Truth, Justice and the American Way!” The quick mobilization of superhero mythology in post9/11 culture (discussed in Chapter 3) helped bolster a sense of American unity and perseverance in the wake of devastating attacks. No hero was better suited to personify the American spirit than Superman during those turbulent times. Superman’s only rival as an American patriotic superhero is Captain America, but Superman’s longevity, his popularity, his relatively uncomplicated worldview, and his ubiquitous presence in American culture represents an extraordinary crystallization of America as an ideal.
94 America, Nostalgia, and Exceptionalism Since his first appearance in the comics, to his modern pledge to protect his adopted nation from all threats, Superman’s close alliance with America and American ideals has cemented his status as a national emblem. In the popular media Superman is celebrated as an American icon. The idea of Superman as quintessentially American is so firmly established that the casting of British actor Henry Cavill for Man of Steel resulted in a wave of protest that did not die down until promotional images were released of the actor in costume looking every bit like the comic book icon. Academically, numerous comics scholars regard Superman’s American symbolic value as a fundamental component of his appeal. For example, Matt Yockey argues: “Superman is one of the most durable icons of American popular culture … a paragon of American values” (2008: 26). And Michael Soares claims: “For decades, a uniquely American character, complete with a ‘melting pot’ immigration story, Superman always represented what was ‘super’ about what many Americans considered the nation’s superior cultural approach to basic human justice” (2015: 747). Over the decades Superman has embodied American beliefs in justice, law, and order, as well as assumptions about American moral and military superiority. Symbolically, in the comics, movies, television, and merchandising, Superman’s Americanness has been visually reinforced through countless heroic images of the character posed with American flags and bald eagles. In his often reprinted essay “What Makes Superman So Darned American?” Gary Engle notes: “Superman is the great American hero.” “Superman achieves truly mythic stature,” Engle continues, “interweaving a pattern of beliefs, literary conventions, and cultural traditions of the American people more powerfully and more accessibly than any other cultural symbol of the twentieth century, perhaps of any period in our history” (1987: 80). Engle argues that in addition to Superman’s unquestionable heroism, several key characteristics contribute to his fundamental Americanness, including his status as the ultimate immigrant and an orphan, his everyman secret identity, his mobility, his Judeo-Christian values and his god-like presence.
Figure 4.1 Superman is a shining god-like symbol of American Exceptionalism.
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Superman’s only real rival as a superheroic national symbol is Captain America. While the general public may be more familiar with Superman and his status as an American icon, Captain America has always been more unequivocally portrayed as a nationalistic superhero. Costumed in a red, white, and blue, star-and-stripes uniform, Captain America was depicted fighting alongside the troops in World War II. During the Cold War Captain America battled communism, and while he reflected conflicted American perspectives on the Vietnam War, it was always clear that his enemies were the enemies of the nation. Though Captain America never enjoyed the enormous popularity and recognizability among the general public that Superman did (at least not until the contemporary film version of the character first appeared in 2011), his identity as a “nationalist superhero,” as a metaphor for the nation itself, has always been a defining trait. As Hayton and Albright point out in their critical history of the character in comics: “Captain America fully embodied the transcendent American ideals of liberty and justice so he instantly became a unique symbol of the values underpinning the republic” (2009: 15). Likewise, Jackson Sutliff argues that: Captain America has long represented an ideal – he’s a tried and true patriot who will do the right thing no matter what. He’s presented as everything an American should want to be; he’s the American dream made flesh: a scrawny nobody becomes the pinnacle of human perfection – never selfish, always valiant, fighting for what’s right. (2009: 121) Born as comic book propaganda on the eve of World War II, Captain America was, and remains, a fantasy of American idealism. Despite their differences both Superman and Captain America explicitly personify nationalistic values. Both characters utilize the convention of ordinary men—mild-mannered Clark Kent and scrawny 4F Steve Rogers— who become exceptional defenders of the nation and its values. Superman represents the melting pot/immigration and American heartland side of the American dream, while Captain America builds on the patriotic, militarized dream of American superiority, but both characters represent national ideals for readers and viewers. Adapting Superman and Captain America for twenty-first-century feature films requires the narratives to grapple with themes of national identity within the context of a rapidly changing world. These characters are forced to balance a nostalgic idea of a simpler America represented by patriotic comic book heroes with a modern perception of complex American and international politics. Moreover, the films have to appeal to audiences grounded in a culture of mistrust that is suspicious of unlimited power at the same time that viewers enjoy a vicarious rush of violent retribution. Ultimately, the modern cinematic versions of these characters function to meld together a nostalgic belief in noble American patriotic virtues with a wary sense of the modern world bolstered by a legitimized confidence in American moral and military superiority.
96 America, Nostalgia, and Exceptionalism The enormous popularity of the current wave of superhero feature films and television programs owes a great deal to the familiarity audiences have with the characters. In entertainment industry terms, most superhero characters are “pre-sold properties.” In other words, they are characters that the general public already recognizes and which have proven profitable in other commodified forms. Characters like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, IronMan, and Captain America are all readily familiar properties on a global level. Their established appeal and recognition through decades of comic books, cartoons, toys and other merchandise increases the likelihood that audiences will pay to see their big screen adaptations and their live action television adventures. As the superhero genre has developed in film and on television it has become easier to adapt less familiar characters because the very idea of “superheroes” has become a type of pre-sold property in and of itself. Thus, initial industry concerns about adapting the comic book Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) because it featured relatively unknown characters that were not as traditionally superheroic as most of their big screen predecessors were put to rest when the film went on to gross over $800 million worldwide at the box office. Suddenly even relatively minor superhero characters like Ant-Man (2015) and Deadpool (2016) were profitably turned into films. Likewise, the television success of Arrow, The Flash, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Daredevil led to series featuring lesser known comic book characters such as Peggy Carter in Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Atom, Black Canary, Hawkgirl, Hawkman and Firestorm in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. But the “pre-sold” qualities of superheroes, especially those with an already established cultural presence, reveals not just their economic prospects but also a sense of personal and cultural nostalgia for superheroes. On the personal level superheroes are generally associated with youthful fantasies of heroism. Most people first encountered superheroes in their childhood, either from reading comic books or on television. Regardless of the decade one grew up in, many of us have fond memories of watching programs like The Adventures of Superman (1952–1958) in the 1950s, Batman (1966–1968) in the 1960s, Wonder Woman (1975–1979), The Incredible Hulk (1977–1982) or The Super-Friends (1972–1977) in the 1970s, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (1981–1986) in the 1980s, or Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1995) in the 1990s. Moreover, many of these programs were continuously broadcast in reruns on Saturday mornings and after school hours for subsequent generations of young viewers. An important factor in the “pre-sold” quality of contemporary superheroes is that these characters have a nostalgic appeal on a personal level for many people. Put simply, superheroes remind us of our youth, of simpler times, of wearing a towel as a cape and pretending to be a hero. In his discussion of the nostalgic appeal of the series Lois & Clark (1993–1997) and its popular reception in Australia, Ian Gordon recounts numerous anecdotes about
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people’s reminiscences that reflect a wide range of personal attachment to the character of Superman: Such anecdotes are the narratives on which nostalgia is often built. That Superman is invoked in anecdotes of childhood adds to the commodity value of Superman as brand name. These sort of narratives may be intensely personal, but the sentiment embedded in them gains significance not only in the repetition of the story but also at a material level when the creators of the narratives live out those sentiments by watching a television show, collecting comic books, or seeing the latest movie. (Gordon 2001: 184–185) Gordon argues that personal nostalgia for a corporately owned character like Superman becomes intimately associated with commodification practices that reinforce consumption as a pleasurable personal and communal activity. Likewise, at a broader cultural level, superheroes reveal a vague but deeprooted sense of nostalgia for an imagined America of earlier generations. The romantic longing for an idealized version of America is deeply embedded in the representations of Superman and Captain America in their most recent movies. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), starring Brandon Routh, was generally considered a misstep, in large part because the film sought to move Superman forward in time. While Superman Returns disappointed many critics and fans, it still earned over $400 million worldwide (not including toys, DVD sales, and other related merchandising). Eschewing an origin story, Superman Returns depicts a mid-career Superman who arrives back on Earth after a failed attempt to find any remains of Krypton. He discovers Lois Lane married and with a child who turns out to be his own. For many viewers, the unexpected developments resulted in too much of a deviation from the standard Superman fantasy. In his foundational essay “The Myth of Superman” (1972) Umberto Eco argued that an essential structural element of Superman stories is that his adventures occur in a type of “Oneric” cycle. Eco describes the narratives as repetitive and iterative: “each event takes up again from a sort of virtual beginning, ignoring where the preceding event left off” (1972: 19). This willful amnesia by the writers means that Superman’s “never ending struggle” really is never ending. No real change is affected by the hero, the status quo remains constant, and the character never ages nor moves towards narrative completion or death. By dismantling the Lois/Superman relationship and by having sired a son, Superman Returns committed the cardinal sin of moving Superman forward too much. Yet, even though Superman Returns adopted the unusual narrative trajectory of moving Superman forward in time, a sense of nostalgia still permeated
98 America, Nostalgia, and Exceptionalism the film. Matt Yockey (2008) argues that Superman Returns presents a careful balance between nostalgia and utopianism. Yockey notes the many ways that director Bryan Singer carefully constructed the film as an homage and a type of sequel to Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and its sequel Superman II (1980), which themselves consciously referenced comic books from the 1940s and The Adventures of Superman television series from the 1950s. “In Singer’s hands, as in Donner’s,” Yockey observes, “Superman is simultaneously new and old, with the emphasis on the latter” (30). In addition to explicit references made to the 1978 version of Superman through specific scenes, casting, the use of John Williams’s musical score, and other intertextual connections, Yockey argues that a nostalgia for childhood is inherent in the viewing of Superman Returns: “this privileging of a childlike subjectivity is the result of an understanding on the part of producer and consumer alike that a nostalgic reception of the text is one of its inherent pleasures” (30). The nostalgic appeal of Superman Returns is relatively unspecified. It encapsulates nostalgia for the earlier Superman films, comics and television series, as well as ideas about Superman’s association with the idealized American pastoral fantasy of his upbringing in Smallville, and the visceral childlike pleasures of watching a superhero come to life. In many ways, Yockey correctly argues, the nostalgic presence of Superman Returns sought to bolster an America that had come to feel lost: Superman Returns also can be regarded as a response to the political climate of the present. The film’s retrogressive nostalgia resonates with a post-9/11 milieu in which an American “way of life” is seen by some as under siege by “Islamo-Fascists” and the Bill of Rights is regarded by others as equally threatened by the Bush administration’s “War on Terror.” It is perhaps not coincidental that a film that aims to reassert the value of the past in a world that, as Superman says in the film, is crying out for a savior would be produced in a new era of cultural and political crisis. This affirms the central value of Superman as an ideal American figure, one who is generically constructed so that he might appeal to a wide ideological spectrum, mitigating contemporary anxieties by simultaneously representing the past and the future. (Yockey 2008: 33) Despite the film’s perceived failure at the box-office, Superman Returns demonstrates the centrality of nostalgia and Americanness inherent in any depiction of Superman. The subsequently more successful and profitable rebooting of Superman in Zack Snyder’s 2013 film Man of Steel ($670 million worldwide at the box office), reverted to a traditional superhero origin story format that tapped into a more specific sense of American nostalgia. With Henry Cavill taking on the mantle of Superman, Man of Steel retells the familiar basis of the Superman mythology with the addition of spectacular imagery and
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special effects that are standard for contemporary superhero films. Placed in a ship by his heroic father Jor-El, the infant Kal-El escapes the doomed planet of Krypton just moments before it explodes. The ship crash lands on a farm in Kansas and the child is adopted and raised by the loving and protective Jonathan and Martha Kent. Through sepia-toned sequences we see young Clark Kent running around the farm as a child with a makeshift cape around his neck, and struggling to control his alien powers as he grows up in the idyllic Smallville. Jonathan and Martha instill traditional homespun values in Clark, and at the same time they admonish him to keep his powers and his alien identity secret, fearing the world will not accept him. Eventually, of course, when Clark reaches adulthood he finally dons his iconic costume and fights to save the Earth from Kryptonian exile General Zod and his forces who are set on exterminating humankind and recreating Krypton on Earth. In an epic battle that nearly destroys Metropolis, Superman emerges victorious and the world becomes aware of Superman as their savior. In the film’s finale, Man of Steel confirms Superman’s national identity when a general asks him, “How do we know you won’t one day act against America’s interests?” A slightly amused Superman simply replies: “I grew up in Kansas, General. I’m about as American as it gets.”
Figure 4.2 Superman defends Smallville and America from alien attack.
Man of Steel plays with themes of Superman’s threatening status as an alien outsider and as a god-like savior with infinite powers, but the film also presents a character “about as American as it gets.” Superman’s upbringing in the pastoral American Midwest—under the loving guidance of Ma and
100 America, Nostalgia, and Exceptionalism Pa Kent, American flags, and fields of golden grain gently blowing in the background—narratively taps into a nostalgic ideology of America as a noble, idealistic, honest, and trustworthy nation. But at the same time that Man of Steel returned to Superman’s All-American, heartland immigration origin story, the film also reflected a contemporary and darker perception of American fears about vulnerability and the justification of redemptive violence. As numerous critics pointed out, Man of Steel portrayed Superman as a more somber embodiment of America than any of the earlier film versions of the character. Variety described the film as “humorless … dour and brooding … gloomy, with little of the genuine wonderment the very name Superman calls to mind” (Foundas, June 10, 2013, paras. 2 and 5). Likewise, reviews in The Chicago Sun-Times called the film “dark, convoluted and violent,” (Zoller Seitz, June 14, 2013, para. 1); Newsday called it “dark and bitter” (Guzman, June 12, 2013, para. 1); and The Washington Post described Superman as “a joyless cipher” (Hornaday, June 13, 2013, para. 2). Time magazine argued that: “Like its hero, Man of Steel at its best is serious, stripped down and pumped” (Corliss, June 12, 2013, para. 6). Under the direction of Zack Snyder, the Man of Steel reboot of Superman sought to replicate the success of the Christopher Nolan directed Dark Knight trilogy by tapping into a Batmanesque brooding and humorless mood. Nolan also served as Producer and co-writer of Man of Steel and critics were quick to note how much the darkness associated with the Batman films influenced this version of Superman. This is a Superman that represents a post-9/11 American zeitgeist of paranoia and vengeful military might. His focus is set on defending the nation and the planet, on vanquishing alien invaders that are clearly analogous to foreign terrorists. Cavill’s Superman has little time for pretending to be the bumbling reporter Clark Kent, for making quips, nor flirting with Lois Lane. This is a Superman that represents America not just as a homily of “Mom, baseball, and apple pie,” this is Superman as a symbol of military might and determination. It was no coincidence that one of Man of Steel’s primary promotional partners was the National Guard (see Pumroy 2015). The Guard’s “Soldiers of Steel” recruitment campaign associated their Citizen Soldiers with Superman’s all-American heroism, while the advertisements also aligned Superman with military power. As the Soldiers of Steel campaign suggests, the American ideal represented in Man of Steel incorporates a national fantasy of post-9/11 military might. The shift to a grimmer and grittier version of Superman in Man of Steel as a reflection of contemporary cultural attitudes about external threats to the American way of life is most evident in the controversial scene where Superman snaps General Zod’s neck in order to defeat him. A primary principle of the Superman mythos has always been that he does not kill. Though with his powers Superman could easily resort to mortal violence to defeat his enemies, his unquestionable moral values have always prohibited him from doing so. This abrupt departure from 75 years of Superman stories where he always found a non-lethal way to overcome every villain shocked
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many critics and fans. This Superman may still be all-American, but he is not the naïve boy-scout character that he was often portrayed as in the past. Michael Soares links the infamous neck-snapping scene directly to the real world logic of protecting America from its enemies at any cost: In a sense, much like the American military making life and death decisions for American interests through tactics like drone strikes, Superman also decides to kill, albeit for the greater good and with the implication that he is forced to do so. (2015: 756) In a post-9/11 America, terrorist villains as ruthless and possessed by a religiously fanatical obsession with destroying our way of life as is General Zod and his allies, must be eradicated. Acting on behalf of mankind, acting as America defending itself, Man of Steel implies that Superman can no longer realistically afford to remain non-lethal, to exercise an outdated code of ethics. The world has changed, and after 9/11 American values have changed along with it. To continue embodying America, Superman’s beliefs and behaviors were adapted by the filmmakers to reflect a more dire view of violent conflict and its logical resolutions. Superman and America are still exceptional in Man of Steel, but what constitutes exceptional has shifted away from moral and political superiority to a militaristic ability to defend the nation against all threats. The combination of nostalgia and fantasies of American exceptionalism (both militarily and as signified through the hero’s powerful white male body) that are evident in Man of Steel are even more central to the narrative of Captain America: First Avenger. Directed by Joe Johnston and starring Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, the 98-pound weakling who is transformed into Captain America, the 2011 film embraced the flag-waving World War II era origins of the character. The bulk of the action in Captain America: First Avenger is set during World War II only a brief scene at the start and the end of the film take place in modern times in order to set up Captain America’s temporal relocation for future appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Scrawny and asthmatic Steve Rogers desperately wants to enlist in the army in order to do his part, but is repeatedly turned down as 4F at enlistment posts. Overhearing his dilemma, the sympathetic military scientist Dr. Erskine enlists Rogers to become part of his experimental super soldier program. Erskine believes (correctly it turns out) that Rogers’ modesty and determination, his desire to stand up to bullies, makes the underdog the perfect candidate for his program. Rogers is injected with the secret formula and bathed in “vita-rays,” almost instantly transforming into the taller, more muscular, and super-powered ideal specimen of American manhood. Dr. Erskine is assassinated by a German spy right after Rogers’ transformation, thus guaranteeing that no other super soldiers will be created. After a stint being used by the government as the headliner for a travelling road show to promote bond sales, Rogers finally becomes the war hero that
102 America, Nostalgia, and Exceptionalism Captain America was meant to be. He rescues an entire platoon of allied soldiers, including his childhood friend “Bucky” Barnes, and goes on to lead his team of Howling Commandoes against the Nazi’s own enhanced super villain Johann Schmidt (the Red Skull) who is set on world domination with magical weapons derived from an all-powerful Cosmic Cube. While a chaste love story develops between Rogers and Peggy Carter, a British officer who works closely with Rogers before and after his transformation, Captain America eventually defeats Schimdt but has to sacrifice his own life to keep a bomb from destroying New York. Crashing into the Arctic, Captain America is frozen in ice until he is revived in modern times ready to join up with the Avengers in further movies. As the only modern superhero movie set in the same time period that spawned the genre in comic books, Captain America: First Avenger is thoroughly grounded in a nostalgic vision of an idealized American past. The clean, romanticized depiction of 1940s America and the simple good-guys vs. bad-guys view of the war presented in Captain America: First Avenger was a sharp departure from most superhero films. Critics applauded the look of the film and its relatively simple heroic narrative. The New York Times described the film as winningly pulpy, jaunty, earnest … with a dusty color scheme that evokes newsprint and cheap ink, and a production design that captures the Deco-inflected futurism of an earlier time, the movie is nostalgic without making a big fuss about it. (Scott, July 21, 2011, para. 3) USA Today praised Captain America for its “jaunty, retro style and stirring World War II story” (Puig, July 22, 2011, para. 2). And The Atlantic claimed “the film is an exercise in self-conscious retro … the look, sepia; and the tone, amiably gee-whizzy” (Orr, July 22, 2011, para. 5). Nor was the timely cultural appeal of Captain America’s nostalgic look and tone for modern audiences lost on reviewers. The Atlantic review concluded: What lingers most about Captain America, though, is its innocent, throwback ethos, a firm, unqualified embrace of the Little Guy … Incongruous as it may be today, it is a particularly appealing vision of a man who is, after all, the imagined embodiment of a national ideal. (Orr, July 22, 2011, para. 8) Likewise, Tom Charity’s review for CNN argued: Does Captain America have what it takes to wow cynical 21st-century kids? And more to the point, can Marvel resurrect a brand forged in the heat of World War II and resell it to a global audience no longer
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inspired by the Stars and Stripes? If The First Avenger is anything to go by: Yes, and yes. Rather than fight against the character’s flag-waving, Nazi-busting roots, the movie embraces them, going back to the early ’40s to remind us what made the “greatest generation” so great. (Charity, July 21, 2011, para. 1) And The Washington Post review described the film as returning “the form to its classic roots with the square-jawed forthrightness of its straight-arrow protagonist,” and goes on to argue that “even his name exudes an America that time forgot: Steve Rogers, who as channeled by Chris Evans embodies the kind of wisdom, bravery and fairness that a country mired in debt and political rancor could use right around now” (Hornaday, July 21, 2011, para. 3). Despite, or perhaps more accurately because of, the nostalgic ethos of the film, Captain America: First Avenger became another success for Marvel, garnering over $400 million at the box-office, spawning several Captain America sequels, as well as providing a lynchpin for franchise crossovers with the Avengers and other cinematic superhero properties. The veneer of nostalgia employed in Captain America: First Avenger is, as film review terms like “jaunty” and “gee-whiz” suggest, a particularly romanticized depiction of the World War II era. Moreover, it is nostalgia as filtered through modern ideas about America as an enlightened and inclusive nation. With the film’s focus on the heroic fantasy of Steve Rogers’ transformation from wimp to super-soldier and his righteous defeat of the unquestionably evil Schmidt and his Hydra followers, the horrific atrocities of the real war are neatly glossed over in favor of escapist PG-13 entertainment. In Captain America: First Avenger Hitler only exists as a vaudeville stage caricature that Rogers mimes knocking out during his stint promoting bond sales (thus allowing the film to ironically recreate the famous first cover image from the comics). Schmidt and his division of Hydra replace Hitler and the Third Reich as a type of super-Nazis, a purely fictional and symbolic encapsulation of the enemies that Captain America can defeat, and thus, by implication, win the war. Likewise, the film glosses over the reality of racism and sexism in the 1940s. Captain America’s Howling Commandos is a multiracial and multicultural band of supporting heroes: Irish, French, Italian, Asian-American, and African-American. Contrary to historical realities, the America that Rogers champions in the film does not discriminate based on ethnicity nor nationality. But the fact that the superhero that leads this racially diverse group is a paragon of traditional white American masculinity subtly reinforces hegemonic order. The constant valorization of white masculinity as superheroic and the marginalization of “Otherness” within the genre is a theme dealt with in the next chapter. Moreover, despite the limited use of women in wartime roles, the film places a female officer, Peggy Carter, in a clear position of authority. Carter is carefully presented as a strong and heroic character in her own right rather than merely the love interest for Rogers. In Captain America: First Avenger Peggy Carter is
104 America, Nostalgia, and Exceptionalism confident, smart, commanding, physically tough, and the only soldier who questions why a “dame” is in charge gets flattened by her. The struggles with sexism and the challenges of a woman working in a male dominated and misogynistic environment become a dominant theme in Peggy’s spin-off television series Marvel’s Agent Carter, but these problematic issues have no place in the rose-tinted nostalgia of Captain America: First Avenger.
Figure 4.3 Captain America and the Howling Commandos take the fight to Hydra’s super-Nazis.
The idyllic and idealized vision of the past presented in Captain America: First Avenger is a form of comforting nostalgia that Fredric Jameson (1998) refers to as historicist rather than historical. It is nostalgia as a postmodern pastiche of the past, a vision of how modern audiences wish to imagine a past era as simpler and purer than the present. The sepia-toned settings, the clear-cut characters and their simple motivations stand in for historical realities and (re)confirm deeply rooted, but abstract, cultural beliefs. This type of nostalgia, particularly in film, creates a composite image, which “based on the recognition by the viewer of pre-existing historical stereotypes, including the various styles of the period, it is thereby reduced to the mere narrative confirmation of those same stereotypes” (Jameson 1998: 130). This imagined past, presented through the mis-en-scene of Captain America: First Avenger and its 1940s swashbuckling Saturday morning serial style action, facilitates a nostalgic belief in America and links it to modern cultural ideals, thus creating a purified and unsullied illusion of America as always and still a virtuous nation state. More than any other contemporary superhero film or television program Captain America: First Avenger leverages the symbolic history of its hero and his association with American values to solidify a conception of America as an enduring force for democracy, freedom and justice. Moreover, by book-ending the film with the discovery of Captain America who has been in suspended animation, frozen in a block of arctic ice for 70 years, and reintroducing him in the current continuity of the Marvel filmic universe, the film suggests that Rogers’
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honest, square-jawed American idealism can likewise endure the ravages of time. Through Captain America the past and the present of the nation can be combined. In her insightful analysis of Captain America’s symbolic function within the recent Marvel Comics cross-over event “Civil War,” Kathleen McClancy (2015) argues that Captain America’s grounding in World War II allows him an anachronistic moral position. “Civil War” is a storyline (and the basis for the third Captain America movie) that pitted superheroes against superheroes across all of the various Marvel comics, divided over their support or defiance of a new Superhero Registration Act. The two sides rallied behind either Captain America who resisted the law on the principle that it infringed on individual rights and reduced superheroes to military pawns, or behind Iron Man who supported the law believing superheroes needed greater government oversight. McClancy points out that Captain America’s wartime origins solidify his association with unquestionable American morality despite the awful realities of the war: The iconography of World War II as the greatest generation fighting the greatest fight eliminates these complexities to produce a tale of an inherently good nation fighting to defend a specifically American concept of freedom from the tyranny of evil men. This simplification is grounded in the tradition of American Exceptionalism. (McClancy 2015: 110) The historical setting of Captain America: First Avenger confirms and reifies Captain America’s alignment with a very specific vision of American Exceptionalism for a larger audience. And this alignment bolsters American beliefs within a current cultural climate that may have begun to question the foundational principles of the American ideal. As McClancy continues: “By being inextricably associated with that war, Captain America thus becomes the voice of a better past: he is the symbol of what America should be, regardless of what it actually is at any given moment” (110–111). As effective as Captain America: First Avenger was at tapping into an idealized World War II-era vision of American exceptionalism, the temporal relocation of that moral purity through the character of Captain America is difficult to sustain even in a fictional filmic universe populated by flying superheroes. The political and social reality of modern America, particularly after the seismic cultural shift of 9/11, is in direct contrast to the imagined American dream of the past. Captain America’s appearance in the contemporary setting of The Avengers (2012) begins to explore the advantages and the difficulties of transposing an outdated form of American idealism into modern times. Convinced by Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., a superspy organization tasked with protecting America and the world from any fantastical threats, Rogers reluctantly dons an updated version of his suit and assumes the tactical command of the team. Personal and ideological
106 America, Nostalgia, and Exceptionalism conflicts quickly come to the surface as Captain America (the idealist) joins forces with Iron Man (the egomaniac genius), Thor (the noble Norse god), the Hulk (meek scientist turned rage monster), Black Widow (the morally compromised Russian assassin), and Hawkeye (the American soldier, archer, assassin). As discussed in Chapter 3 in relation to 9/11, The Avengers plays with the theme of disparate heroes coming together to battle a worldending threat, in this case Thor’s half-brother Loki who has taken possession of a mystical Tesseract that grants him incredible powers and allows him to launch an alien invasion centered on New York City. While clashes between the heroes in The Avengers do happen, they are most often played for humor. The only real palpable tension seems to exist between Captain America’s absolutist vision of America and morality and Iron Man’s cynical and pragmatic perspective. But after some initial verbal sniping between Cap and Iron Man that nearly come to a physical confrontation, the two put aside their differences in true Hollywood fashion for the sake of the greater good. The clash of ideologies represented by Captain America and Iron Man are left to be further explored in the second team-up movie Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and are used to set the stage for their all-out battle in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Despite the personal and political differences of the Avengers, the unification of these disparate heroes in the face of cataclysmic danger acts out a variation on the myth of American exceptionalism. The foundational belief in American strength through unity despite personal differences has a long-standing history of being reinforced through popular fictions. The fantasy of overcoming all odds through cooperative teamwork is a crucial American concept repeatedly enacted in war movies like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Force 10 from Navarone (1978), Westerns like The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Professionals (1966), on to more contemporary action series like The Expendables (2010, 2012, 2014) and Mission Impossible (1996, 2000, 2006, 2011), and even sports-comedies like The Bad News Bears (1976, 1977, 1978, 2005), The Mighty Ducks (1992, 1994, 1996) and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004). The Avengers is a super-powered version of the American Dream Team. The formula for heroic teams is relatively simple and plays to the ideal of unity in American philosophies of national exceptionalism. Filmic teams consist of a diverse group of colorful characters, each having their own crucial area of expertise. In the Avengers case: a military strategist, an interrogation expert, a genius, a precision marksman, and a strong man. This trope of validating the efficacy of a small group of disparate individuals who can band together to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks is a critical American belief born from the mythology of the American Revolution. It is also a central metaphor from the Industrial Age on, offering evidence of the importance for each individual to do his best as part of the larger system. In his discussion of the team aspects found in the horror films of George Romero, Barry Keith Grant (1996) dubs this convention “Hawksian Professionalism,” indebted
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to the adventure films directed by Howard Hawks. Grant describes this type of plot as: “the familiar narrative situation wherein a small group is cut off from society and must accomplish a certain dangerous task” (204). Whether the story is about surviving hordes of zombies, stealing a crucial document from a well-guarded building, or closing a wormhole to avert an alien invasion, each member of the small team must execute his portion of the mission expertly. While The Avengers valorizes the unifying team aspects of the American identity—united we stand, divided we fall—the second Captain America solo film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) takes the character in a new direction and consciously addresses the changing perception and reality of America in the twenty-first century. Numerous critics noted that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a taut political thriller with an exciting superhero adventure superimposed onto it. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo widely admitted that the film was modeled more on 1970s government conspiracy films like The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and All the President’s Men (1976) than it was on any previous superhero films or comic books. In The Winter Soldier Captain America discovers a secret Hydra organization is working within S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to orchestrate worldwide acts of terror and sow the seeds of fear that will eventually lead to Hydra’s domination of the entire planet. After an apparently successful assassination attempt on S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (he fakes his death to go underground), Rogers is labeled a fugitive after refusing to hand over secret documents to Alexander Pierce, played by Robert Redford in a direct nod to his 1970s roles in conspiracy films. Pierce is a grandstanding politician who has assumed control of S.H.I.E.L.D. on behalf of the shadowy World Security Council. On the run and working with Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. the Black Widow, and his new ex-soldier friend Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, Captain America learns that Pierce is the leader of the Hydra agents who have infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. Rogers also realizes that the mysterious and lethal Winter Soldier who works for Hydra is actually his long lost childhood pal Bucky Barnes, who has been brainwashed and enhanced by evil scientists. The conspiracy themes, paranoia and mistrust of government officials that dominates Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a far cry from the simple World War II idealism of Captain America: The First Avenger. Of course, Captain America and his allies save the day and expose the conspiracy, but the film still ends with the heroes contemplating the untrustworthiness of the world around them and their position in it. The shift from external threats to the nation from the likes of super Nazis and alien invaders, to an internal threat entrenched within the American government reflects a more contemporary cultural fear. The Nazis of Captain America: The First Avenger allowed the film to capitalize on a clear vision of American Exceptionalism, and the alien invaders in The Avengers were a transparent metaphor for foreign terrorists. Both these threats fit
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Figure 4.4 Captain America finds himself surrounded by enemies even in S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters.
ideologically with America’s vision of itself as a post-9/11 nation fighting the good fight against easily identifiable external dangers to the American way of life. During the first few years following the devastating attacks of September 11th the American public was uniformly willing to sacrifice personal freedoms for the sake of a national struggle against terrorism and for a tenuous sense of security. But the country slowly began to question the infringements on civil liberties under the Bush Administration with the Homeland Security Act, wiretapping, public surveillance, detention centers and a range of other questionable government activities. The increasing mistrust of elected officials and their relationship with big business is reflected in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Suddenly a character that embodies World War II-era American exceptionalism and patriotism is placed in a complex narrative where he does not know if he can trust the government, enemies are hidden everywhere around him, and their motivations are disguised as American ideals. The precarious balance between consenting to government control for the sake of security and maintaining a faith in personal liberties is challenged by Captain America himself. And Cap clearly falls on the ideological side of freedom over security, fighting the enemies within America rather than those imagined outside its borders. For Captain America, a character defined by and rooted in the “good fight” of World War II, individual freedom is the cornerstone of American exceptionalism. And, as McClancy argues: “Regardless of what the United State may do, Captain America always embodies and embraces the ideals at the heart of American Exceptionalism” (2015: 110). For all the political intrigue, shadowy alliances and government conspiracies at the heart of the narrative, Captain America: Winter Soldier offers an example of good old American
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exceptionalism still winning the day. Captain America, and the values he represents, are depicted as still triumphant even in this current era of mistrust and abuses of power. All of the contemporary Marvel films that feature Captain America contain moments when characters poke fun at his outdated beliefs or suggest that his worldview is too simplistic. Whether it is his teammates on the Avengers mocking his instructions to “watch their language” when they casually cuss in Age of Ulton, teasing Rogers about barbershop quartets, or out-and-out arguments with Tony Stark about Rogers’ old-fashioned perspectives, the idea that the Captain America morality of the 1940s is anachronistic to the modern world is a constant theme. For his part Rogers also has doubts about his place in this new America. He is reluctant to join public life again in The Avengers, and in Captain America: Winter Soldier he tells an elderly Peggy Carter: For as long as I can remember I just wanted to do what was right. I guess I’m not quite sure what that is anymore. And I thought I could throw myself back in and follow orders … serve. It’s just not the same. But despite others’ dismissals of him and his own momentary doubts, the films always demonstrate that Captain America’s clear-cut morality, his essential vision of American Exceptionalism, can return the nation to a superior position, and that perhaps it has never really gotten that far off track as heroes and ordinary citizens alike rally behind his calls to defend America from its enemies. In Captain America: Winter Soldier when Nick Fury first reveals S.H.I.E.L.D.’s militarized plan to maintain order through intimidation and preemptive strikes on potential threats, Rogers says: “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.” Fury points out that “the greatest generation” did some nasty stuff during the war too, but Rogers defends his position: “Yeah, we compromised. Sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well. But we did it so people could be free. This isn’t freedom, this is fear.” Fury tells Rogers to “get with the program,” but he dismisses it with “Don’t hold your breath.” Captain America: Winter Soldier culminates with Rogers and his allies not just defeating Pierce and Hydra, thus saving millions of lives, but also with him dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D. itself and releasing all of their surveillance records, watch lists, and government secrets to the general public. Through the stalwart heroism of Captain America, the nation is still presented as championing freedom and individual rights despite any attempts to curtail those freedoms by possibly corrupt government organizations under the rhetoric of security. This complicated balancing act between older visions of American exceptionalism in a modern climate of mistrust serves a hegemonic function of assuaging public fears. The American defense of freedoms is alive and well, at least in spirit, in the fictional worlds of Superman and Captain America. During the promotional junket for The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
110 America, Nostalgia, and Exceptionalism Michael Caine, who played Bruce Wayne’s assistant Alfred Pennyworth in the Christopher Nolan directed trilogy, was widely cited for claiming: “Superman is the way America sees itself. Batman is the way the rest of the world sees America.” The world may picture America as the corrupt and violent wasteland of Gotham City, and much of the American public may hold this view too, but as a nation there is still a desire to see itself as the shining light of nobility and defender of freedoms personified by Superman and Captain America. To a lesser extent Man of Steel explored some of the same mistrust of the government in contrast to the noble hero that were at the core of Captain America: Winter Soldier. When Superman first appears the American military tries to capture him, and at the film’s end they are still trying to keep him under surveillance. This fear of Superman’s power and all that he represents is also the focal point for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) where the contrasting ideologies of DC Comics’ two most prominent heroes will be reconciled. But Superman still saves America and the world despite the government. He is a hero with or without the consent of elected officials. Captain America and Superman reinforce the idea that America is still a great nation, is still exceptional, and no external or internal threat will keep real Americans from defending truth, justice and the American way.
Diversity and Marginalization
In October of 2014 both Marvel and DC made major entertainment headlines by announcing, within a week of each other, the slate of upcoming superhero films to be added to their respective universes through to 2020. The sheer volume of films (over 40 in total) was impressive and gave viewers a lot to look forward to in the coming years. Critics and fans were also pleasantly surprised to see that the extensive list of upcoming features included two movies starring solo female superheroines, Wonder Woman for 2017 and Captain Marvel for 2018. As noted in Chapter 3, superheroines have been severely underrepresented and overly sexualized within the genre, and the public has been relatively vocal in their desire to see women in some lead superhero roles. Similarly, the announcement of two solo films for black superheroes, Black Panther for 2018 and Cyborg for 2020, was applauded as finally bringing some long overdue diversity to live action superheroes. Given the dozens of superhero blockbuster films that have dominated popular culture in the twenty-first century, it is remarkable how absent women and characters of color have been from lead roles. To date, the cinematic superhero genre has been almost exclusively the domain of white heterosexual men: Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Ant-Man, Deadpool, etc., etc. The few non-white superheroes that have made appearances tend to be relegated to support roles on teams, like Storm (Halle Berry) in the original X-Men trilogy or Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in Guardians of the Galaxy, or as glorified sidekicks, such as Lt. Col. James Rhodey (Don Cheadle) as the War Machine in Iron Man 2 and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The most prominent role thus far for an African American character in the Marvel or DC cinematic universes has been Samuel L. Jackson’s performance of Nick Fury in multiple Marvel films. But, while Nick Fury is a badass super spy and the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., he is not a superhero and he functions primarily as a supporting character for the likes of Captain America and the rest of the Avengers. In fact, since the unexpected success of Blade in 1998, starring Wesley Snipes, helped spark the modern superhero genre, the only other lead superhero of color has been Will Smith’s turn in Hancock (2008) as an anti-social superhero whose image desperately needs a public makeover.
Diversity and Marginalization
The lack of diversity among live action superheroes reflects the genre’s origins in comic books. Ethnically diverse characters in comics were almost entirely absent until after the civil rights era. By the 1970s both Marvel and DC Comics began to develop several black superheroes, to varying degrees of success. And, while the world of comic book superheroes is still anchored by such classic white male characters as Superman, Batman, Captain America and Iron Man, there has been a significant increase in the number and stature of non-white superheroes. The current cinematic emphasis on white male superheroes is due in large part to the genre’s focus on the oldest and best-known characters. But, in as much as the films have also been a direct cultural response to the tragedies of 9/11, the obsessive focus on white male superheroes also reveals an effort to shore up national beliefs about strength and fortitude by remasculinizing them, and by extension all of America. The white male body in these films stand as a symbol for America—battered, bruised and traumatized from 9/11—but resilient enough to fight back and maintain order: to preserve the nation state as status quo. Even when diversity and issues of discrimination do take center stage within the superhero genre, the white male hero serves as an anchoring point. The X-Men films metaphorically recast a range of possible diversities (racial, sexual, religious) under the all-encompassing umbrella of “mutants” as victims of prejudice and discrimination. And while the X-Men films employ the civil rights era rhetoric associated with both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, they sidestep racial politics and further bolster an image of victimized, but heroic, white men. As a reflection and a product of twenty-first-century American culture the superhero genre reveals the continuing struggle of exclusion that traditionally marginalized groups have faced. For all of the genre’s rhetoric about justice and the virtues of democracy and freedom, warnings about the evils of discrimination, and promises about the need for people from all walks of life to work together, and the overall promise of a better tomorrow symbolized by superheroes, the genre remains rooted in primarily regressive terms when it comes to diversity. The overwhelming whiteness of the world of superheroes is grounded in the genre’s comic book origins in the late 1930s and 1940s. Diversity of any kind, be it racial, religious, or sexual, was almost entirely absent from the genre for its first few decades. To a character all of the most prominent superheroes were written and drawn as paragons of WASPish masculinity. Non-white characters were regularly subject to demeaning stereotypes and dehumanizing caricatures. Superman, as the prototype that would influence all future superheroes, was a model of heroic, all-American, white masculinity. The fact that Superman was the creation of two Jewish teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, has often led to interpretations of the character (and perhaps the entire genre) as not just an adolescent vision of masculine perfection, but also a dream of cultural assimilation. As comics historian Jules Feiffer has noted: “Superman was the ultimate assimilationist fantasy.… Jerry Siegel’s accomplishment was to chronicle the smart Jewish
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boy’s American dream” (1996: 15). In fact, many of the creators of the most iconic superheroes that followed Superman were Jewish as well. Jewish comic industry legends like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Bill Finger, Gil Kane, and Harvey Kurtzman are responsible, in part or in whole, for such characters as Captain America, Batman, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man and dozens more. The prominence of Jewish writers and artists in the creation of superheroes has led to an abundance of research suggesting that the American Jewish experience is pivotal to, and reflected in, the fantasy ideal represented in superheroes. The fictional superheroes developed as a projection of assimilationist ideals and as relatively conservative World War II-era images of dominant American conceptions of heroic masculinity. The link between classic superheroes and their Jewish creators is so pervasive that numerous articles chronicle the association (for example: Schlam 2001, Baron 2003, Moscowitz 2007, and Royal 2011), as do both academic and popular books like Danny Fingeroth’s Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero (2007), Simcha Weinstein’s Up, Up and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero (2009) and Harry Brod’s Superman is Jewish? How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice and the Jewish-American Way (2012). “It is surely more than just coincidence that it was often other Jewish cartoonists who extended the concept of the superhero begun by Siegel and Shuster,” writes Helena Frenkil Schlam in her review of prominent Jewish cartoonists. “Even in America, feelings of Jewish anxiety may have fed the imagination, but in America it also seemed natural to imagine a solution—the existence of all-powerful protectors for the vulnerable in society” (2001: 101). That these “all-powerful protectors” imagined in the comics were unanimously presented as white-bread, all-American men is a result of the pressures and desires of assimilation and the rising pre-war American patriotic rhetoric that valorized hegemonic masculinity. Issues of discrimination and religious persecution were too complicated for early comic book adventures, but as we will return to, did develop as a crucial metaphor later on in superhero stories. The Jewish roots of the genre eventually became an important contributing factor influencing the symbolic diversification of superheroes. The lack of racial diversity among comic book superheroes throughout most of the industry’s history has been the subject of much debate. Elsewhere (Brown 2001) I have written about the development of black superheroes in comics and the various ways they are interpreted by fans in relation to the genre as a whole. Others, like Adilifu Nama (2011) have considered the cultural importance of black superheroes as a means to express racial and political meanings, and as a way to reimagine a sense of identity. And several excellent scholarly collections, like Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation (Howard and Jackson 2013) and The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art (Gateward and Jennings 2015), have explored the importance of black characters and
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black comics creators both within the superhero genre and beyond. Despite how important and prominent numerous ethnically diverse superheroes have become within comics in the last decade—Marvel Comics, for example, now publish two team books with all non-white characters (Mighty Avengers and The Ultimates), has replaced Steve Rogers as Captain America with the African-American Sam Wilson, and has an alternate universe version of Spider-Man who is black and Puerto Rican—non-white superheroes did not begin to appear regularly until the late 1970s. With the cultural changes brought on by the Civil Rights era, and with the 1971 loosening of the restrictive Comics Code (see Nyberg 1994), superhero stories began to show an interest in addressing socially relevant and controversial topics. In the now famous 1972 storyline “Hard Travelling Heroes,” DC Comics’ popular characters Green Lantern and Green Arrow charted new ground by exploring a range of domestic problems including racism, political corruption, industrial pollution, drug addiction, and even religious cults. The impetus for this groundbreaking quest was a poignant speech in Green Lantern #76 when an elderly black man says: I been readin’ bout you. How you work for the blue skins, and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins, and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with … the black skins! I want to know how come?! In three short panels writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams brought into question the genre’s longstanding feint of using aliens and fantastic skin colors as a way to sidestep any real lack of diversity in the industry. The attempt at a socially conscious superhero story in the Green Lantern and Green Arrow adventure marked a radical shift in comics. In response to the political and cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s, and in an effort to stay relevant and capitalize on increasing recognition of marginalized groups, both Marvel and DC Comics introduced black superheroes as feature characters. In 1969 Marvel presented the African-American Sam Wilson as Captain America’s partner the Falcon. In 1972 Marvel launched the series Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, featuring ex-con Cage as a streetwise protector of Harlem. And by 1977 the Black Panther, an African king of the fictional nation Wakanda, was given his own self-titled series after previous appearances dating back to 1966 in The Fantastic Four and Jungle Action. Similarly, DC Comics began publishing Black Lightning in 1977, featuring African-American and ex-Olympian Jefferson Pierce who uses his electrical powers to fight crime. Inspired by the popularity of Blaxploitation films these comics introduced independent black superheroes that broadened the narrow ethnic limits of the genre, but they also relied on narrative stereotypes that positioned black characters as primarily low-level and volatile vigilantes who occupied the mean streets and defended the ghettos of New York City. Fortunately, all of these characters and numerous other
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ethnically diverse heroes, have evolved over the intervening years to become full-fledged heroes that now stand alongside the likes of Superman and Captain America. The current Marvel and DC comic book universes are far more diverse than their cinematic universes are. One of the reasons for the delay with diversity in superhero movies is the emphasis on the most iconic and recognizable superheroes, which by default means the white males who have existed since the start of superhero comics. But, more importantly, the current post-9/11 American climate is a central reason for such a narrow definition of superheroism as the films function to reassert an image of dominant white masculinity as all-powerful. Chapter 2 considered the importance of superhero movies as a means to deal with the cultural trauma experienced as a result of the tragedies of 9/11. In particular, superhero movies provide a fantasy reenactment of American cities under attack, but with the comforting corrective of exceptional heroes who successfully defend the nation. The symbolic reaffirmation of American resilience and power presented in superhero movies has, thus far, been embodied almost exclusively by white male heroes. Numerous considerations of 9/11, and the dramatic cultural changes that it precipitated, have noted that in gendered and racial terms the preeminence of dominant white masculinity was severely compromised (for example: Walsh 2010, Carroll 2011, Mann 2014). In many regards, ever since the 1950s white male masculinity is constantly perceived to be in the midst of a crisis of one kind or another. The rise of feminism and minority rights, queer politics, economic decline, globalization, and an increase of consumer culture have all been understood as putting masculinity in crisis. The fact that white heterosexual masculinity is always perceived to be in some sort of crisis, and in need of redemption, suggests the pervasive efforts continually in play to shore up this dominant cultural position. Considering the cyclical nature of masculine crises, Tania Modeleski notes: “we need to consider the extent to which male power is actually consolidated through cycles of crisis and resolution” (1991: 7). Moreover, as Nicola Rehling correctly notes: “almost every period of rapid social change in modern Western civilization has witnessed outpourings of anxiety about the state of (white heterosexual) masculinity, with masculinity most often synonymous with nation” (2009: 3). But the immediate and long-lasting trauma suffered by American culture after 9/11 was far more than just a period of “rapid social change,” and the crisis of dominant white masculinity was far more pronounced than ever before. The nation was revealed as vulnerable to foreign attack. America’s self-image, embodied by dominant white masculinity, as the most powerful nation on Earth—comfortably safe from any threats—was shattered. Repairing the mythic strength of America, and of white masculinity in particular, has been an ongoing project ever since 9/11. The highly visible Hollywood fantasy of white male superheroes functions as a form of cultural reparation that comforts the nation but also remythologizes white American males as exceptional. The specific masculine crisis brought into sharp focus by the events of 9/11 is compounded by the perceived slow erosion of white male privilege since
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the 1950s. Advances made by the Civil Rights movement, feminism, and Queer rights have chipped away at the iconicity, and the dominance, of the American white male. As was described in Chapter 2, the current popularity of superhero films is akin to the prominent muscular action cinema of the 1980s most closely associated with performers like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. In that chapter I likened the superhero’s triumphant revisioning of 9/11 to the Reagan-era action hero’s rewriting of America’s failures with the Vietnam War. Here I would like to stress the likewise comparable project of rebuilding white American masculinity as exceptional that occurred in 1980s action movies and is now happening in a different manner with superhero films. As Sharon Willis argued about Hollywood’s 1980s project of remasculinization: What these films put forward as the central figure of masculinity in crisis is really white heterosexual masculinity desperately seeking to reconstruct itself within a web of social differences, where its opposing terms include not only femininity, but black masculinity and male homosexuality. (1997: 31) Muscular Reagan era action films like Rambo (1985), Commando (1985), Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard (1988), reasserted mythic white masculinity through the heroes’ hard bodies in relation to images of supportive black men, women in need of protection, and other villainous—but weaker—white men. The current superhero film genre functions to reassert white masculinity by utilizing many of the same tropes: the excessive display of muscular bodies like Thor’s and Wolverine’s; incredible feats of strength like Superman’s or the Hulk’s; superior intelligence like Iron Man’s or Batman’s; the damsels in need of rescuing like Spider-Man’s MaryJane Watson and Gwen Stacy, or Deadpool’s Vanessa, and; the near total absence of any characters of color or, at best, as supporting figures for the real hero, such as the Falcon for Captain America or Luis for Ant-Man. But the cultural changes since the 1980s—especially the increased visibility and awareness of identity politics—has necessitated a different approach to the reaffirmation of white masculinity taking place in superhero movies that includes incorporating a form of marginalization into the character in order to then redeem him. One of the paradoxes faced by white heterosexual masculinity in contemporary culture is that despite its perceived decline in status it is still regarded as the norm, which by definition is simply ordinary. To regain its mythic status white heterosexual masculinity needs to be constructed as extra-ordinary, not by default but by achievement. Nicola Rehling accurately describes this modern dilemma: While white heterosexual masculinity continues to be the dominant identity in terms of economic, social, political, and representational
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strength, its very ordinariness means that it is also haunted by the anxiety that it is a vacuous identity. Being “ordinary” might, after all, place one in the privileged position of embodying social norms, but “ordinary” is also synonymous with “unexceptional,” “unremarkable,” “average,” even “boring.” Anxiety concerning the potential sterility and emptiness of white heterosexual masculinity has been compounded by the celebration of difference and the investment in minority identity that attends postmodernism and identity politics. (Rehling 2009: 1) Clearly, superhero films are an extreme example of repositioning white heterosexual masculinity as extra-ordinary. In film after film, these superheroes are white heterosexual men who perform incredible feats and always win the day. They are by definition not just men, but super men. And beyond simply aligning superhuman abilities with white masculinity, the formulaic narrative of the modern superhero film also marks the characters as initially marginalized in some way, thus allowing white masculinity access to the status of a downtrodden minority. While the superheroes may defend the status quo, their seemingly oxymoronic marginalization positions them as sympathetic characters and further validates their exceptionalism. The superhero has always occupied a conflicted space ideologically. They are imagined as the ultimate protectors of all that is good, as guardians of “truth, justice, and the American way.” In their insightful discussion of Batman, Uricchio and Pearson (1991) argue: “The Batman fights crime and thus serves as an agent of political domination, safeguarding property relations and enforcing the law … thus supporting the dominant hegemonic order” (206–207). At some level, the same holds true for all superheroes: their entire reason for existence is to preserve the status quo, not to challenge the dominant system but to maintain it. But superheroes are also unsanctioned vigilantes who, for the most part, function outside of the law (they are figuratively, and many times literally, outlaws). They may defend society but they are also outside of, or distanced from, it. Despite the fact that the bulk of superheroes are white heterosexual men, their formulaic status as outsiders positions them as relatively marginalized. In a fascinating article simply entitled “Supermarginal,” Helene Shugart (2009) notes: “marginalization has long characterized superheroes” (98). Shugart argues that super is, by definition, marginal … an outsider, unlike ordinary mortals.” Similarly, Christina Adamou (2011) argues: “Marginalization is caused by society’s fear of their superhero powers, their Otherness” (99). The characters are also typically marked out from regular society as orphans, and because they are often ostracized or even feared by the community (increasingly more often than they are valorized by it). The current wave of movies that regularly emphasize the dark and gritty side of superheroes, their angst-ridden demeanors and the tragic elements of their
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stories, present the heroes as more marginal than ever before. In the Dark Knight trilogy Batman is branded a criminal and hunted by the police, as is Ant-Man and Spider-Man in all five of his films. In Guardians of the Galaxy all of the heroes are criminals and their white male leader, Peter Quill, goes by the alias “Star-Lord, legendary outlaw.” And, most obviously, the reluctant heroes of Suicide Squad really are villains. Even Superman, in his most recent version Man of Steel, is feared by the public and pursued by the American military. Other characters, like the various mutants that populate the X-Men movies are explicitly treated as abominations and freaks of nature. Similarly, characters like the Hulk, Deadpool, and The Thing from the Fantastic Four movies are viewed as monstrous. Even Captain America is marginalized as exceptionally small and weak for the first half of Captain America: First Avenger. Contemporary live action superhero stories present the characters as tragic outsiders, as marginalized, despite being white heterosexual men. As Shugart goes on to argue: “the power and admiration that superheroes command qualifies their marginalization in ways that are far more Ubermensch than underdog … the vast majority of superheroes are wealthy, white heterosexual men” (2009: 99). The superhero’s claims to marginalization disguise their inherent dominant cultural status. “Historically, then,” Shugart continues, “superheroes have served as the vanguards of besieged wealthy, white, heterosexual masculinity, and their marginality is useful insofar as it serves to camouflage that fact” (2009: 99). The superhero’s narrative coopting of marginalization disguises the dominant cultural racial and gendered position they occupy as white males long before they become exceptional through their powers and adventures. Batman and Iron Man may be outsiders as superheroes, they may be sympathetic characters because Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed and Tony Stark has life-threatening metal lodged in his heart, but underneath it all they are extremely privileged and rich white men. In The Avengers, when Captain America angrily asks “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?” Stark humorously, but accurately, replies: “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” In fact, the grim and gritty tone of most superhero films belies white heterosexual masculinity’s fears of being marginalized. In a cultural climate where the privileged status of white heterosexual masculinity is perceived to be waning due to encroachments from subaltern identities, and where the tragedies of 9/11 have weakened the belief in the dominant powers to keep America safe, white heterosexual masculinity appears to be angry at the possibility of being displaced. While there is a romantic allure and politically advantageous reasons for identifying with marginalization, there is also a fear and frustration with being marginalized. Shugart notes: “the rage that characterizes many if not most of our contemporary superheroes appears to be fundamentally related to their wrongful marginalization and, thus, about entitlement” (100). The project of remasculinization being exercised by superhero films is, thus far, about reasserting the cultural dominance and privilege of a very specific type of white heterosexual masculinity.
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Figure 5.1 Bruce Wayne/Batman: Champion of the marginalized or agent of the status quo?
The hero’s sympathetic claims to marginalization constructed in the narratives through their tragic status as outsiders can never be complete. Of course the hero’s obvious whiteness and maleness cannot be visually disguised from audiences, but the films typically contrast these good and marginalized white men with more stereotypical representations of older, rich, white business men as symbolic old-guard villains. Sometimes the evil white businessmen are revealed to be super villains, sometimes they are the real power behind the villain … but in either case rich, white men—the traditional dominant class—are depicted as self-serving and evil. Consider all the corrupt politicians in the Batman movies: anti-mutant racist Senator Kelly in X-Men; Alexander Pierce, the head of the World Security Panel in Captain America: Winter Soldier; industrialist Norman Osborn who turns out to be The Green Goblin in Spider-Man; industrialist Obadiah Stane, who dons the Iron Monger suit in Iron Man; business man and scientist Darren Cross who becomes Yellowjacket in Ant-Man, and so on. By linking superheroism to marginalization, and by so often portraying old, rich, white guys as villains, superheroes are presented as champions of the oppressed rather than mere agents of hegemony. The superheroes can fight “the system,” and “the man,” even though they are white heterosexual (and often wealthy) men themselves. By presenting a very specific caste of wealthy white men as thoroughly corrupt, and the superhero’s version of white heterosexual masculinity as noble and self-sacrificing, the films are able to critique dominant gender and racial paradigms without completely undermining them. Shugart rightly points out that this strategy functions as a decoy: These patrician elites would destroy any who threaten their status. But they are primarily suspect to the extent that they explicitly embody
Diversity and Marginalization wealthy white masculinity – they function as decoys, in much the same way that graphic representation and vilification of blatant acts of racism deflect consideration of the subtle complexities of racism and white privilege. (100)
Contemporary issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, or discrimination of any kind are addressed primarily in these films via metaphor. Furthermore, by consistently depicting white heterosexual men as champions of the marginalized the status quo is valorized despite apparently revealing some of its most obvious downsides. The subtle, insidious and systemic nature of discrimination is ignored in favor of more spectacular displays of symbolic confrontation. The metaphorical feint for dealing with issues of marginalization and discrimination in superhero films is most apparent in the X-Men series. Legendary Marvel writer and editor Stan Lee first imagined the concept of mutant superheroes in 1963 for X-Men, a new team comic book. In an attempt to come up with a narrative rationale for countless super powered characters without having to develop multiple origin events, Lee created the concept of an evolutionary “X-gene” that could exist in any one, and which would transform characters into mutants (or Homo Superiors) during its activation in puberty. The original X-Men’s all-white roster of young heroes seemed at odds with the series’ themes of discrimination. The title was rebooted in 1975 by Len Wein, Chris Claremont, and Dave Cockrum and incorporated a more appropriately ethnically and internationally diverse cast including the African Storm, the German Nightcrawler, the Russian Colossus, and the Canadian Wolverine. The fantasy of mutants, super powered people misunderstood by a society they were sworn to protect, proved very popular and soon the Marvel Universe was dominated by mutant-based series, including The New Mutants, X-Factor, Excalibur, Generation X, and numerous other X-Men titles. As Ramzi Fawaz (2016) puts it: By popularizing the genetic mutant as a social and species minority, the series laid the foundation for reimagining the superhero as a figure that, far from drawing readers to a vision of ideal citizenship through patriotic duty or righteous suffering, dramatized the politics of inequality, exclusion, and difference. (144) The concept of a race of mutants may have begun as a convenient narrative device, but it has become an incredibly effective open-ended metaphor for issues of alienation and discrimination. Over the years, Marvel Comics has used mutants as a thinly veiled metaphor for storylines dealing with religious persecution, racism, homophobia, terrorism, genetics debates, disabilities, sexually transmitted diseases, immigration issues, sexism, and classism.
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The Sony produced X-Men films have carried on, and foregrounded, this tradition of mutants as a metaphor for minority politics in both the original trilogy of films: X-Men (2000), X-Men 2 (2003), and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006); and in the reboot/prequel trilogy X-Men: First Class (2011), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), and X-Men: Apocalypse (2016). Both trilogies take the complicated relationship between Charles Xavier (Dr. X), the leader of the X-Men, and Erik Lensherr (Magneto), the leader of The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, as the basis for their stories. The focus in both series is on the philosophical differences between these fellow mutants, best friends turned mortal enemies. Xavier (Patrick Stewart then James McAvoy in the newer series) preaches a peaceful coexistence between mutants and humans, while Magneto (Ian McKellan then Michael Fassbender) believes that mutants are the superior race and should displace or rule over mankind. The first moments of each series make an explicit connection between the atrocities of the Holocaust and mutants. Both X-Men and X-Men: First Class open with scenes of a young Erik Lensherr being marched into Auschwitz alongside throngs of other Jews. When Eric’s mother is dragged away from him by guards, Eric’s anguished screams ignite his latent mutant of magnetism, twisting the metal gates to the shock of everyone around him. Erik survives the horrors of his youth and becomes one of the most powerful mutants on the planet. With first-hand knowledge of what it is like to be the object of anti-Semitism, and the depths of cruelty that people who are perceived as different can be subjected to, Magneto vows that he will lead mutants to overcome mankind. Grounding the cinematic version of the X-Men within an overarching comparison of mutant paranoia and the tragedies of the Holocaust provides a powerful framework for issues of discrimination in a fictional universe populated by people with incredible powers. The reality of the Holocaust and its undeniably evil logic mark it as touchstone for any considerations of racism. As Jeffrey Schandler (2000) describes it, the Holocaust serves as a “master moral paradigm for epitomizing the worst case scenario of institutionalizing any form of discrimination and racism as state policy” (12). When Senator Kelly rallies Congress to endorse the Mutant Registration Act in X-Men, audiences understand Magneto’s disgust and sympathize with the mutants who are being unfairly discriminated against. Likewise, when Erik hunts down and executes Nazi war criminals in X-Men: First Class, viewers perceive it as a justifiable action. The explicit link between real world discriminations against Judaism and fictional discriminations against mutants as a species reflects the original themes that influenced the comic book version of the X-Men created by the Jewish writer Stan Lee and Jewish artist Jack Kirby. And, as almost every film review of the 2000 X-Men movie pointed out, director Bryan Singer’s Jewish identity and fascination with the Holocaust was a direct influence on the film’s narrative. The comparative association of mutants and Judaism is maintained through all of the X-Men films, in part because it is such an effective framing metaphor,
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and in part because Singer continued to be a huge influence on the series. In addition to directing the first film, Singer also served as a producer for X-Men: First Class, and performed both directing and producing duties for X-Men 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and X-Men: Apocalypse. In contrast to Magneto’s militant political views about the rift between humans and mutants, the X-Men films offer Charles Xavier as a more rationale and kind-hearted alternative. Where Magneto recruits an army to fight the humans, Xavier opens a school in order to educate young mutants and to train them to fight on behalf of both mutants and humans alike. While the films are clearly sympathetic to Magneto as a Holocaust survivor, his violent approach and his disdain for humans is signaled as villainous. As Lawrence Baron (2003) points out in his discussion of the Jewish subtext in X-Men comics and movies, Xavier’s more peaceful approach is indicative of Jewish integrationist strategies. “Dr. X’s mission to acculturate the mutants and train them to defend their host society,” writes Barron, “mirrors the integrationist strategies pursued by many of the first generation of Jews born in America” (47). While the films debate the dangers of discrimination and show characters on both sides of the good/evil mutant divide struggling with their decisions to fight or defend humans, the intention of the films is to align viewers with Xavier’s philosophy of tolerance and acceptance of differences in an effort to promote peaceful coexistence and integration. Moreover, by displacing the issue of discrimination onto the fictional idea of a race of mutants, the films are able to present the metaphor as applicable to conflicts well beyond religious persecution. Barron notes: “Singer employs the Holocaust as a metaphor for the vulnerability of any minority group. He stresses that the underlying philosophy of X-Men is that the notions of prejudice and fear are universal” (2003: 51). The X-Men films do not deny the existence and the pervasiveness of discrimination, but they do promote a belief that tolerance is the best way to combat it … that tolerance and the pursuit of peaceful resolution is a truly heroic act. The most common interpretation of X-Men’s metaphorical struggle between humans and mutants is to see the conflicted ideologies in terms of race. The X-Men were originally created during the American Civil Rights era and were greatly shaped by the struggles of African-Americans during that period. In fact, it has become commonplace, for critics and fans alike, to compare the different ideological approaches of Charles Xavier and Magneto to those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. When the original X-Men movie came out in 2000 the film’s producers spoke widely to the press about drawing inspiration from the two most iconic figures of the Civil Rights era. Critics played up the angle in almost every review, some even calling the comparison too obvious. A review in The New York Times, for example, complained: “the parallels to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Xavier) and Malcolm X (Magneto) are made wincingly plain; Magneto promises to defeat his opponents ‘by any means necessary’”
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(Mitchell, July 14, 2000, para. 4). When X-Men: First Class was released in 2011 reviewers again emphasized the comparison. An interview with star Michael Fassbender in The Los Angeles Times stressed the actor’s awareness of the similarities and declared: “the movie’s story of two massively powerful mutants who struggle against bitter prejudice was directly informed by the complicated lives of Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (Boucher, April 26, 2011, para. 1). The rather obvious analogy proved useful for the films as a central conflict, and undeniably added a certain amount of gravitas to a blockbuster comic book movie. But as popular Hollywood movies about superheroes, the film’s analogy remained primarily useful only on a surface level. It appealed to the symbolic importance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X’s political differences as a simple division between integration and separation, rather than any of the more complex nuances and similarities between the two positions. Of course it would be unreasonable to expect a special effects laden superhero movie to engage in a trenchant analysis of racial politics. But the metaphor of mutants as a category facing rampant discrimination, and the allusions to opposing Civil Rights perspectives, helped bolster the perception among viewers that the X-Men films proffered a positive and affirming message about the value of tolerance and the acceptance of difference. This affirmative theme of embracing diversity was, by all accounts, the filmmakers’ intent. That the X-Men films could repeatedly appeal to a massive audience with such a message is in itself a remarkable feat. Michael Lipiner argues: “At the start of the new millennium, the X-Men film series pioneered a more realistic (and symbolic) depiction of minorities,” (41) and the films “effectively symbolize a post-racially divided 21st century society that continues to deal with tolerance and social justice” (42). And, as Baron pointed out at the conclusion of his discussion of Jewish themes in in X-Men: Singer’s imbuing his movie with a respect for diversity and a rejection of bigotry is congruent with the film’s references to the Holocaust. At a moment in history, when the United States conducts a military manhunt for Islamic terrorist who, in turn, perceive themselves as waging a Holy War against infidels, X-Men’s idealistic call for tolerance has become more relevant than it may have seemed … when the movie premiered. (2003: 52) Indeed, a message about respecting diversity and rejecting bigotry worked into a popular entertainment is a bold and valuable message for any time in American culture. But, upon closer examination, the message about accepting diversity and rejecting bigotry that defines the X-Men films may not be as progressive as the narrative intends. The films’ positioning of Charles Xavier and Magneto as analogous to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively,
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was derided by some critics as a type of whitewashing or appropriating the political message of Black politics. The decidedly white, and upper class, characterization of both Xavier and Magneto is justifiable as an effort to remain true to the X-Men’s comic book source material, though on other occasions live action versions of comic book characters have changed ethnicity when adapted to the big or small screen. Marvel’s fictional leader Nick Fury was redrawn as a black man (after decades of being a white character) in the comics just prior to being embodied by Samuel L. Jackson in the films. Likewise, black actor Michael Clarke Duncan played the white character Kingpin in the 2003 film version of Daredevil, and Vondie Curtis-Hall took on the role of previously white reporter Ben Urich in the television series of Daredevil (2014–current). African-American performer Michael B. Jordan played another white-in-the-comics hero Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four (2015) reboot, and most recently Mehcad Brooks assumed the role of James (Jimmy) Olsen on television’s Supergirl (2015–current) transforming the character from a nerdy white kid reporter to a confident, capable, and Pulitzer Prize winning black photographer. Moreover, where “mutant” stands in metaphorically for “race” within the world of the movies, thus suggesting that the films are diverse, the actual casting does not reflect an active embrace of diversity. For example, in the first X-Men film Halle Berry’s Storm is the only character of color. Eleven years later X-Men: First Class featured the recruitment of two characters of color, Zoe Kravitz’ Angel and Edi Gathegi’s Darwin. Unfortunately, though, even before any of these new young X-Men begin their training Angel opts to join the evil mutants and Darwin is killed. Showing some progress, later films in the series do include more characters of color (I mean real life colors, not the blue skinned versions of Mystique or Nightcrawler). For example, X-Men: Days of Future Past reintroduced Storm and added another black hero with Bishop, the Asian mutant Blink, and the Native American Warpath.
Figure 5.2 The illusion of diversity in X-Men: First Class.
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Yet, even if we accept the X-Men’s metaphor of mutants as equivalent to a racial category, the film’s internal logic is not as accepting of diversity as it wants to suggest. Even amongst mutants there seems to be varying degrees of acceptability. As the original poster for X-Men declared: “Trust a Few. Fear the Rest.” Clearly not all mutants are created equal, and the films go to great lengths to differentiate between good mutants and bad mutants. In her intriguing analysis of race and gender in the first X-Men, Heather J. Hicks (2011) maintains that the film belies its own overt themes of embracing difference and rejecting bigotry. Hicks recognizes that “The X-Men story is often associated with what viewers perceive to be its political theme of embracing diversity,” (52) but correctly argues: Although the mutants are in theory all equally biologically removed from—and persecuted by—humans, some of these mutants are far closer to humans than others, and it is these human-appearing mutants with whom the film repeatedly encourages the audience to identify. The ‘good’ mutants, those allied with Charles Xavier…. The ‘bad’ mutants who are teamed with Magneto, on the other hand, appear to have devolved rather than evolved. With their direct associations with animals, the chameleon Mystique, the Toad, and the feline Sabretooth all seem to be evolutionary throwbacks. If we read humans as figures of whiteness within the racial metaphorics of the film, it becomes evident that the film’s mechanisms of identification are not as aligned with minority groups as they might first appear. (Hicks 2011: 55) With mutants symbolically substituting for a racial minority, the underlying message within the film is that only the most human looking ones—the most evolved, the closest to the dominant white majority, the least animalistic— are the good mutants/minorities. “Trust a few. Fear the rest.” Rather than embracing diversity and rejecting bigotry, the X-Men logic that presents the bad minorities as the less evolved and the good minorities as the more human ones, is downright regressive. As Hicks interprets X-Men, one of the key ways the film aligns viewers with Xavier’s good/ whiter mutants is through the central (white) character Wolverine. The initial film revolves primarily around Wolverine’s decision to join the X-Men as a moral choice. Wolverine is initially depicted as a loner, a victim of human disgust with and fear of mutants. He is an outsider to both the human and mutant communities, and wants no part of either. And, as his name suggests, Wolverine shares many of the animalistic qualities associated with Magneto’s devolved evil mutants. Wolverine’s central mutant ability is his incredible healing factor but he also has a heightened animallike sense of smell, retractable metallic claws, and is particularly hirsute and prone to primal fits of lethal rage. “These tangled identifications signal the
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complexity of Wolverine’s character in X-Men,” Hicks observes, “for even as both his animal-like mutations and victimized status identify him with Magneto’s racialized cohorts, he is also unmistakably of white racial origin” (2011: 58). Despite his early reluctance to get involved with the mutant struggle, Wolverine learns to accept Professor Xavier’s views and adopts a protective responsibility for the young mutant Rogue. With Wolverine set up as the main point of identification for viewers, audiences learn as he does to value the good mutants and reject the evil ones. Moreover, Hugh Jackman’s star-making performance of Wolverine resulted in a confirmation of white heterosexual masculinity (masquerading as marginalized) as the ideal form of heroism. Of all the characters to appear in X-Men films, Wolverine is the only one who proved popular enough to garner his own solo films with X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), The Wolverine (2013), and with a third film currently in production for 2017. Moreover, Hugh Jackman is the only actor to have appeared in every X-Men film. X-Men ushered in the current box-office dominating wave of superhero movies in 2000 with at least a well-intentioned theme of rejecting discrimination. That it ultimately fell short of promoting diversity beyond the level of metaphor is, in hindsight, not surprising given how the genre has focused on the redemption of white heterosexual masculinity as a structuring cultural norm. Prior to 2000 several superhero films starring black characters were produced with little commercial or critical success. Two of these films were comedies about inept superheroes, The Meteor Man (1993) and Blankman (1994), which both failed miserably. 1997 saw the release of two serious African-American lead superhero movies: Spawn which performed decently at the box-office, earning $54 million, but was savaged in reviews, and the much ridiculed Steel starring basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal which grossed only $1.7 million. The successful Blade, which earned $70 million in 1998 and was rewarded with two sequels, is the lone victory for comic book-based films featuring a central black protagonist in the era prior to the current superhero cinematic boom. During this current wave of superhero film dominance Hancock (2008) is the only movie, thus far, to headline and African-American hero. Starring Will Smith, Hancock was a financial success, earning $625 million worldwide despite mixed reviews. As the lone African-American superhero to join the current ranks of the blockbuster genre Hancock represents a welcome diversification to the cadre of white superheroes. But the unconventional narrative of Hancock reveals deeply rooted cultural stereotypes regarding race and some of the difficulties inherent in bringing a black superhero to a general audience. Hancock is an odd mix of self-reflexive superhero comedy and coming of age story. Unlike most superheroes there is nothing upstanding about Hancock at the start of the film. Hancock may have the powers of a superman but he is initially depicted as an irresponsible thug. He drinks constantly, swears, is dirty and disheveled, leers at women on the street, is excessively violent with criminals (he has a preference for literally shoving bad guys
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heads up each other’s asses), and has a wanton disregard for destruction of public property. In fact, rather than being embraced as a hero for his efforts to stop crime, Hancock is branded a criminal by the city of Los Angeles because he generally causes more problems, and expenses, than he solves. After a chance meeting with marketing executive Ray Embrey, played by Jason Bateman, Hancock reluctantly agrees to let Ray remake his public image as a responsible superhero. Under Ray’s guidance, Hancock cleans up his act: voluntarily submitting to incarceration, wearing a standard superhero type of costume rather than grungy street clothes, being polite to the people he rescues, and avoiding too much collateral damage during his fights. Along the way, we also learn that Ray’s wife Mary (Charlize Theron) has superpowers as well, and that she and Hancock are immortal and have been lovers in the past. Hancock does momentarily recognize that its hero’s reckless and anti-social behavior might be linked to his position as a black man in a racist society. In a moving scene it is recalled how Hancock lost his memory in the 1930s after he was brutally beaten by a group of men for holding hands with a white woman in public (Mary is the woman—the two lose their powers the longer they are close to each other). But most of Hancock’s ostracization in contemporary Los Angeles is credited to his irresponsible “bad boy” behavior, which is symbolically associated with race but not explicitly linked to it. Hancock was a project that famously floated around Hollywood for a number of years before going into production. Numerous actors were considered for the titular role including George Clooney, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Leonardo DiCaprio. The film finally moved ahead once the bankable star Will Smith signed on for the lead. The casting of Smith, rather than one of the white actors rumored for the role, altered the racial inflection of the film. The implication of the narrative becomes that a superpowered black man is dangerous, criminally irresponsible with power, and generally reviled by the community until a white man teaches him acceptable behavior and social responsibility. In effect, as Christina Adamou (2011) convincingly argues, the early gruff Hancock is presented as a rudimentary stereotype of black masculinity as thuggish. Where vulgar and disrespectful white superheroes like Kick-Ass, Deadpool, and Wolverine can be regarded as simply unconventional, the African-American Hancock becomes too closely aligned with demeaning racial stereotypes about Black men which have come to dominate media representation. Adamou observes: “Hancock is certainly large, loud, active and aggressive, to such an excess that, far from being a leader, he becomes marginalized” (98–99). Moreover, Adamou points out that his “unacceptable” attitude and violence “links him both to stereotypes of aggressive and hostile black masculinity and to the working class and of course the stereotypical link between African-Americans and the working class” (100). These racial and classist stereotypes, that Hancock is seen as naturally embodying, become the focus of the story as he struggles to overcome them in order to be regarded as a real superhero.
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Figure 5.3 Hancock has to learn to contain his excessive Black masculinity.
I have argued elsewhere (Brown, 2001) in relation to comic depictions of masculinity that black super powered characters are often burdened with an excess of masculinity. Since comic book superheroes represent an extreme model of hypermasculinity, and black men are already racially stereotyped as hypermasculine, “then the combination of the two—a black male superhero—runs the risk of being read as an overabundance, a potentially threatening cluster of masculine signifiers” (178). This threatening excess of masculinity sets the black superhero apart from his white counterparts, and in the case of Hancock, the central narrative revolves around his learning to contain this excess, to reign in his potentially dangerous black masculinity. Adamou notes that the link between exaggerated masculinity and racial stereotypes is the central problem faced in the film. “Hancock only has his superhero identity and its masculinity is even more excessive than that of most superheroes,” (100) writes Adamou, and: “His aggression and violent behavior in particular are inextricably linked to stereotypes of black masculinity” (101). The narrative trajectory of Hancock focuses on his image makeover and maturation so that by the end of the film he is a “proper” superhero dedicated to saving innocents. This theme of a character needing to mature, accept responsibility, and assume a proper place in society is a common cliché in superhero movies. Wolverine becomes less of an angry loner and joins the X-Men, Tony Stark becomes less immature and selfcentered when he becomes Iron Man, Star-Lord learns saving innocents is more valuable than thieving for personal gain in Guardians of the Galaxy, and so on. But in the case of Hancock the racial dynamics imply that part
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of this maturation process involves rejecting stereotypically black traits and assimilating to dominant standards and expectations. Put bluntly: to be a real hero Hancock needs to be less black. Other than Hancock, Samuel L. Jackson’s multiple performances of Nick Fury in almost all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films represents the most prominent black character in the current genre. Though Fury has no powers and is not a superhero, he is still consistently portrayed as exceptionally competent and heroic. Fury is the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel’s high-tech, super-spy organization that oversees many of the superheroes and defends America from extraordinary threats. What the MCU lacks in sheer volume of diversity, it seems to make up for with the importance of Fury’s position within the fictional universe. Fury is arguably the most important character in the MCU; he brings the heroes together, gives them a purpose, is politically astute, and always knows more than anyone else. Nor could Jackson’s performance of Fury ever be considered as whitewashed. Jackson brings to the role his signature style, anger and cool attitude that is unapologetically rooted in his racial identity and his personal politics and familiarity with racial issues. While there has been talk about giving Nick Fury his own stand-alone film, Marvel has not announced anything official yet. The rumor is that within the DC film universe African-American actress Viola Davis’s role as Amanda Waller, the powerful political figure that puts together the team of super villains in Suicide Squad, will eventually occupy a position similar to Nick Fury’s. Like Jackson, Davis brings to her role a confidence and intelligence that is intertwined with her racial identity that has become an established part of her star persona through her roles in films like The Help (2011) and on television as the lead of How to Get Away with Murder (2014–current). The inclusion of strong characters of color in pivotal roles is an interesting and progressive move within superhero films. Jackson, in particular, does not have to sacrifice any of his attitude or swagger to portray Nick Fury as someone who has clearly earned his leadership position and the respect of all the superheroes. Despite Nick Fury’s position of importance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and Amanda Waller’s potential in the DCU), the relative scarcity of other ethnically diverse characters as heroes runs the risk of being perceived as mere tokenism. The confident performance styles of both Samuel L. Jackson and Viola Davis effectively deter audiences from mistakenly thinking the characters are merely minority tokens who earned their positions by the value of their skin color. When Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury commands the Avengers, challenges the world’s political powers, or rebukes an Asgardian god, there is no doubt that Fury is a capable leader. The fact that an African-American character is positioned as the fictional mastermind behind the heroes in the MCU is a significantly positive development in the representation of minorities in popular film. But the relative lack of ethnically diverse heroes thus far means that Nick Fury (and potentially Amanda Waller), also functions symbolically in much the same way as the cliché of
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old evil white men talked about earlier. The old wealthy white vanguard as villains provides a neat and tidy symbol of oppressive forces that can be defeated in the name of liberal social progress without the genre really questioning the pervasive and systemic nature of white privilege. Similarly, a role like Nick Fury’s is also a feint in that placing a lone African-American figure in the position of ultimate authority suggests that discrimination has been overcome in this universe despite its overwhelming whiteness. While the quality of Fury’s position is an admirable example of diversity, but the quantity of diversity in the superhero genre is still noticeably lacking. The development of feature film versions of Marvel’s Black Panther for 2018 and DC’s Cyborg for 2020 mark a monumental step towards diversifying the cinematic genre of superheroes. After years of public complaints on the internet and in the media about the narrow racial representation of superheroes, heroes of color are finally coming to life in Hollywood. To placate public demand and to contribute to the concept of shared cinematic superhero universe, both characters were briefly introduced in other films years before they headline their own features. Black Panther made his debut in the superhero packed Captain America: Civil War (2016), and Cyborg briefly appeared in a scene during Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) thus setting in motion DC’s ultimate team-up movie Justice League scheduled for 2017. Furthermore, at least two African-American superheroes are set to star in their own television series. Marvel’s Luke Cage has already appeared on Netflix’s hit series Jessica Jones, and is scheduled to lead his own self-titled Netflix series in 2016. The critical acclaim and mass popularity experienced by both Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones bodes well for Luke Cage, and ultimately the three heroes, and Iron Fist, are planned to team-up in a Defenders series. Meanwhile Milestone Media’s AfricanAmerican comic book superhero Static is currently in series development. Static is the story of a smart teenage boy, Virgil Hawkins, who develops electrical powers and becomes a novice hero. Static also starred in the popular cartoon program Static Shock that aired on Kids WB network from 2000 until 2004. The announcement that comic book veterans turned film and television producer Reginald Hudlin and Denys Cowan are developing the Static program has caused a wave of excitement among fans. Milestone’s long association with DC Comics and Warner Brothers may facilitate Static joining the DCU in a fully integrated manner. The impending production of Black Panther, Cyborg, Luke Cage, and Static reveals as much about the studios’ commercial imperative as it does about the cultural recognition of the need for more diverse racial representations in the media. The superhero film genre’s phenomenal ongoing success has created a need for the studios to develop new properties and new characters that balance audience desires for “more of the same” with “an innovative twist.” Black Panther’s position as the king of an advanced African nation, and Cyborg’s genius and the fusion of his human body with advanced technology, are unlike any of the superheroes that have been depicted on
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screen to date. For the genre to continue, the introduction of new and different heroes becomes a commercial imperative to avoid viewer fatigue. New and diverse characters can still conform to the formulaic superhero narrative but also incorporate new themes and address a wider range of issues. The live action superhero genre has already begun to expand beyond simple origin stories, metaphors for male adolescence, and refighting the events of 9/11. On television Agent Carter and Jessica Jones have explored issues of sexism and sexual assault. Captain America: Civil War explores issues of personal liberties and government overreach for the sake of security. And, in a comedic vein, the upcoming series Powerless is described as a singlecamera comedy about insurance office working in a world populated by the DC superheroes and all of the ridiculous property damage they cause. Developing ethnically diverse superheroes, if they are handled well, allows the genre to do more than just present symbolic diversity. Heroes of color can easily integrate issues of identity politics and discrimination or they can directly or incidentally challenge racial stereotypes. The superhero genre has already made great strides towards greater diversity of all kinds within comics. Numerous African-American, female, Asian, Middle-Eastern, Jewish, and queer superheroes headline their own series or are significant members of super teams. If the current film and television expression of the superhero genre continues to follow the lead of comic books there is a huge potential for a world of superheroes that truly reflects American culture.
Spoofs, Parody, and Camp
The top-ranked television situation comedy The Big Bang Theory (Chuck Lorre, 2007–present) has helped to popularize geek culture. The four main male characters (Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj) are lovable losers who enact the nerd stereotype for the enjoyment of millions every week. Each of these characters is extremely smart but socially awkward, especially around women. They are also obsessed with a range of fandoms associated with geek culture, portrayed as almost pathologically passionate about science fiction, computer games, roleplaying games, and of course superhero comic books. The series affectionately mocks their fascination with superheroes by regularly providing them opportunities to dress up as their favorite comic book characters. For example when their neighbor, Penny, invites them to a Halloween party in the first season, all four of the nerds dress up as The Flash. Similarly, in season four the guys are excited to attend a superhero themed New Year’s Eve party as The Justice League of America with Penny in tow as Wonder Woman and her boyfriend Zack dressed as Superman. Their excitement stems mostly from the fact that with Zack as Superman they may finally be able to win best group costume. As Howard says: “He is the only person we know with actual muscles.” Much of the comedy in these episodes of The Big Bang Theory is derived from the geeks’ idolization of superheroes and the outlandish appearance of these wimpy men dressed up in the form-fitting costumes of characters who traditionally personify our perceptions of ideal masculinity. Short, skinny characters in glasses look ridiculous trying to act out their heroic fantasies. Superheroes have always represented the pinnacle of our cultural ideas about masculinity, and have served for generations as a key power fantasy for adolescent males. The superhero is stronger than anyone, defeats every villain, is always in the right, and gets the girl. Superheroes can fly, lift trucks, shoot laser beams out of their eyes, energy blasts from their fists, etc., etc. Who wouldn’t want to be one? With the ever-increasing success of live-action blockbuster superhero films in recent years, these costumed crusaders are more popular and embody ideas of what R.W. Connell has termed “hegemonic masculinity” (1987) more than ever before. Chapter 2 focused on the basic gender fantasy perpetuated by superhero narratives wherein mild-mannered men become icons of hypermasculinity.
Spoofs, Parody, and Camp
Conventional characters like Superman, Captain America, Batman, Iron Man, and Spider-Man repeatedly act out a fantasy of male empowerment for viewers to identify with. But as the genre develops and adapts in contemporary live-action film and television there is an increased possibility that this central wish-fulfilling dream will be altered. The emergence of less iconic characters, more and better represented female characters, and the development of narratives that deal with the darker implications of superheroism, all may be leading the genre away from its original focus on hegemonic masculinity as an ideal. One aspect of the superhero film genre that has been relatively overlooked is the rise of superhero parodies. By focusing on superhero parodies we can begin to see how this dynamic genre mocks the geekish fascination with superheroes and the ridiculousness of the entire genre, especially the unobtainable ideal of hegemonic masculinity. But the parodies also function to ultimately reinforce the dominant messages of the mainstream superhero films and to validate the very model of masculinity that it superficially condemns. Superhero parodies function in a more complex manner to support hegemonic masculinity as a cultural norm than do mainstream superhero films. Since Connell first coined the phrase “hegemonic masculinity” in 1987 it has been popularly used as a simple synonym for whatever ideal examples of masculinity reign at a given time in our culture. In a reconsideration of the term, Connell addresses this common mistaken usage that critics have pointed out, clarifying: “It is desirable to eliminate any usage of hegemonic masculinity as a fixed, transhistorical model” (838). This tendency to regard hegemonic masculinity as a stable and identifiable pinnacle of gender ideals disregards the complicated ways that a masculine norm is reified and naturalized. The efficacy of hegemony lies in its ability to adapt, to give and take, and to convince people that certain beliefs or conditions are natural facts. Superhero parodies do not just model paragons of masculinity as the mainstream superhero films do, the parodies ridicule it, they criticize it, they invite viewers to laugh at it … and then they confirm that it is still a state that even the lowliest of males can and should achieve. The incredibly successful wave of superhero films that have come to dominate the box-office since X-Men was released in 2000 perpetuates a conservative gender dynamic, but the sub-genre of superhero parody films suggests a possible critique of ideal masculinity. In “Why I Hate Superhero Movies” (2011) Scott Bukatman laments that the movies are all “blockbusters with gargantuan budgets” and that “superhero films seem to stake out the safest and most familiar version of their eponymous characters” (119). Bukatman sees the films as static, safe, and conventional, arguing that there is little diversity because there are no “B-movies made in the back-lots of smaller studios, and there are few ‘little’ or ‘quirky’ superhero movies, apart from direct-to-DVD animated films and, long ago, Mystery Men (1999)” (119). While I share Bukatman’s misgivings about the blockbuster films’ inability to depict much more than origin stories over and over again, I do not think any
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Figure 6.1 The nerds of The Big Bang Theory idolize superheroes but fall short of a the ideal.
lack of “little” or “quirky” superhero films is a contributing cause. In fact, given the quick rise of the genre and the audience’s pre-existing familiarity with some of the key conventions, a large number of off-beat superhero films have been released in the last decade. Some of these less traditional films have been lower budget or independent films, others have come from major studios and/or generated huge profits. All of these off-beat superhero films can be considered parodies in some sense, though some strive more for playful homage and others for a veneer of social critique. Among these “quirky” films we can count: • • • • •
Live action spoofs such as Mystery Men (1999), The Specials (2000) and Superhero Movie (2008) Family friendly takes on the genre such as Sky High (2005), Zoom (2006), and Super Capers (2009) Animated revisionist films such as The Incredibles (2004), Bolt (2008), Megamind (2010), and Big Hero 6 (2014) Romantic comedy crossovers such as My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006) and Griff the Invisible (2010) Realistic revisionist takes such as Unbreakable (2000), Special (2006), Hancock (2008), Watchmen (2009), Defendor (2009), Boy Wonder (2010), All Superheroes Must Die (2011), and Chronicle (Josh Trank, 2012) Live-action television shows that have recontextualized the superhero genre including Smallville (2001–2011), The Tick (2001), Heroes (2006–2010), No Heroics (2008), Misfits (2009–present), No Ordinary Family (2010), The Cape (2011), and Alphas (2011–2014)
Spoofs, Parody, and Camp • • •
Spoof web series such as Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog (2008) and Supermansion (2015–present) Documentaries about real-life people who dress up as superheroes: Confessions of a Superhero (2007), Superheroes (2011), and Batkid Begins (2015) Hardcore pornographic parodies of almost every superhero in titles like Batman XXX, Supergirl XXX, Iron Man XXX, Spider-Man XXX, and The Justice League of Porn Star Heroes
The ubiquity of the live-action superhero genre in the twenty-first century has allowed the basic concept of super powered characters fighting crime in colorful costumes to be explored from a number of perspectives. Some of the most interesting variations on the genre explore the world around superheroics without directly including any specific superhero characters at all. The longer narrative format of television has proven especially capable of developing these new variations. Marvel’s television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. delves into the shadowy world of modern espionage and deals with super powered events from the perspective of the government agents assigned to keep track of heroes and villains. Likewise, Marvel’s Agent Carter deals with the emergence of superpowered characters in the 1940s and Peggy Carter’s efforts to combat them on behalf of the fledgling Strategic Scientific Reserve (a precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D.). In a bold move, the television series Gotham (2014–present) is a Batman story without Batman. Gotham serves as an extended Batman prequel, focusing on the career of a young James Gordon, Bruce Wayne as a child, and a number of characters that will eventually become Batman’s famous rogues gallery of villains. On Netflix Jessica Jones opts for a gritty and realistic psychological thriller style as Jessica battles her abuser, rather than putting its super powerful heroine in tights to fight crime. And PlayStation’s original series Powers (2015–present) is a police procedural following the adventures of detectives who solve crimes related to super powered characters. The live-action superhero genre is malleable enough, and has become popular enough, to sustain a wide range of variations beyond the basic costumed hero formula. NBC network has even placed a series order for a program called Powerless, which is described in the press as a work-place comedy in the vein of The Office and Parks and Rec set in an insurance office in the DC Universe that deals with damage claims from superhero accidents. Likewise, ABC is developing a live-action adaptation of Marvel’s comedic comic book series Damage Control about the city workers tasked with cleaning up after superhero battles. Animated children’s television series have always been a popular outlet for superhero stories, and they continue to be during this era of live action superhero dominance. Numerous critical studies of superhero cartoons have explored a range of issues from gender depiction to commercialization to morality and justice (for example, see Kort-Butler 2012
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and 2013, Williams 2011, Hager 2008, and Kirsh 2006). Cartoon versions of popular heroes attract new and younger audiences to the genre. They lay a framework of familiarity with characters and storylines that ensure a future audience for more serious fare. The cartoons are also an important corporate element as a primary vehicle for promoting brand recognition and toy sales. And while live-action superhero adventures for children have a rich history with television series like The Adventures of Superman (1952–1958), Shazam! (1974–1977), Isis (1975–1976), Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (1976) and The Greatest American Hero (1981), the prohibitive cost of modern versions has limited live-action superheroes targeted for young viewers. But both Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel have sought to capitalize on the current popularity for all things superhero by developing their own live-action series for pre-teen audiences. Disney’s Lab Rats (2012-present), and Mighty Med (2013–2015), and Nickelodeon’s The Thundermans (2013-present) and Henry Danger (2014-present) all focus on the slapstick hijinks of pre-teens and teenagers who stumble into the silly side of superhero worlds. In Lab Rats 14-year-old Leo Dooley befriends a trio of bionic teens he finds in his stepfather’s laboratory and introduces them to the world as costumed superheroes. Mighty Med deals with two adolescent comic book fanboys who land jobs, along with their female friend and superheroine, at a hospital for superheroes. The Thundermans focuses on teenage twins, Max and Phoebe, and their home life as part of a superpowered middle-class family. And Henry Danger chronicles the misadventures of 13-year-old Henry Hart as he becomes a sidekick for the silly superhero Captain Man. The programs are all silly, innocent, low budget comedies that appeal to juvenile audiences and tap into viewer’s familiarity with superhero conventions like secret identities, unpredictable powers, corny heroes, and catsuit wearing women. In a nod to their adult counterparts in superhero movies, all of these programs regularly feature nerdy male teenage protagonists, humorously manly superheroes and sexy superheroines (even, somewhat disturbingly, the teenage ones). Despite being comedies that poke fun at superhero tropes and do contain parodic elements, it would be unfair to categorize these shows as parodies. Parody implies a direct commentary and/or critique of a genre, whereas these children’s programs are meant as straightforward tween comedies that simply choose a world of superheroes to facilitate ridiculous situations. Once audiences become familiar with a genre’s formulas and conventions, parodies become a predictable part of the cycle and an important means for varying the formula. The abundance of superhero movie parodies is indicative of the current popularity of superhero films and our culture’s longstanding awareness of at least the rudimentary components of superhero tales. Moreover, even the most serious superhero film already has something of the ridiculous about it with people in silly costumes wielding spectacular powers and saving the world from some evil entity. Superhero films are
Spoofs, Parody, and Camp
Figure 6.2 Tween superheroine Skylar Storm explains super medicine to fanboy Kaz on Mighty Med.
always dangerously close to self-parody. Most contemporary Hollywood parodies are quickly produced, light-hearted spoofs full of sophomoric sight gags, for example Scary Movie (Keenan Ivory Wayans 2000), Not Another Teen Movie (Joel Gallen 2001), Date Movie (Aaron Seltzer 2006), Disaster Movie (Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer 2008) and Vampires Suck (Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer 2010). But some parodies do have the potential to critique elements of the genre or to cast the dominant messages in a new light. Films like Mike Myers’ Austin Powers series (Jay Roach 1997, 1999, 2002) point out the ridiculous sexual politics of the swinging sixties era spy film; Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright 2004) illustrates that even a zombie apocalypse can be a metaphor for the meaning of love and friendship; and the now classic Mel Brooks films Young Frankenstein (1974) and Blazing Saddles (1974) can, respectively, deconstruct the sexuality underlying monster movies, or explore issues of racism in Westerns. Most superhero film parodies make fun of the genre’s more predictable and sillier conventions, such as the skin-tight and colorful costumes, strange powers, secret identities, rigid moral codes, and evil super-geniuses. But, even in the most juvenile and slapstick forms of parody, there is an underlying criticism of the absurdity of superhero films. The superhero parodies mock some of the most foundational beliefs perpetuated by the genre, such as American moral superiority, rugged individualism, and heroic selflessness. Contemporary superhero parodies use the familiar narratives and iconography of the genre to explore and mock specific themes. For all of its animated fun, The Incredibles uses the superhero formula as a metaphor not of puberty but of Mr. Incredible’s mid-life crisis and middle-class familial dissatisfaction. My Super Ex-Girlfriend utilizes a superpowered heroine
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to exaggerate the stereotype of psychotic ex-girlfriends who just cannot let go of a relationship. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog exposes the tragedy of unrequited love from the sympathetic supervillain’s point of view. These modern parodies are very different in tone and style from earlier campy versions of live action superhero spoofs. Perhaps the most famous example of superhero camp is the 1960s television program Batman (1966–1968), though some also consider the live action TV versions of Wonder Woman (1975–1979) and The Amazing Spider-Man (1977–1979) as camp classics. While Wonder Woman and The Amazing Spider-Man (and perhaps to a lesser extent The Incredible Hulk (1978–1982)) were seen as silly enactments of superhero comics, they at least tried to be earnest at times. Batman, on the other hand, was an out-and-out mockery of superheroes and comic book scenarios. With ridiculous costumes, prancing supervillains, absurd death traps, and Adam West’s overly dramatic delivery of overly dramatic dialogue, the Batman TV program managed to undermine any notion of taking superheroes seriously. The intentional absurdity of Batman pretending to be very serious fare, though with an ever-present wink and smirk, is considered the epitome of camp. Though camp is notoriously difficult to define because it is rooted in an odd mix of intentionally and unintentionally exaggerated stylings and overwrought presentations, and because it is so dependent on audience interpretations, the sixties Batman made fun of superheroes in a broad manner. Lynn Spigel and Henry Jenkins (1991) argue that the campiness of Batman allowed elitist critics at the time to account for the pleasures of low culture through a veneer of Pop Art style that actively erased the boundaries between popular culture and high art. Others, like Andy Medhurst (1991), have described Batman as firmly aligned with queer notions of camp that allowed gay men to read homosexual meanings into texts produced by dominant culture. From this perspective Batman is a logical subject for camp because the comic books already verged on the campy because, according to Medhurst, “it was serious (the tone, the moral homilies) about the frivolous (a man in a stupid suit)” (1991: 156). And, perhaps more importantly, the pairing of Batman and Robin was already interpreted as a queer romantic relationship in gay culture. In the 1960s this queer reading of Batman and Robin was still able to fly below the radar of most viewers, thinly disguised by the intentionally ironic and Pop Art look of the program. Of course, as society has become more aware of queer issues, the potentially gay implications of superhero partners has been explicitly parodied in the cartoon shorts of The Ambiguously Gay Duo featured on Saturday Night Live. The campy superhero parodies of earlier decades were broad swipes at the juvenile absurdity of comic books rather than specific critiques of the superhero genre’s ideological messages. Modern superhero parodies are well aware of the political underpinnings of the genre and often seek to expose or ridicule certain themes. Yet, even when the goal of parody is a revealing deconstruction, it also typically carries with it a great deal of homage. In a fascinating article about the commercial imperative of the
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James Bond parodies of the 1960s, Kevin J. Hagopian points out: “Genre parodies have long been assumed to be a parasitic organism on the original genre corpus, draining them of some degree of their power to woo audiences to their ideological project” (2009: 26). But, Hagopian argues, the plethora of spy parodies that took Bond as their central target did not weaken the overriding messages about sexual politics, international relations or British strength. Rather: “the Bond parodies manage to interrogate the ideology of Bond, while supporting Bond in the marketplace” (27). Hagopian builds on Linda Hutcheon’s work (2000) about parody in literary fiction and high art, where she describes parody in general as “imitation characterized by ironic inversion, not always at the expense of the parodied text.” Genre parodies in film may mock certain conventions, visual styles and plot devices but spoofing these elements does not necessarily mean that the original texts are being undermined. In fact, given the degree of familiarity that audiences need to have to understand the jokes, and the parodists’ need to stick to plot conventions in telling the story, the parodies often simply reproduce the dominant message in an exaggerated form with some momentary ridicule along the way. Modern superhero parodies function much like the earlier Bond parodies in that they add another dimension to the genre, they are a humorous flip side to the excessively serious mainstream movies that appear to critique the genre but ultimately become part and parcel of it. Given the superhero film genre’s overwhelming concern with models of hegemonic masculinity, it comes as no surprise that the central premise of contemporary superhero parodies is the substitution of a typically heroic male lead with a figure of failed masculinity. Where the mainstream superhero film has the wimpy male transform into a paragon of heroic masculinity, the parodies deny the physical transformation. The less-than-ideal male becomes the less-than-ideal superhero. This change in the superhero’s level of masculinity allows the parodies to offer up a critique of the traditional hegemonic masculinity at the core of the genre. But, for the most part, the critique of masculinity is only superficial and even the parodies ultimately reinforce our cultural conceptions of heroism and masculinity. Focusing on two of the most notable superhero parodies, the dark comedies Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn 2010) and Super (James Gunn 2010), we can see hegemonic superhero masculinity is first deconstructed and then reconstructed. Released within two months of each other in 2010, KickAss was a major studio release, based on a comic book mini-series of the same name; it garnered huge worldwide profits and earned a sequel. Super, on the other hand, was a critically acclaimed independent film that did respectfully at theatres and has become a cult favorite on video. The titular heroes of Kick-Ass and Super are not icons of hegemonic masculinity in the sense that most superhero characters are as exaggerated embodiments of ideal masculine traits. These loser-heroes, Dave and Frank, represent failed masculinity, or what Connell refers to as “subordinate.” While the basic superhero formula revolves around a magical transformation of ordinary
Spoofs, Parody, and Camp
men into supermen, Dave and Frank remain ordinary (or even less) as costumed heroes. But, despite their heroic failings, Kick-Ass and Super function hegemonically to support ideal masculinity by maintaining the fantasy that even without a magical transformation all men can become heroic. Both Kick-Ass and Super ask: “What if real people actually tried to be superheroes? And what if those people were just the nerdy-fanboy types that over value comic book heroes?” These are not the cool super powered mutants of The X-Men films, the indestructible armor-wearing billionaire, playboy genius of the Iron Man movies, the superb martial arts trained and gadget wielding billionaire obsessive of the Dark Knight trilogy, nor the muscle-bound god of thunder, Thor, battling on behalf of mortals. The heroes of Kick-Ass and Super have no powers, no training, no amazing gadgets, and no financial fortunes—they are just ordinary schlubs who put on silly homemade costumes to fight crime. Kick-Ass is the story of an average high school loser, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who has grown bored of his mundane life and simply decides to put on a costume and fight crime like the characters in his beloved comic books. Despite Dave’s ridiculous attempts to be heroic dressed as the green and yellow Kick-Ass, he eventually is embroiled in a battle against organized crime alongside other costumed superheroes. Similarly, in Super the dweebish short-order cook Frank Darrbo (Rainn Wilson) has an epiphany inspired by a religious superhero TV show and becomes The Crimson Bolt after his addict wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a local drug-dealer. As The Crimson Bolt, Frank humorously fights some small crimes by beating people over the head with a lug wrench while shouting “Shut Up Crime!” Eventually The Crimson Bolt is joined by a female sidekick, Bolty (Ellen Page), and challenges Jacques’ entire criminal organization. Both of these films mock the very idea of people putting on silly costumes to fight crime and, more specifically, the conventional mythology of superheroes as infallible masculine ideals. Kick-Ass and Super were forthright in the press about being critiques of the superhero genre. A review of Kick-Ass in Entertainment Weekly argued that: “the film boasts a uniquely self-aware blend of comic action and realistic gore,” and quoted director, Matthew Vaughn, complaining: “Superhero movies are getting too generic” (Gleiberman, 2010, April 15, para. 2). Most critics focused on the foul language (especially when spoken by 11-year-old Hit Girl) and the excessive violence as the primary elements of genre parody. USA Today, for example, claimed that the film aimed to “up the ante in body parts, bloodshed and shock value” (Puig, 2010, April 16, para. 2). A review in Time magazine starts by describing the film as: “Smart, scrappy and very, very violent, Kick-Ass redefines the superhero genre.” But the Time article also notes the revisionist nature of the film: To apotheosize the clichés of the genre while subverting them is a neat trick, but the Kick-Ass cadre pulls it off. This is a violent R-rated drama that comments cogently on the impulses—noble, venal or
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twisted—that lead people to hurt others … it forces the grownups in the audience to acknowledge that the action is as troubling as it is gorgeous…. The result is a work that spills out of itself to raise issues about all superhero characters, all action pictures. (Corliss, 2010, April 26, para. 3) Most critics were less enamored with Super, seemingly put off by the excessive violence in a movie they expected to be funnier. Roger Ebert complained that: “Super is being sold as a comedy, but I doubt it will play that way. It begins as the portrait of a lovable loser named Frank, and as it ends, we’re pretty sure he’s an insane ruthless killer. That’s not a joke” (2010, April 16, para. 2). Others, like the review in SFX Magazine, saw the film as “subversive in the extreme” and declared: “Super is the sudden kick in the crotch this summer of square-jawed superheroes never knew it needed” (Farley 2010, September 16, para. 3). And, in an interesting promotional strategy Super’s lead actor, comedian Rainn Wilson, wrote a guest column for Entertainment Weekly upon the film’s release simply entitled “Superheroes Are Weird.” Wilson sarcastically calls himself an authority on the subject of superheroes now that he has just played one, albeit a costumed hero with “no actual powers, just a sociopathic sense of purpose and a spandex costume.” Wilson makes it clear that he, and his film, treat superheroes as an absurd fantasy. “Superheroes are a truly strange storytelling phenomenon, specific to the culture of 20th-century America,” writes Wilson. “Hotties in tight, bright uniforms flying around in masks, fighting supervillains, finding kid sidekicks, preserving secret identities, and fostering furtive romances with mortals. W-E-I-R-D” (Wilson, 2010, April 1, para 3.). While the excessive and realistic violence of Kick-Ass and Super was the most obvious critique of the superhero genre, the underlying questioning of masculinity (that central fantasy of all superhero tales) is the convention that is ridiculed and then reconfirmed. The most obvious sign of failed masculinity in both Kick-Ass and Super is the excessive nerdiness of the heroes and their modest physical stature. Both Dave Lizewski and Frank Darrbo are closer in appearance (in and out of costume) to the lovable geeks of The Big Bang Theory than they are to the handsome chiseled jaws and extremely muscular torsos of characters/ movie idol actors like Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Batman (Christian Bale), Captain America (Chris Evans), Green Lantern (Ryan Reynolds) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). In the opening monologue of Kick-Ass Dave reflects: I guess I’d be the last person you would expect to become a superhero. I’m not saying there was anything wrong with me, but there was nothing special either. I wasn’t into sports, I wasn’t a mathlete or a hard-core gamer, I didn’t have a piercing or an eating disorder, or three thousand friends on Myspace. My only superpower was being invisible to girls … like most people my age, I just existed.
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Dave is just an average, not very popular, teenager who spends his time masturbating in his bedroom or hanging out with his two best friends at the comic book store. He is mildly harassed at school and routinely mugged on the street, but the real reason Dave decides to become Kick-Ass is simply out of boredom and curiosity. Where Dave is a relatively average teenager, Frank in Super is initially an indisputable loser. Performed by Rainn Wilson, who has perfected being a clueless and socially awkward failure in countless roles, Frank has had a miserable life (flashbacks show him being urinated on by other kids at school, and his prom date having sex with the school photographer). Frank is so full of self-loathing and pity that after his wife leaves him, he asks in prayer: It seems so unfair, God. Other people have goodness, they have good things … love and tenderness, people who care about their lives. They are not humiliated at every turn…. Why was I so unlucky to have my soul born into this disgusting meat? This ugly face? This hair, this hair that doesn’t comb? And this dumb, idiotic personality? Other people stare at me God, I can tell. They wonder how something so stupid and idiotic can even exist. Why, God, why am I that? Neither Dave nor Frank undergoes any type of physical transformation to become superheroes. They don’t develop superpowers or even any visible muscles, they don’t invent incredible weapons or master exotic fighting styles. Dave and Frank simply put on costumes and go out to fight crime as the skinny teenager Kick-Ass, and as the overweight middle-aged Crimson Bolt. Putting on their superhero costumes is the closest Dave and Frank get to a transformative moment. But instead of inspiring awe in viewers, the sight of these two unmuscular men in tights inspires laughter. The flashy costume worn by any superhero is one of the most crucial conventions of the genre. The costume symbolizes their heroic persona and publicly marks their bodies as spectacularly different from the average person’s. As Vicki Karaminas describes the costuming: The superhero wardrobe speaks of the identities of the wearer and serves to highlight the supernatural abilities and attributes of his/ her heroic status. As part of an iconic signifier, the uber garment and its accessories, armored breastplates, masks, epaulets and gauntlets constructed of steel, separate those with superhuman strength from “mere” mortals and sets the costume-wearer apart from conventional society. (2006: 498) For female characters the design and tightness of a superhero costume stresses sexuality, but for male characters the costumes emphasize the extreme muscularity of the hero and, by extension, his extreme masculinity.
Spoofs, Parody, and Camp
As discussed in Chapter 2, the exaggerated physical perfection of the comic book superhero is replicated on screen with the aid of the well-publicized and intensive bodybuilding regimes for actors like Hugh Jackman, Chris Hemsworth, and Ryan Reynolds, a reliance on CGI technology for impossible bodies like those of the Hulk and Hellboy, or with artificial muscles built into the costumes of characters like Batman and Iron Man. “As an embodied practice,” Karaminas continues, “fashion succeeds in signifying industrial strength associated with the ideal hyper-muscular superhero body: the look of power, virility and prowess” (2006: 498). While the mainstream superhero movies go to great lengths, and great expense, to present an exaggerated vision of ideal costumed masculinity with “the look of power, virility and prowess,” Kick-Ass and Super undermine this particular masquerade of masculinity. The unremarkable ordinariness of their costumes and their bodies crystalizes just how far from reality the mainstream filmic superhero version of masculinity is. As critique, Kick-Ass and Super could be viewed as undermining the carefully constructed illusion of hegemonic masculinity that is presented as innate and natural in the mainstream films. Much of the humor derived simply from the non-heroic appearance of Dave and Frank costumed as Kick-Ass and The Crimson Bolt is based on the disjuncture between what viewers have been conditioned to expect heroic bodies to look like, and what real bodies in silly costumes actually look like. Kick-Ass and The Crimson Bolt are physically a far cry from the ideal male protagonists found in mainstream superhero movies. They both look more like the nerds from The Big Bang Theory dressed in their silly Halloween costumes than like Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, or Chris Evans as Captain America. Of course even Downey, Hemsworth, and Evans (and all the other actors who embody mainstream superheroes) require a lot of additional help to look like the hypermasculine comic book ideals, no matter how muscular and handsome they are to begin with. In addition to the serious workout routines the actors have to undergo to sculpt their bodies to muscular perfection, costuming and CGI technologies contribute a great deal to the illusion of hypermasculinity presented by most superheroes. Robert Downey, Jr. and Christian Bale may be muscular and toned as Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne, but their Iron Man and Batman costumes are specifically designed to look like rock hard muscular torsos. Massive deltoid, pectoral, and bicep muscles are sculpted into the suits, as are six-pack abs. Moreover, it has become commonplace for CGI visual technologies to enhance the heroic stunts and the ideal muscularity of superhero bodies. The most obvious example is the Hulk in all of his modern cinematic versions: Hulk (Ang Lee 2003), The Incredible Hulk (2008), The Avengers (2012), and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). The gigantic muscular body of the Hulk is impossible to replicate with a real human actor (gone are the campy days of Mr. Universe, Lou Ferrigno being spray-painted green), only a fully CGI-rendered character can represent the massive dimensions of the
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green behemoth who embodies masculine rage run amok. Even when a superhero character is not as overtly coded as a masculine ideal, such as Spider-Man, CGI effects are employed to enhance the character’s heroic appearance. In her discussion of gender and special effects bodies in superhero films, Sabine Lebel notes that: “there is an insistence on the traditionally masculine aspects of the Spider-Man construct’s body—namely his muscles. Even though Spider-Man is not necessarily coded as ‘hypermasculine,’ his construction as heroic figure is signified, and emphasized, through built muscles” (2009: 61). Rather than the humorous, less than ideal bodies of Kick-Ass and The Crimson Bolt, superheroes are supposed to present an identificatory fantasy of hegemonic masculinity that is literally embodied by the hero. Laura Mulvey (1975) describes the standard narcissistic fantasy of identification offered to male film viewers as similar to the Lacanian mirror phase of development. “A male movie star’s glamorous characteristics are thus not those of the erotic object of his gaze,” Mulvey writes, “but those of the more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego conceived in the original moment of recognition in front of the mirror” (1975: 12). In many superhero movies this male fantasy ideal recognized in the mirror is literalized. A clear example of this literalized moment occurs in Spider-Man (2002) when Peter Parker (Tobey McGuire) wakes up the morning after being bitten by a radioactive spider. Peter catches sight of his newly buff body in his bedroom mirror and smiles appreciatively as he takes a few moments to pose and flex his newfound muscles. The mirror moment in Spider-Man plays out the pleasure of simply waking up to find yourself transformed from 98-pound weakling to he-man. Both Kick-Ass and Super repeat this ideal-self mirror fantasy, but in a manner that ridicules the absurdity of the scenario. When Dave first gets his Kick-Ass costume, a green and yellow scuba suit and mask that he ordered over the internet, he giddily tries it on and admires himself in his mirror. The Kick-Ass scene is as reminiscent of the famous “You talking to me?” scene in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese 1976) as it is of Spider-Man, but where both those films emphasize the heroes’ muscles and power, Kick-Ass is depicted as a ridiculous child playing dress-up. There is no corresponding bodily transformation, no sudden eruption of muscles. Dave poses in his mirror, and tells himself: “You are fucking awesome!” though it is clear to viewers that he is not “awesome.” He practices his flubbed tough guy lines, and attempts to pull his batons out in a menacing manner but mostly just drops them. Likewise, after Frank has handmade his own shabby Crimson Bolt costume he squeezes his rotund body into the suit and appreciatively models it for himself in the mirror. Trying to look imposing Frank tests out catchphrases: “You just made the biggest mistake of your life”; “Everybody give up,” and; “Shut up, crime. Here’s The Crimson Bolt, crime.” We, the viewers, know how silly Frank looks, even if he has deluded himself with bravado.
Spoofs, Parody, and Camp
That Dave and Frank both look ridiculous standing in front of their mirrors dressed in superhero costumes is a mockery of the traditional depiction of film heroes, especially superheroes, as ego ideals for male viewers to identify with. This failure of masculinity exposes the converse side of ideal masculinity that Neale (1983) discusses: The construction of an ideal ego, meanwhile, is a process involving profound contradictions. While the ideal ego may be a ‘model’ with which the subject identifies and to which it aspires, it may also be a source of further images and feelings of castration, inasmuch as that ideal is something to which the subject is never adequate. (Neale 1983: 13) Dave and Frank are a reflection of the feelings of castration that all viewers may be confronted with in comparison to mainstream superhero representations. By setting them up as objects of ridicule, viewers can laugh at these two buffoons trying to enact ideal masculinity safe in the knowledge that it is not us. Where mild mannered Clark Kent, timid teenager Peter Parker, and scrawny 4F Steve Rogers are treated with sympathetic pathos prior to their transformations into the celebrated masculine ideals of Superman, Spider-Man, and Captain America, the heroes of KickAss and Super do not physically transform, and they are disparaged both before and after donning their costumes. Throughout the films, Dave and Frank each remain closer to what Connell describes as subordinate masculinity, than to what we consider hegemonic masculinity. Yet, for all their inadequacies, Kick-ass and The Crimson Bolt function to reinforce the idea of hegemonic masculinity as accessible to even those men on the periphery of masculine ideals by ultimately casting these every-men as true heroes.
Figure 6.3 Kick-Ass tries to look tough in front of the mirror.
Spoofs, Parody, and Camp
In addition to the visual gag of seeing an average teenager and an overweight middle-aged man in makeshift superhero costumes, Kick-Ass and The Crimson Bolt are depicted as inept in all of their initial attempts to be heroic. When Dave comes upon two car thieves on his way home from school he quickly changes into his Kick-Ass costume and confronts them. The thieves laugh at Dave’s demands that they leave the car alone and proceed to beat the crap out of him and eventually stab him in the stomach. In shock, Dave stumbles onto a street and is hit by a car that leaves him for dead. He spends months in the hospital recovering from numerous broken bones and internal damage, but at least the metal plates inserted in him and damaged nerve endings leave him relatively immune to pain. Dave’s second outing as Kick-Ass goes better, even though he still gets beat up pretty bad, at least he survives until the three bad guys run away from the scene and when video of the fight hits the internet, Kick-Ass becomes a media sensation. By his third outing, Dave is feeling cocky until a drug dealer and his gang are about to kill him. But, just in the nick of time, HitGirl, a costumed 11-year-old vigilante who is really a bad ass, shows up and masterfully kills the entire gang while Dave just cowers in fear. HitGirl’s stunning display of lethal violence only further emphasizes just how pathetic Dave’s fantasy of being a superhero is. “Hit-Girl and Big Daddy (her father) are the real deal,” Dave moans later in his bedroom, “I’m just a dick in a wetsuit.” When Frank first ventures out to the mean streets to fight crime in his Crimson Bolt costume he spends two nights crouching in an alley just waiting for something to happen, but nothing does. When Frank finds a drug dealer on the third night he tackles him, but the dealer quickly throws Frank into a pile of garbage and beats him with a metal can lid. Frank decides that The Crimson Bolt needs a signature weapon, so he starts wielding a huge wrench. That does the trick and we see a quick montage of The Crimson Bolt gleefully and violently beating numerous small-time criminals over the head with the heavy metal wrench. The violence of these scenes is unsettling because it is disproportionate: a purse snatcher is repeatedly smashed in the face even after he is unconscious, a female dealer has a cinder block dropped on her head from two stories up. At one point, when an arrogant couple cut in front of him in a line for a movie, Frank switches into his costume and savagely beats the man and the woman nearly to death. But, like Kick-Ass, The Crimson Bolt becomes a popular news item and seems to garner a lot of public support. Still, people laugh at him when they see him walking down the street in his costume. When Frank fears the police are onto him he tries to quit but then realizes that he has to follow through on his original goal of saving his estranged wife who has fallen in with a small-time drug lord. The Crimson Bolt goes to Jacque’s house to find his wife but unexpectedly overhears their plans for a major drug deal. The bad guys spot him and chase him off the property, even putting a bullet in his leg before he can drive away in his beat up car.
Spoofs, Parody, and Camp
Figure 6.4 The Crimson Bolt trying to look superheroic.
Ultimately, though, both Kick-Ass and Super allow their ridiculous protagonists to be redeemed as full-fledged heroes in the final act. Instead of carrying through as critiques of hegemonic masculinity both films valorize a conventional image of the male hero as persistent, strong, resourceful and capable of emerging victorious even against overwhelming odds. After being beaten nearly to death on a live streaming broadcast, Kick-Ass is once again saved by Hit-Girl. Unfortunately, Big Daddy, who was also being tortured, is not as lucky and dies from the beating and being set on fire. Dave is ready to quit superheroing altogether but Hit-Girl pressures him into helping her take down Frank D’Amico, the mobster responsible for her father’s death. HitGirl launches an assault on the mob boss’ penthouse apartment and singlehandedly kills dozens of his armed bodyguards. Out of ammunition, Hit-Girl gets cornered in the kitchen as the only three remaining henchmen prepare to blow her up with a bazooka. At this point, when everything seems lost, KickAss finally shows up outside the penthouse’s window flying a jet pack with shoulder mounted machine guns. To a chorus of hallelujah, Kick-Ass floods the kitchen with bullets and saves Hit-Girl. In the final showdown Kick-Ass fights the mobster’s son, Chris, while Hit-Girl engages in an epic martial arts battle with D’Amico. Kick-Ass and Chris knock each other out with sticks, and Hit-Girl is eventually subdued by D’Amico, who puts a gun to her head. But, just as he is about to pull the trigger, Kick-Ass appears, bazooka in hand, and tells D’Amico to “Pick on someone your own size,” before blasting him through the window. Kick-Ass is triumphant: the evil mobsters dead, their empire in ruins, and Dave is able to return to high school as a new and happier kid, tougher, stronger, and with a beautiful girlfriend to love him. In Super, after Frank has recovered from his gunshot wound and accepted Libby’s manic help as his sidekick Boltie, The Crimson Bolt and
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Boltie launch a full assault on Jacque’s well-guarded ranch. In keeping with the more realistic violence depicted in Super, though, Boltie is almost immediately shot in the face by one of the bodyguards. Seeing his young sidekick with half of her head blown away The Crimson Bolt goes on a killing spree worthy of the most vicious superheroes. He shoots, stabs, burns, bludgeons, and blows up at least a dozen bad guys working his way to Jacque. The Crimson Bolt proves himself a brutal and capable fighter able to overcome impossible odds. It is not until Frank lets his guard down when he finally gets his wife that Jacque is able to shoot him. But in true heroic fashion, while Jacque is gloating, The Crimson Bolt manages to launch a concealed knife into Jacque’s crotch. When The Crimson Bolt climbs on top of Jacques and brandishes a knife, Jacques calls him a psycho who almost killed people for butting in line. The Crimson Bolt screams back in rage: “You don’t butt in line! You don’t sell drugs! You don’t molest little children! You don’t profit on the misery of others! The rules were set a long time ago, they don’t change!” Then he repeatedly stabs Jacques in the chest. In the end, despite Boltie’s horrific death, The Crimson Bolt is victorious: he defeats the evildoers, saves his wife, and finds a sense of contentment with his life. In addition to defeating the physically superior bad guys and their minions, both Kick-Ass and The Crimson Bolt “get the girl,” thus confirming the sexual desirability of their masculinity. Though both characters are initially portrayed as losers romantically, Dave does win the heart of Katie, one of the most beautiful girls in his high school, and Frank wins back his wife, Sarah, though she eventually moves on to a more stable and suitable relationship. The masculine fantasy offered through superhero films is not just about being powerful and triumphing over supervillains, it is also about winning the affection of the beautiful damsel. Superman has Lois Lane, Spider-Man has Mary-Jane Watson (and in the reboot Gwen Stacey), Iron Man has Pepper Potts, Batman has Catwoman, and so on. Though the superhero and his love interest’s relationship may not be consummated (for example Captain America and Peggy Carter) the romantic desirability of the hero is crucial to the overall fantasy. Christina Adamou (2011) stresses the importance of these relationships both narratively and symbolically: “The girls usually need to be rescued and they offer themselves to the heroes at the end of the film as prizes for their bravery and skills” (103). Moreover, Adamou points out that on “an ideological level, superheroes’ female objects of desire also serve as a “reassurance” of their heterosexuality, particularly since the excess in their costumes and muscles could connote homosexuality” (2011: 103). Interestingly, in the original comic book mini-series of Kick-Ass Dave does not get the girl. When he reveals that he has only been pretending to be her gay BFF in order to get close to her, Katie throws him out and never speaks to him again. When Dave reveals the same thing to Katie in the film, she is shocked but then has sex with him and becomes his devoted girlfriend. Getting the girl to prove heterosexuality and to bolster the fantasy of ideal masculinity seems to be a far more crucial feature for a mass-marketed film (even one that is primarily a parody) than for a niche market comic.
Spoofs, Parody, and Camp
Kick-Ass and Super are premised on parodying the convention of hegemonic masculinity that goes relatively unquestioned in mainstream superhero movies, but each of the films grants their less-than-perfect heroes a very traditional heroic ending. Rather than questioning the preeminence of hegemonic masculinity these films (and all the other superhero parodies) ultimately bolster our cultural devotion to a certain type of tough, violent, and resourceful masculinity. Like the James Bond spy parodies of the 1960s, superhero parodies work in tandem with the larger superhero genre to solidify and reconfirm the dominant political message. While Dave Lizewski and Frank Darrbo are primarily presented and mocked as delusional embodiments of failed masculinity, the exact opposites of the traditional superhero figure who embodies all of our cultural ideals about masculinity, these parodies still function to reproduce hegemonic masculinity as a norm. That Dave and Frank would, at least initially, fall into the categories that Connell refers to as subordinate masculinities only demonstrates the hegemonic complexity of our cultural concept of ideal masculinity. Specifically, Dave and Frank can be considered in Connell’s classifications of subordinate masculinities as part of complicit masculinity: “Men who received the benefits of patriarchy without enacting a strong version of masculine dominance could be regarded as showing a complicit masculinity” (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005: 832). That the parodic nature of both Kick-Ass and Super allows their heroes to offer up a supposedly more “realistic” and extreme version of the traditional superhero fantasy where any wimp can become an all-powerful hero, reinforces the hegemony of ideal masculinity to a far greater degree than even mainstream superhero films can. Under the guise of mocking superhero films Kick-Ass and Super actually open up the fantasy of achieving masculine ideals as something that every man, no matter how far from being super he is, is capable of achieving.
Conclusion Superhero Fatigue?
The incredible number of live action superhero films and television programs that have dominated popular culture since the start of the twenty-first century is merely an indication of what is to come. Forty more films based on Marvel and DC characters are scheduled for release over the next 10 years, and numerous superhero themed movies featuring original characters outside the Marvel and DC pantheons are in development as well. Moreover, dozens of new superhero based television series are in development, ranging from children’s programs to adult fare. In addition to the sheer number of superhero movies and television series now available, or in development, the enormous publicity campaigns and ancillary products intensifies the sense that superheroes have taken over every aspect of popular culture. At times the omnipresence of the superhero genre may seem a bit overwhelming. But as long as live-action superheroes continue to generate the amazing profits they do, and as long as they satisfy a cultural need for particular stories and character types, the genre is not going anywhere. In fact, the continually developing nature of the live action superhero genre is one of the most difficult aspects of studying it cohesively. Certainly writing any type of “conclusion” about a genre that may only be coming into its own is premature. Each month brings new record-breaking films and/or television programs, and a flurry of early publicity for upcoming superhero projects. Interestingly, as I write this, critics and audiences have recently praised Deadpool as innovative, while reviewers and audiences are currently blasting Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice as a disappointment. These two films represent very different ways that the genre may develop, and their critical reception is indicative of viewers’ desires and preferences. Both Deadpool and Batman v. Superman are conventional superhero narratives and demonstrate many of the themes I have discussed throughout this book. But they also mark a critical juncture in the genre’s development and in testing the audience’s devotion to live action superheroes and the possibility of superhero fatigue. In this conclusion I want to review the critical reception of Deadpool and Batman v. Superman as they reflect concerns about the development of the entire superhero genre as it adapts to cultural and market demands. Now that the genre has become firmly ensconced as the dominant Hollywood model rather than just a momentary novelty, the inevitable critical
backlash has started to complain about the quantity and quality of superhero movies. Numerous film critics and online commentators have declared that there are simply too many superheroes flooding the multiplex on a regular basis. Bold newspaper headlines have begun to question the limits of the genre: The Chicago Tribune asked “Are you feeling superhero movie fatigue?” (Phillips, May 8, 2014); The Guardian declared “They’re here to save the world: but how many superhero movies can we take?” (Helmore, November 1, 2014); CNBC wondered “How many superhero movies is too many?” (Wells, July 17, 2015); and Variety questioned if we were experiencing “Superhero Overload?” (Graser, August 6, 2014). For many of the genre’s critics it is the formulaic repetitiveness that has grown tiresome. “Specifically, the problem is the visual and rhythmic sameness of the films’ execution,” Matt Zoller Seitz argued on rogerebert.com: “variations of the same situations that feel as though they were designed, choreographed, shot, edited and composited by the same second units and special effects houses, using the same software, under the same conditions” (May 6, 2014, para. 3). In The New York Times Manohla Dargis complained: the hegemony of the superheroes leaves an increasingly sour taste in my mouth, and that their commercial ascendance has produced, with a few exceptions, diminishing creative returns. The scrappy underdogs and pulpy tales have turned into something else, and I wonder if some of the fun, and much of the soul, has been lost. (June 27, 2012, para. 11) And in The Huffington Post Bill Bradley claimed: “Superhero movies are great, but at some point perhaps our brains just can’t handle that much serotonin. Each major villain starts reminding us of the last one and every world-ending event starts to blend together” (March 17, 2016, para. 4). When the legendary director Steven Spielberg commented on the inevitable demise of the superhero genre, critics were quick to promote his remarks as a death toll for caped heroes. “Right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving,” Spielberg told the Associated Press in an interview that was picked up by numerous new outlets. We were around when the western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the western. It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns. I’m only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture. There will come a day when the mythological stories are supplanted by some other genre that possibly some young film maker is just thinking about discovering for all of us. (Coyle, September 2, 2015, para. 10) While Spielberg’s comments about superheroes were just a small part of an extended interview promoting his film Bridge of Spies (2015), reporters
were quick to reframe his comments as a clear indication that superhero movies would soon be dying out. Headlines misleadingly declared: “Steven Spielberg says superhero movies will go ‘the way of the western’” (The Hollywood Reporter); “Steven Spielberg predicts superhero movies will die off like westerns” (Esquire); “Steven Spielberg assures us Hollywood will quit making superhero movies one day” (Vanity Fair); “Steven Spielberg: The age of superhero blockbusters won’t last forever” (People Magazine); and “The death of superhero movies is coming, promises Steven Spielberg” (The Independent). While Spielberg did not disparage superhero movies, or say that they were (or should be) going away any time soon, the media repeated his comments as a criticism of the overwhelming dominance of superhero films. Of course, Spielberg is right, the popularity of every genre eventually wanes and genres always go through a specific series of cycles. One day superhero movies will give way to another dominant genre, but that day does not appear to be coming any time soon. The growing critical backlash against the genre and the headlines declaring the public was experiencing “superhero fatigue” became serious enough that the studios and filmmakers began to address the issue in the media following Spielberg’s comments. As a Rolling Stone headline declared: “Marvel to Critics: Superheroes Aren’t ‘Ruining Hollywood’” (Hiatt, May 4, 2015). And in an interview with IGN, Marvel Studio Chief Kevin Feige was asked about superhero fatigue: People have been asking me that for 15 years. In 2001, 2002, 2003 there were two Marvel movies, three Marvel movies, and I still believe the same thing, which is as long as the ones we can control are as good as they can be, that is all I care about. I think we have been doing pretty well. (Schwartz, October 1, 2015, para. 2) “The western lasted 40–50 years, and they still pop up occasionally,” Feige continued, “Maybe [the superhero genre] will only last another 42 years” (para. 4). Likewise, Warner Brothers CEO Kevin Tsujihara told Variety that the industry was not suffering from any superhero fatigue, and: “The key thing is that the movies and the television shows and the games, everything looks very different … you have to be able to take advantage of the diversity of these characters” (Lang, March 4, 2015, para. 3). Moreover, not all critics are disgruntled by the plethora of superhero movies. Many have defended the genre, claiming that the superhero naysayers are elitists or are missing the fun and exhilaration that the films effectively provide. In The Atlantic Tim Wainwright argues: “Hollywood should make more, not fewer, superhero movies” (May 13, 2014), and at Forbes Scott Mendelson addresses the cynics in his headline “No, there are not too many comic book movies” (January 7, 2015). If anything, the public debates about the quality and durability of the superhero genre is a clear indication of just how prominent the genre has become in our daily lives.
With each new film or television program featuring a superhero the debate about fatigue seems to be renewed. For example, when AntMan was released in 2015 a review in the UK edition of Wired claimed: “Ant-Man signals the start of cinematic universe fatigue” (Franklin-Wallis, July 17, 2015). While the review in Forbes argued the exact opposite: “AntMan is a hit and ‘superhero fatigue’ isn’t a thing” (Hughes, October 16, 2015). Likewise, an indiewire review of Netflix’s original series declared: “Marvel’s Jessica Jones delivers a cure for superhero fatigue” (Grozdanovic, November 23, 2015). Regardless of the opinions of professional critics, the superhero genre seems to have lost none of its appeal for audiences. Almost every new movie reaches incredible record-breaking heights and demonstrates that even if some critics have grown tired of superheroes, audiences certainly have not. As a case in point, bringing Marvel’s comic book character Deadpool to movie screens was seen as a risky venture given the quirky superhero’s relative anonymity and his penchant for crude humor and fourth-wall-breaking sarcasm. The fact that Deadpool was going to be performed by Ryan Reynolds did not foster a lot of confidence since he had previously starred in Green Lantern (2011), one of the few superhero disasters. But when Deadpool was released in February of 2016 it became an immediate hit and was credited with reinvigorating the genre. Deadpool set records for an R-rated movie with a $300 million opening weekend, and has earned over $800 million in total so far. Reviewers and audiences alike praised the film’s raunchy and self-aware sensibilities combined with traditionally spectacular superhero action. As a headline in Forbes made clear: “Deadpool Proves Superhero Fatigue Is A Myth” (Mendelson, February 15, 2016). As numerous commentators pointed out, Deadpool proved incredibly popular because it was a variation on the superhero formula. Directed by Tim Miller, Deadpool followed many of the typical conventions of the genre but it also diverged from the general mood and tone that has become standardized in superhero movies. The overall narrative of Deadpool revolves around a customary origin story about the wisecracking freelance mercenary, Wade Wilson, submitting to torturous experiments and eventually developing mutant powers of physical regeneration. When Deadpool is disfigured by the experiments, he seeks revenge on the villainous organization that tortured him, and he also has to save his girlfriend, whom they are holding hostage. In many ways Deadpool is a typical “traumatized hero” and the film offers plenty of the spectacular fight scenes that constitute the core of superhero stories. But Deadpool resists the somber and brooding tone typical of most superhero films by emphasizing the hero’s persistent off-color sense of humor even in the most dire of situations. And, like the comic book version of Deadpool, the film incorporates fourth-wall-breaking moments where the character speaks directly to the audience and mocks clichés such as dramatic superhero poses or angsty dialogue. As an R-rated film Deadpool is also able to swear excessively and make sexual jokes that are anathema to the majority of superhero stories that need to appeal to
young audiences as well as more mature viewers. Likewise, the degree of blood-splattering violence in Deadpool is excessively depicted, and is in direct contrast to the unrealistically sanitized violence found in other superhero films where bodies can be shot, stabbed, and beaten to a pulp with very little actual blood being spilled. Ryan Reynolds’ rapid delivery of one-liners and his casually vulgar demeanor suggests that Deadpool represents a different type of masculinity than the usual hegemonic position personified by most superheroes. During an extended montage of sex scenes with his girlfriend, he even allows himself to be anally penetrated by her with a strap-on dildo, and during one direct address to the audience he jokes about caressing Wolverine’s balls. Yet Ryan Reynolds’ extremely muscular body is still offered as a site of masculine perfection. And, as part of the film’s promotion, Reynolds was featured on the cover of the fitness magazine Men’s Health, with the now standard how-to-get-this-super-body promise for readers. Deadpool also offers all of the incredible action and special effects that are common to every superhero adventure. But, notably, the scale of Deadpool’s quest is far smaller and self-interested than most of the previous films in the genre. Deadpool is not a morally just figure set on defeating villains for the greater good of society, he is out for personal revenge against the mutant Ajax, leader of the clandestine organization that disfigured him. Deadpool’s ultimate goal is really nothing more than trying to get them to restore his handsome face so he can be reunited with his girlfriend. The Globe and Mail review accurately claims: “The plot is refreshingly simple and low-stakes” (Hertz, February 10, 2016, para. 3). Deadpool’s final showdown with Ajax is suitably spectacular but the fate of the world does not hang in the balance. Deadpool is one of the first superhero films that resists metaphorically alluding to, or rewriting, the events of 9/11. The box office success of a foul-mouthed, sexually adventurous, self-centered superhero (literally out to save his own face) demonstrates that audiences can enjoy a character that is not “super” virtuous. And the relatively low stakes of merely personal revenge and saving his girlfriend, rather than saving an entire city full of innocent civilians, suggests that viewers are ready for the genre to move beyond constantly readdressing our collective trauma. Critics embraced Deadpool as a fresh reworking of the superhero genre that brought a much welcome dose of raunchy humor and extreme violence to the basic formula. The Toronto Star review argued that Deadpool is: “a rudely hilarious Marvel X-Men offshoot where Reynolds’ mighty mutant title character is anything but a conventional superdude” (Howell, February 11, 2016, para. 3). The Atlantic review noted: “It’s true that the movie is more extreme in its violence than is customary—Deadpool favors swords and pistols over his fists—but where it truly breaks new ground is in its tone. Flamboyantly vulgar and determinedly self-referential, Deadpool has the shape of a superhero movie but the soul of a Danny McBride flick” (Orr, February 12, 2016, para. 5). Moreover, numerous critics rightly pointed out that Deadpool, despite all of its self-referential
mocking of superhero films, managed to balance a sense of parody with a genuine superhero narrative. Barry Hertz’ review in The Globe and Mail, in particular, emphasizes Deadpool’s importance as an indication of genre variation. “Like any other cinematic genre, the superhero movie is one ripe with opportunity for invention – even subversion,” Hertz writes: “As some filmmakers – and the daring or possibly oblivious studios behind them – have come to realize, if we must live in an era of superheroes, let’s at least make things interesting” (February 10, 2016, para. 3). Other critics agreed: “Tim Miller hasn’t so much directed his first feature film as liberated much of what has been bubbling under the surface of superhero films for a long time,” observed McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter, “it answers a lot of the questions you were afraid to ask” (February 6, 2016, para. 10). And Edelstein argued in The Los Angeles Times that: “Deadpool is a send-up of Marvel movies but in no way a takedown of them. It’s not subversive – it’s meant to elasticize and embrace the superhero genre, to flatter the audience for being hip enough to get all of those in-jokes” (February 11, 2016, para. 2).
Figure 7.1 The R-rated Deadpool proves that the superhero genre can go in new directions.
The originality of Deadpool’s unique take on the superhero film formula appealed to audiences as well and they flocked to the film in record numbers. The surprising box-office take of Deadpool immediately led to industry pundits and Hollywood executives speculating about a desire to replicate the film’s successes. Reports quickly circulated that Warner Brothers would be distributing an R-rated version of their forthcoming film Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice when it was released for home video sales, and that the third Wolverine solo film currently in production would become a more bloody and raunchy R-rated adventure. Amid these announcements, outspoken filmmaker James Gunn, the director of Super and Guardians of the Galaxy, garnered a lot of media attention when he posted via Facebook (February 15, 2016) his concerns that Hollywood was taking away the wrong lessons from Deadpool’s success. “Deadpool was
its own thing. THAT’S what people are reacting to,” argued Gunn, “It’s original, it’s damn good, it was made with love by the filmmakers, and it wasn’t afraid to take risks.” Gunn astutely notes that it was the film’s originality, not its R-rated raunchiness, which invigorated audiences. Gunn went on to warn: So, over the next few months, if you pay attention to the trades, you’ll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool. They’ll be greenlighting films “like Deadpool”—but, by that, they won’t mean “good and original” but “a raunchy superhero film” or “it breaks the fourth wall.” They’ll treat you like you’re stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn’t do. Of course, in the business of Hollywood success breeds imitation, particularly within the confines of a genre where individual films are looking to distinguish themselves from the other offerings. Whether the lessons learned from Deadpool lead to misguided imitations of “a raunchy superhero film” or more promisingly “good and original” films remains to be seen. What Deadpool does demonstrate is that the superhero genre is capable of incorporating a range of narrative themes and styles while still attracting an incredible number of viewers. As the superhero genre expands, matures, and moves into new creative cycles deviations like Deadpool will become more commonplace. The current superhero genre, which is expanding at an exponential rate, is constantly introducing new characters and new elements. Like any active genre, superhero movies and television programs are akin to a living thing that is always evolving and changing with each new iteration. Deadpool, for example, is a genre variation that effectively combines a conventional story with a self-aware character in a film that is as much a parody of the superhero genre as it is a part of it. And new entries, both conventional and groundbreaking, continue to be released every couple of months. A month after Batman v. Superman was released Captain America: Civil War premiered and depicted an ideological and physical conflict between almost all of Marvel’s cinematic characters unlike anything we have seen before. Captain America: Civil War also marked the debut of Black Panther, an iconic black superhero set to receive his own movie in 2018, thus ushering in some welcome ethnic diversity to the genre. A few months later DC’s Suicide Squad shifted the focus to supervillains, albeit bad guys acting as anti-heroes forced into service by the government. The upcoming television season is expected to debut two comedic series about the struggles of ordinary people who live within the fictional Marvel and DC universe: Damage Control and Powerless. And Luke Cage will be released on Netflix, bringing to life Marvel’s other most popular African-American hero. All of these new releases, and others in the near future including the female lead Wonder Woman film in 2017 and the Captain Marvel movie planned for 2019, will certainly bring new dimensions and different themes to the genre.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice debuted to a record-breaking opening weekend grossing over $425 million. Despite overwhelmingly terrible reviews for the film, audiences still turned out in droves, thus ensuring the development of other superhero films planned for the DC Universe (Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg) leading up to several Justice League team-up movies. While Deadpool was well received by critics and fans for its originality and its humor, Batman v. Superman was generally regarded as too grim, too serious, and unoriginal even though it was the first time that Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman have shared the screen together in a feature film. “Ultimately though, the central flaw of Batman v. Superman is Snyder’s trademark tone, which alternates between angry and maudlin with little in between,” a review in The Atlantic declared: “In the end, Batman v. Superman is a tiresome, ill-tempered film, and one too lazy even to earn its dismal outlook” (Orr, March 24, 2016, para. 13). The New York Times described the film as an example of: “just how overstuffed and preposterous a movie narrative can be” (Scott, March 23, 2016, para. 5). And Time Magazine claimed: “Batman v. Superman lunges for greatness instead of building towards it: It’s so topheavy with false portent that it buckles under its own weight” (Zacharek, March 22, 2016, para. 1). Even die-hard fans were relatively disappointed by the film, and the box-office fell off by an astounding 69.1 percent by the second weekend according to industry trackers at Box Office Mojo. The huge opening weekend for Batman v. Superman demonstrated that audiences are still clamoring for superhero movies, but the massive number of bad reviews and poor wordof-mouth resulting in a sharp audience decline signals an even greater desire for change within the genre. We have reached a point in the genre’s cycle where audiences want, and will embrace, variation, far more than they will formulaic repetition. Aside from some questionable narrative choices (characterizing Lex Luthor as a fidgety young man with foppish hair, Batman as using lethal force, moving Gotham City right across a bay from Metropolis, the unrelentingly grim tone of every scene, etc.), Batman v. Superman’s biggest failing was that it did not offer any truly progressive elements. The movie stayed within the generic confines and replayed most of the themes that have been discussed throughout this book. Most importantly, at least for the studio, is the financial success of the film. The extreme profitability of the superhero genre and its effectiveness across related platforms is the commercial logic that allows the genre to flourish. With a production cost of $250 million Batman v. Superman was a huge financial risk. As The Globe and Mail review noted: “BvS represents the hopes and dreams of its studio Warner Bros., and even the future of Hollywood itself” (Hertz, March 24, 2016, para. 1). But, by nearly doubling the cost of production in its first weekend alone, the film proved worth the risk and demonstrated that superheroes are the definitive blockbuster genre of the modern era. Moreover, as the lynchpin for Warner Brothers’ development of a shared DC cinematic universe Batman v. Superman introduced Wonder Woman, and promoted other characters in
development with glimpses of The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. Likewise, the revenues from licensed Batman v. Superman merchandise offered through Time-Warner companies and corporate partners will boost the parent corporation’s bottom line. Hundreds of toys, clothing, mugs, books, and other related products are available in almost every store. And Batman v. Superman also offset costs through prominent product placement within the film for the likes of Dr. Pepper, Chrysler, Turkish Airlines, Jolly Roger, and Microsoft’s Lumia phone. And, of course, these alliances resulted in promotions for the film including commercials depicting Bruce Wayne driving through the streets of Metropolis in his Jeep Renegade, and Dr. Pepper cans adorned with pictures of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.
Figure 7.2 Batman v. Superman proves immune to bad reviews, at least on opening weekend.
The conventional approach taken with the narrative and the visual aspects of Batman v. Superman relied heavily on the relationship between spectacle and profits discussed in the first chapter. The Variety review declared: “As a pure visual spectacle, however, Batman v. Superman ably blows the hinges off the multiplex doors” (Barker, March 22, 2016, para. 8). Unfortunately, as many critics pointed out, director Zack Snyder focused so much on the spectacular in Batman v. Superman that the storyline was almost completely sacrificed. For example, The Globe and Mail argued: “The film may be pretty to look at, but narratively speaking, it is a disaster” (Hertz, March 24, 2016, para. 10). Most spectacularly, the slugfest between Batman and Superman promised by the film’s title is a lengthy sequence wherein the two characters pummel each other relentlessly. They crash one another through buildings, slam themselves against columns, and punch with enough force to send each other hurtling across pavement. Even more spectacular is the final battle
when Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman team up to fight Doomsday, a Kryptonian monstrosity generated by Lex Luthor using General Zod’s corpse. Superman and Doomsday trade colossal blows as they fight across Metropolis, eventually being struck by a nuclear warhead once Superman has dragged Doomsday into the outer atmosphere. Batman attacks the creature in his Batplane, and Wonder Woman slashes his arms and legs with her sword. The dialogue does go out of its way to mention (twice) that the part of the city they are fighting in is abandoned, but the urban destruction is still reminiscent of 9/11. The cultural significance of 9/11 as a reference point for superhero movies is crucial for framing the scale of the devastation and Batman v. Superman remains tethered to the metaphor of superheroes defending cities against 9/11-like assaults. Nowhere is the reenactment of 9/11 clearer than in the opening sequences of Batman v. Superman. The film begins where Man of Steel left off, with Superman fighting General Zod in the sky over Metropolis and devastating most of the city. But this time the battle is seen from Bruce Wayne’s perspective on the streets of the city as he rushes around trying to save people from the collapsing buildings. As he clutches an ash covered little girl who has just lost her mother in a building destroyed by Superman and Zod, Bruce Wayne embodies all of our shared fears and anger about the helplessness we were exposed to on 9/11, and he vows to eradicate the perpetrators of the devastation. While Batman v. Superman disappointed most reviewers and many audience members overall, the depiction of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman themselves were surprisingly well received. The fact that audiences seemed to like the look and characterization of the main superheroes, and the performances of Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, and Gal Gadot, bodes well for future installments. As conventional superhero figures Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman reinforce several key ingredients. Batman and Superman clearly perpetuate the standard depiction of superheroes as icons of ideal masculinity. While in costume, the excessive muscularity of both characters in emphasized (not surprisingly, the month prior to the film’s release Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck were featured in costume on the cover of Muscle and Fitness magazine with promises to share the secrets of their superhero workouts with readers), as is their incredible ability to defeat all challenges. Batman and Superman are symbols of hegemonic masculinity writ large—always strong, resilient, serious, confident, and victorious. Likewise, Wonder Woman is depicted, for the most part, in very traditional terms for a female character. Though she is clearly strong and confident (frankly, she holds her own in the fight against Doomsday better than either Superman or Batman), but as embodied by Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman is clearly very beautiful and attractive above all else. The Wonder Woman costume shows off a lot more skin than either of the male heroes have to, and all of her appearances prior to the final battle depict her in slinky and revealing evening gowns. Moreover, for all of Wonder Woman’s welcome strength as a superheroine, the film still positions its only other female characters—Lois Lane
and Martha Kent—as primarily damsels in distress. Superman repeatedly saves Lois from certain death (held at gun point by a terrorist, falling from a skyscraper, trapped under water), and Batman rescues Martha Kent from Lex Luthor’s henchmen who are holding her as leverage against Superman. The characterization of Batman and Superman in the film also confirms that it is only the traumatized and marginalized white male superhero that is capable of saving the city. Sure, Wonder Woman helps out a great deal in the final battle, but she is really only appended to the film in order to introduce her to the DC Universe before her own film is released. Characters of color are almost completely absent from the movie. Lawrence Fishburn’s turn as Daily Planet editor Perry White is the only notable non-white character (and the only one allowed to make funny comments). Otherwise, visible ethnicity is reserved for the foreign terrorists who take Lois Lane hostage, or the throngs of Hispanics in full Day of the Dead make-up that reverently surround Superman after he saves a child from a burning building. Moreover, Batman v. Superman incessantly stresses the traumatized and marginalized aspects of both characters. “Both carry scars of childhood trauma, and both are social misfits,” notes the Time Magazine review, “Bruce Wayne/Batman is too self-absorbed to fit in, while Clark Kent/Superman is a literal alien, an outsider perpetually looking into the world of humans but unable to fully join it” (Zacharek, March 22, 2016, para. 2). Once again we see flashbacks to young Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents being gunned down in an alley, and nightmares surrounding his parents’ tombs. Superman reminds Lois that he is the last of his kind, and imagines conversations with his Earth father whom he saw die in a tornado in the previous film. And while some citizens applaud Batman and Superman as heroes, the story focuses more on Batman as an outlaw, and Superman as a contested figure, worshipped by many but also mistrusted by a majority including the American government that calls him before Congress to hold him accountable for his actions. Despite being incredibly powerful and fighting to protect ordinary people, both Batman and Superman are positioned as marginal to, or outside of, American society. The polar opposite receptions for Deadpool and Batman v. Superman seem to indicate that the superhero genre is at a critical juncture. The innovation of Deadpool was embraced while the somber tone of Batman v. Superman was heavily criticized. It appears that audiences may finally be ready for the superheroes to move beyond spectacular reenactments and rewritings of 9/11. Where exactly the genre will go from this point on is unclear. There are so many films and television programs in development, ranging from R-rated adult fare to comedic to mystical, that the idea of the genre undergoing a predictable genre development is misleading. Captain America: Civil War benefitted from a great deal of early positive reviews and fan buzz. And, like the comic book series that it takes its name from, Captain America: Civil War marks a maturing of the genre. A sense of self-aware reflection on the genre’s interconnectedness with the metaphor of 9/11 and
an attempt to reason past it through competing political views about civil liberties and national safety. Perhaps the genre will develop into a range of clearly delineated subgenres rather than through a linear progression or a series of cyclical phases. While this study has focused solely on live action versions of the superhero story, there are numerous other forms that the superhero exists in. The ongoing comic books format, popular video games, animated kids’ programs, direct-to-DVD animated movies, etc. The success of superheroes in different media is part of his crucial efficacy as a corporate product easily transferable across a range of platforms as discussed in Chapter 1. This variety also implies that the central figure of the superhero is flexible enough to occupy not just multiple media for the sake of synergistic marketing, but also radically different genres at the same time. Much to audience delight a trailer for the upcoming feature film The Lego Batman Movie (2017) premiered in theaters before screenings of Batman v. Superman. The two versions of Batman could not be more different. In Batman v. Superman Batman is a super serious vigilante not averse to killing, while the animated Lego film depicts Batman as ridiculously arrogant and humorous for children. While both films headline the same iconic superhero, they are clearly different genres … or different subgenres revolving around the central figure of a superhero. Animated children’s superhero movies are already a distinct genre with such hits as The Incredibles (2004), Monsters vs. Aliens (2009), Megamind (2010), and Big Hero Six (2014), but it might be more accurate to categorize them as a subgenre in relation to the larger superhero formula. The easy distinction between live action and animated superhero narratives is a clear marker of difference. But distinctions might become more recognizable even within the confines of live action superheroes as well. Similarly, the borders between the superhero genre and other familiar formulas might begin to erode with a range of genre hybrids. As the live action superhero genre continues to grow, with no end in sight, the genre may reconfigure among a range of possible subgenres, each expressing different themes and cultural concerns. Marvel has already developed a subgenre of street-level superheroes for adults through the Netflix series of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. Enough superhero parodies already exist (Superhero Movie 2008, Defendor 2009, Super 2010, KickAss 2010, etc.) to constitute its own subgenre. There are also a number of superhero documentaries about real people dressing up as costumed heroes (Confessions of a Superhero 2007, Superheroes 2011, Batkid Begins 2015), and romantic comedies featuring superheroes may become a legitimate subgenre (My Super Ex-Girlfriend 2009, Megamind 2008, Griff the Invisible 2010). Historical superheroes may become a distinct genre grouping together narratives like the World War II set Captain America: First Avenger, its late 1940s spin-off television series Agent Carter, and the upcoming Wonder Woman film that takes place during World War I. Likewise, super-teams may become an important way to consider films like The Avengers and its
sequels, Guardians of the Galaxy, Suicide Squad, and the planned Defenders Netflix series and the Justice League movies. The upcoming film Dr. Strange appears set to incorporate mystical elements into the world of superheroes that may become more common, just as Guardians of the Galaxy opened the door for further superhero space adventures. Jessica Jones was described by critics as part of the noir as much as it was as superhero, Ant-Man was framed as a heist movie, and Captain America: Winter Soldier was likened to a political conspiracy thriller. The basic superhero genre could easily develop into distinct subgenres and/or meld with other narrative types to expand its potential. Viewers may not be experiencing the superhero genre fatigue that some critics are warning about, but the genre is experiencing growing pains. The indisputable popularity of live action superheroes appears to be enough to sustain them through occasional disappointments like Green Lantern (2011), Fantastic Four (2015), and Batman v. Superman. The genre’s continuing popularity, compounded by the billions of dollars the characters earn for their parent corporations, means that the genre is not going to fade out any time soon. The cultural fantasies satisfied by the superhero may be changing, but the flexibility of the genre, the fluidity of the characters and the incredible range of diverse superheroes that can be adapted, give every indication that the superhero genre can change along with our cultural needs. Where exactly the superhero genre will go from here remains to be seen. The only thing that is certain is that audiences will be able to enjoy the further exploits of superheroes for years to come.
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300 (2006) 8 Adamou, Christina 42, 117, 127, 128, 148 Adams, Neil 114 Adventures of Superman, The (1952–1958) 1, 96, 98, 136 Affleck, Ben 38, 127, 159 Agent Carter (2015–2016) 2, 8, 12, 22, 34, 51, 56–59, 60, 62, 87, 96, 104, 131, 135, 161 Agent Peggy Carter 34, 43, 46, 50, 56–59, 60, 102–104, 109, 135, 148 All Superheroes Must Die (2011) 134 All the President’s Men (1976) 88 Alphas (2011–2012) 134 Altman, Rick 5 Amanda Waller 129 Amazing Spider-Man, The (1977–1979) 138 Amazing Spider-Man, The (2012) 38 Amazing Spider-Man 2, The (2014) 16 American Exceptionalism 13, 60, 64, 68, 90–109, 115 American Splendor (2003) 8 Andrae, Thomas 93 Ant-Man 35, 37, 46, 55, 56, 111, 116, 118 Ant-Man (2015) 20, 31, 34, 46, 54–56, 96, 119, 153, 162 Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) 56 Aquaman 23, 157, 158 Arad, Avi 19 Armageddon (1998) 25 Arrow (2012–current) 2, 24, 48, 56, 60, 96 Atwell, Hayley 34, 57 Avatar (2009) 25 Avengers, The (2012) 2, 10, 20, 21, 25, 26, 32–35, 51, 53, 54, 74–77, 88, 105–107, 118, 143, 161, 162
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) 21, 25, 27, 34, 35, 51, 77, 88, 89, 106, 109, 143 Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (2010–2012) 21 Bale, Christian 44, 141, 143 Balio, Tino 17 Bana, Eric 44 Banderas, Antonio 71 Barker, Andrew 158 Baron, Lawrence 10, 113, 122, 123 Batkid Begins (film) 135, 161 Batman 7, 28, 37, 38, 44, 48, 50, 60, 63, 65, 69–72, 80–84, 96, 100–113, 116–18, 133, 135, 138, 141, 143, 148, 157 Batman (1989) 1, 3, 17, 18 Batman (1966–1968) 1, 44, 96, 138 Batman, The (1943) 1 Batman Begins (2015) 23, 38, 44, 72, 74, 80–83 Batman Forever (1995) 81 Batman & Robin (1997) 81 Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) 23, 38, 79, 110, 130, 150, 156–58, 162 Benoist, Melissa 57, 62 Beringer, Mark 10 Berry, Halle 111, 124 Big Bang Theory, The (2007–current) 132, 134, 141, 143 Big Hero 6 (2014) 16, 134, 161 Birdman (2014) 8, 37 Birds of Prey (2002–2003) 50 Blankman (1994) 126 Black, Jack 16 Black Lightning 114 Black Panther 14, 111, 114, 130, 156 Black Panther, The (2018) 2, 111, 130 Black Widow 12, 51–56, 74, 76, 88, 106, 107
Blade (1998) 18, 19, 111, 126 Blade II (2002) 18 Blade Trinity (2004) 18 Blade: The Series (2006–2009) 18 Bolt (2008) 134 Boltie 147, 148 Bordo, Susan 42 Bordoloi, Mridul 10 Bordwell, David 28 Boucher, Geoff 123 Boy Wonder (2010) 134 Bradley, Bill 151 Braudy, Leo 4 Brod, Harry 113 Brody, Richard 74 Brown, Jeffrey A. 42, 48, 51, 54, 113, 128 Bruce Banner 31, 38, 44, 45, 48 Bruce Wayne 8, 38, 46–50, 72, 73, 81–86, 110, 118, 119, 135, 143, 158–60 Buchanan, Kyle 78, 79 Buckland, Warren 29 Bukatman, Scott 28, 39, 52, 133 Burke, Liam 9 Burton, Tim 1, 17 Bush, George W. 10, 63, 66, 67, 83–86, 98, 108 CBS Corporation 17, 57 CGI (Computer Generated Images) 25, 29, 30–33, 38, 41, 44, 46, 71, 143, 144 Cape, The (2011–2012) 134 Captain America 2, 3, 13, 43, 45, 46, 48, 50, 57, 60, 63–67, 71, 72, 74, 76, 88, 90–110, 111, 113–18, 133, 141, 145, 148 Captain America (1944) 1 Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) 14, 19, 20, 21, 31, 34, 38, 43, 46, 51, 57, 70, 72, 74, 92, 101–110, 118 Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) 16, 26, 34, 51, 77, 88, 89, 107–11, 119, 162 Captain America: Civil War (2016) 77, 89, 105, 106, 130, 131, 156, 160 Captain Canuck 91, 92 Captain Marvel (film serial) 1 Captain Marvel 51, 56, 111 Captain Marvel (2019) 111, 156 Carroll, Hamilton 115 Catwoman 12, 37, 40, 50, 51, 54, 148 Catwoman (2004) 40, 50
Cavill, Henry 44, 45, 94, 98, 159 Cawelti, John G. 7 Chabon, Michael 52 Chang, Justin 78 Charles Xavier, Professor 14, 38, 51, 121, 122–26 Charity, Tom 102–103 Cheadle, Don 111 Christiansen, Steen 28, 29 Chronicle (2012) 134 Civil Rights Era 14, 112, 114, 116, 122, 123 Clark Kent 37, 40, 46, 48, 72, 95, 99, 100, 113, 145, 160 Clooney, George 18, 127 Cloverfield (2008) 64 Cocca, Carolyn 9 Commando (1985) 71, 116 Confessions of a Superhero (2007) 135, 161 Connell, R. W. 41, 42, 132, 133, 139, 145, 149 Convergence Culture 24, 25 Corliss, Richard 100, 140, 141 Costello, Matthew J. 67, 68 costumes 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, 14, 15, 23, 33, 42, 52–61, 62, 71, 80, 94, 95, 99, 127, 132, 135, 136, 138, 140–48, 159, 161 Coyle, Jake 151 Creed, Barbara 30 Cruise, Tom 71 Cyborg 14, 111, 130 Cyborg (2019) 111, 130, 157 Damage Control (2017–current) 87, 135, 156 Daredevil 38, 48, 49, 50 Daredevil (2003) 19, 38, 124 Daredevil (2015–current) 2, 22, 38, 48, 49, 57, 72, 77, 87, 96, 124, 130, 161 Dargis, Manohla 151 Dark Knight, The (2008) 2, 7, 10, 23, 25, 26, 65, 74, 80, 83, 84, 100, 118, 140 Dark Knight Rises, The (2012) 23, 28, 38, 48, 51, 80, 88, 109, 110 Darley, Andrew 29 Darling, Cary 26 Day After Tomorrow, The (2004) 64 DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (2016–current) 24 De Lauretis, Theresa 30 Deadpool 111, 116, 118, 127, 153–55
Index Deadpool (2016) 35, 48, 87, 96, 150, 153–55, 160 Defendor (2009) 134, 161 Desperado (1995) 71 Die Hard (1988) 71, 116 Disney 2, 11, 17, 19–23, 33, 36, 136 Dittmer, Jason 9, 67, 69, 91 Divergent (2014) 51 Doane, Mary Anne 30, 54 Dodds, Eric 23 Donner, Richard 93, 98 Downey Jr., Robert 3, 4, 20, 22, 70, 143 Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along (2008) 35, 135, 138 Dr. Strange (2016) 2, 162 Dyer, Richard 47 Ebert, Roger 26, 141, 151 Eco, Umberto 40, 69, 97 Edelstein, David 155 Edwards, Tim 47 Edwardson, Ryan 92 Eisner, Will 113 Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (1976–1977) 136 Elektra (2005) 40, 50, 51 Engle, Gary 94 Evans, Alex 68 Evans, Chris 3, 31, 43, 44, 45, 70, 101, 103, 141, 143 Falcon, The 14, 107, 111, 114, 116 Fantastic Four, The (2005) 18, 19, 38, 51, 118, 162 Farley, Jordan 141 Fassbender, Michael 121, 123 Fawazi, Ramzi 9, 120 Feiffer, Jules 112–113 Feige, Kevin 19–21, 33, 152 femininity 11, 37, 40, 42, 50–62, 70, 116 fetishism 12, 37, 45, 46, 47, 51, 52, 53, 60, 62 Feuer, Jane 7 Finger, Bill 113 Fingeroth, Danny 113 Fisher, Mark 80 fitness magazines 44, 45, 154, 159 Flash, The (2014–current) 2, 24, 43, 44, 56, 60, 96 Flash, The (2018) 157 Fordham, Joe 32 Foundas, Scott 100 Fowles, Stacey May 62
Fox (Twentieth Century) 11, 18, 19, 20, 35, 85 Fradley, Martin 80, 86 Franklin-Wallis, Oliver 153 Gadot, Gal 51, 159 Gaine Vincent M. 84 Gamora 51, 55, 111 Gateward, Frances 113 Ghost World (2001) 8 Gibson, Mel 9 Gilmore, James N. 10, 65, 88 Gleiberman, Owen 32, 140 Gone With the Wind (1939) 25 Gordon, Ian 10, 96, 97 Gotham (2014–current) 2, 8, 56, 73, 87, 135 Grant, Barry Keith 4, 5, 106–107 Graser, Marc 151 Gray, Emma 60 Gray, Richard J. 52, 53 Greatest American Hero, The (1981–1983) 136 Green Arrow 114 Green Lantern 114 Green Lantern (2011) 23, 31, 141, 153, 162 Griff the Invisible (2010) 134, 161 Grozdanovic, Nikola 153 Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) 2, 16, 20, 31, 45, 48, 51, 66, 72–77, 96, 111, 118, 128, 155, 162 Gunn, James 139, 155, 156 Gunning, Tom 27 Guzman, Rafer 100 Hagley, Annika 10, 65, 74–75 Hagopian, Kevin J. 139 Hancock 126–29 Hancock (2008) 8, 14, 111, 126–29, 134 Harris, Neil Patrick 16 Harry Potter 18, 22, 23, 25 Hassler-Forest, Dan 10, 25, 64, 73, 82 Hayton, Christopher J. and Albright, David L. 95 Hawkeye 74, 76, 106 hegemony 17, 41, 42, 67, 69, 87, 103, 109, 117, 119, 133, 140, 149, 151, 154; counter-hegemony 67, 68, 86 Helmore, Edward 151 Hemsworth, Chris 3, 22, 44, 45, 70, 141, 143 Henry Danger (2014–current) 136
Heroes (2006–2010) 8, 134 Hertz, Barry 154, 155, 157, 158 heterosexual 39, 42, 46, 47, 70, 71, 111, 115–20, 126, 148 Hiatt, Brian 152 Hicks, Heather J. 125 Hicks, Tony 10 Hodgson, Godfrey 92 Holland, Jeanne 10 Holocaust 121–23 homosexuality 116, 148 Hope van Dyne 46, 56 Hornaday, Ann 100, 103 Howard, Sheena 9, 113 Howell, Peter 154 Hughes, Mark 153 Hulk 32, 38, 44–48, 74, 76, 106, 113, 116, 118, 143 Hulk (2003) 19, 31, 38, 44, 46, 143 Hunger Games, The (2012) 22, 51 Hutcheon, Linda 139 Hit-Girl 37, 146, 147 Hydra 57, 65, 88, 103, 104, 107, 109 Iger, Robert 20 Inception (2010) 80 Incredibles, The (2004) 8, 134, 137, 161 Incredible Hulk, The (1987–1982) 1, 44, 96, 138 Incredible Hulk, The (2008) 7, 19, 20, 38, 143 Independence Day (1996) 25 Industrial Convergence 22 Insomnia (2002) 80 Invisible Girl/Woman 12, 51 Ioannidou, Elisavet 68 Iron Fist (2017–current) 2, 57, 96, 161 Iron Man 2, 3, 4, 37, 38, 44, 45, 50, 63, 71, 74, 76, 96, 105, 106, 111, 113, 116, 118, 128, 133, 143, 148 Iron Man (2008) 7, 14, 19, 21, 25, 26, 31, 38, 70, 119, 140 Iron Man 2 (2010) 51, 53, 74, 111 Iron Man 3 (2013) 74 Isis (1975–1976) 136 Jackman, Hugh 44, 126, 141, 143 Jackson, Samuel L. 19, 111, 124, 129 James Bond (franchise) 18, 22, 48, 138, 139, 149 Jameson, Fredric 104 Jeffords, Susan 47, 70 Jenkins, Henry 24, 36, 67, 138
Jessica Jones (2015–current) 2, 8, 12, 22, 51, 56–60, 62, 77, 87, 96, 130, 131, 135, 153, 161, 162 Jewish creators 65, 112, 113, 121, 122 Jewish metaphor 14, 113, 121–23, 131 Johansson, Scarlett 51, 55 Johnson, Derek 10, 22 Johnston, Joe 101 Joker, The 65, 74, 80, 83–85 Joye, Stijn 10 Jurassic World (2015) 25 Jurassic Park (1993) 29 Justice League, The (2017) 2, 157, 162 Kane, Gil 113 Karaminas, Vicki 142 Keaton, Michael 17, 18 Kick-Ass 127, 140–49 Kick-Ass (2010) 14, 15, 139–49, 161 Kilkenny, Katie 58 Kilmer, Val 18 King, Geoff 28 King, Martin Luther 14, 112, 122, 123 Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) 8 Kirby, Jack 65, 93, 113, 121 Klein, Alan M. 42 Koh, Wilson 10 Lab Rats (2012–2016) 136 Lang, Brent 152 Lawrence of Arabia (1962) 25 Lawrence, Jennifer 51, 53 Leavy, Patricia 67 Lebel, Sabine 10, 39, 44, 46, 53, 54, 144 Ledger, Heath 80 Lee, Stan 113, 120, 121 Lego Batman Movie, The (2017) 161 Leonard, Devin 20, 21, 33 Lethal Weapon (1987) 71, 116 Lego Movie, The (2014) 16 Lipiner, Michael 123 Lisanti, Tony 21, 22 Lois & Clark (1993–1997) 96–99 Lois Lane 79, 96, 97, 100, 148, 159, 160 Lost World, The (1997) 29 Lucas, George 22 Luke Cage 2, 14, 47, 77, 114, 130 Luke Cage (2016–current) 22, 57, 96, 130, 156, 161 Magneto 14, 38, 121–26 Maguire, Tobey 32, 33, 43, 144 Malcolm X 14, 112, 122, 123 Maltby, Richard 86–87
Index Man of Steel (2013) 23, 26, 31, 38, 39, 48, 72, 74–79, 88, 92, 94, 98–101, 110, 118, 159 Mann, Bonnie 115 Marathon Man (1976) 88 Marginalization 14, 103, 117–31, 160 marketing 17, 25, 35, 54, 88, 161 Markovitz, Adam 38, 39 Martin Luther King Jr. 14, 112, 122, 123 Marshall, Sarah 59 Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013–current) 2, 22, 34, 96, 135 Marvel’s Avengers Assemble (2013–current) 21 Mary-Jane Watson 43, 46, 50, 116, 148 masculinity 11, 37–50, 51, 69–72, 74, 81, 86, 113, 128, 132, (white masculinity) 103, 112–20, 126, (black masculinity) 116, 127–29, (hypermasculinity) 42–52, 70–72, 128, 132, 143, 144, (hegemonic masculinity) 12–15, 41–49, 58, 72, 74, 113, 132, 133, 139, 143–49 masculinity in crisis 115 masochism 47–50 Matrix, The (1999) 25 Matt Murdock 48, 49, 72 Mayne, Judith 30 McAvoy, James 121 McCarthy, Todd 155 McClancey, Kathleen 68, 105, 108 McEnteggart, Simon 65 McGrath, Derek S. 10 McKellan, Ian 121 McMillan, Graeme 55 McWilliams, Ora Medhurst, Andy 138 Meehan, Eileen R. 17, 18 Megamind (2010) 8, 134, 161 Memento (2000) 80 Mendelson, Scott 152 Meteor Man, The (1993) 126 Metz, Christian 30, 41 Mighty Med (2013–2015) 136, 137 Missing in Action (1984) 71 Mission Impossible (1996) 71, 106 Mitchell, Elvis 122–123 Modelski, Tania 115 Moscowitz, David 113 Moszkcowicz, Julia 29 Muller, Christine 10, 83, 85, 86 Mulvey, Laura 30, 40, 47, 144
muscles 42–45, 47, 71, 132, 142–44, 148 mutant 9, 14, 16, 38, 51, 112, 118–26, 140, 153, 154 My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006) 134, 137, 161 Mystery Men (1999) 133, 134 Nama, Adilifu 9, 113 NBC Universal 17, 23, 135 Neale, Steve 40, 47, 145 Netflix 22, 38, 49, 57, 58, 77, 87, 130, 135, 153, 156, 161, 162 Newscorp 17 Newman, Kim 81 Nick Fury 19, 88, 105, 107, 109, 111, 124, 128–30 Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (1998) 18 No Heroics (2008–2011) 134 No Ordinary Family (2010–2011) 8, 134 Nolan, Christopher 23, 28, 38, 80, 86, 100, 110 Norton, Edward 44 nostalgia 2, 13, 90–110 Nussbaum, Emily 58 Nyberg, Amy Kiste 114 O’Neil, Denny 114 origin stories 5, 37–39, 48, 68, 131, 133 Orr, Christopher 102, 154, 157 Packard, Stephan 68 Patches, Matt 49 Pearson, Roberta E. 69, 117 Peter Parker 31–33, 37, 43, 48, 50, 72, 144, 145 Peter Quill 45, 46, 48, 72, 77, 118, 128 Pheasant-Kelly, Frances 84, 86 Phillips, Michael 26, 151 Poniewozik, James 57 Powerless (2017–current) 87, 131, 135, 156 Powers (2015–current) 2, 135 Pratt, Chris 45, 55 Predator (1987) 71 Puig, Claudia 102, 140 Pumroy, Ryan 100 Punisher, The 2 Punisher, The (1989) 18 Purse, Lisa 10, 30
Ra’s al Ghul 65, 74, 81, 82, 86 Raimi, Sam 18, 31–33 Rambo 41, 48, 70, 76 Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (1985) 70, 116 Rea, Steven 26 Reagan, Ronald 1, 70, 71, 83, 116 reboots 2, 18, 23, 38, 50, 81, 98, 100, 120, 121, 124, 148 Reeves, Christopher 17, 18, 93 Reeves, Keanu 71 Rehling, Nicola 115, 116, 117 remasculinization 12, 14, 47, 63–90, 112, 116, 118 Reynolds, Richard 69 Reynolds, Ryan 35, 141, 143, 153, 154 Richmond, Scott C. 10, 157 Ritter, Krysten 57, 60 Road to Perdition (2002) 8 Roblou, Yann 43 Rodriguez, Rene 26 Rosenberg, Alyssa 55 Royal, Derek Parker 113 Ruffalo, Mark 44, 55 Saldana, Zoe 51, 55, 111 Sandifer, Philip Savran, David 47 Schatz, Thomas 6, 7, 17 Schlam, Helena Frenkil 113 Schlund-Vials, Cathy J. 68 Schumacher, Joel 81 Schwartz, Terri 152 Schwarzenegger, Arnold 25, 69, 71, 116 Scott, A.O. 9, 102 Scott, Kevin Michael 68 Seitz, Matt Zoeller 60, 100 September 11th (9/11) 2, 5, 12, 13, 14, 63–90, 92, 93, 98, 100, 101, 105, 106, 108, 112, 115–18, 131, 154, 159, 160 Serwer, Adam 64, 74 sexualization 11, 12, 37, 40, 46, 52–54, 60, 62 Shandler, Jeffrey Shared Universe 10, 11, 19, 22, 23, 24, 36, 69, 153, (MCU) 19–24, 33–35, 54, 56, 59, 75, 76, 77, 88, 91, 101, 104, 111, 115, 129, 130, 153, 156, (DC Extended) 23, 24, 33–35, 79, 88, 91, 111, 115, 129, 135, 156, 157, 160 Shazam! (1974–1977) 136 Shrek (2001) 29 Shugart, Helene 117, 118, 119, 120 Shuster, Joe 65, 90, 112, 113
Sidekick 58, 60, 71, 111, 136, 140, 141, 147, 148 Siegel, Jerry 65, 90, 112, 113 Silverman, Kaja 47 Simon, Joe 65, 93 Sims, David 59 Sin City (2005) 8 Singer, Bryan 18, 97, 121, 122 Sky High (2005) 8, 134 Smallville (2001–2011) 48, 134 Smith, Matthew and Duncan, Randy 9 Smith, Paul 50 Smith, Philip and Goodrum, Michael 64–65, 72, 74 Smith, Will 111, 126, 127 Snipes, Wesley 18, 111 Snyder, Zack 7, 78, 98, 100, 157, 158 Soares, Michael 94, 101 Sony 11, 18, 20, 121 Spawn (1997) 126 special effects (SFX) 3, 11, 23–33, 43, 53, 78, 92, 99, 123, 144, 151, 154 spectacle 10, 11, 24–31, 33, 38, 40, 44, 45, 47, 50–54, 60, 65, 70, 71, 87, 88, 158 Speed (1994) 71 Spider-Man 20, 25, 31, 32–35, 37, 38, 43, 46, 48, 50, 65, 96, 111, 113, 116, 118, 133, 144, 145, 148 Spider-Man (2002) 2, 10, 18, 19, 25, 26, 31–33, 38, 43, 46, 74, 119, 144 Spider-Man 2 (2004) 16 Spider-Man 3 (2007) 2 Spielberg, Steven 29, 151, 152 Stallone, Sylvester 25, 70, 71, 116 Star Wars (1977) 18, 22, 25 Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) 25 Static Shock 130 status quo 67, 69, 73, 91, 97, 112, 117, 119, 120 Steel (1997) 126 Steve Rogers 31, 34, 38, 43, 45–48, 72, 95, 101–109, 114, 145 Stevens, Dana 26 Stewart, Patrick 121 Suicide Squad (2016) 2, 23, 118, 129, 156, 162 Super (2010) 8, 14, 15, 139–50, 155, 161 Super Capers (2009) 7, 134 Supergirl (2015–current) 2, 12, 24, 51, 56, 57, 60–62, 87, 124 superhero fatigue 151, 162 superhero genre 2, 4, 5, 6, 38, 63, 64, 81, 87, 96, 116, 133, 139, 150, 151, 162
Index Superhero Movie (2008) 7, 134, 161 Superhero Squad Show, The (2009–2011) 21 Superheroes (2011) 135, 161 Superman 2, 13, 25, 35, 37, 40, 47, 48, 63–69, 71, 72, 78, 79, 90–110, 111, 112, 115–18, 133, 145, 148, 157 Superman (1978) 1, 3, 17, 93, 98 Superman II (1980) 98 Superman Returns (2006) 23, 97–99 Supermansion (2015–current) 135 Sutliff, Jackson 95 Svetkey, Benjamin 55 Tasker, Yvonne 70, 71 Taylor, Aaron 10, 22, 34 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) 16 Ten Commandments, The (1956) 25 terrorism 2, 5, 12, 13, 29, 45, 59, 63–90, 93, 98, 100, 101, 107, 108, 120, 123, 160 Thor 3, 35, 46, 71, 74, 76, 106, 111, 116, 140, 141 Thor (2011) 19, 20, 21, 31, 46, 70 Thor: The Dark World (2013) 74, 77 Three Days of the Condor (1975) 88 Thundermans, The (2013–current) 8, 136 Time-Warner (Warner Brothers) 2, 11, 17, 18, 23, 130, 152, 155, 157, 158 Toh, Justine 82, 83 Tony Stark 19, 25, 38, 44, 45, 50, 53, 57, 58, 88, 109, 118, 128, 143 torture 53–54, 58–59, 63 transformation 37–46, 72, 101, 103, 139, 140, 142, 144, 145 transmedia franchises 22, 23 trauma (cultural) 12, 63, 73, 115, (personal) 39, 47–49, 58, 59, 72, 73, 87, 120, 160 Turan, Kenneth 27 Unbreakable (2000) 134 Uncommon Valor (1983) 71 United 93 (2006) 64 V for Vendetta (2005) 8 Viacom 17, 23 Vietnam War 70, 71, 76, 95, 116
Wainwright, Tim 152 Walking Dead, The (2010–current) 8 Walsh, Fintan 115 War Machine 14, 111 War of the Worlds (2005) 64 Wasp, The 56 Watchmen (2009) 7, 134 Ward, Hazel 55 Warshow, Robert 6 Wealth 92, 118–20, 130 Weinstein, Simcha 113 Wells, Nicholas 151 West, Adam 44, 138 Whedon, Joss 21, 35, 55 Willis, Sharon 116 Wilson, Rainn 140, 141, 142 Winstead, Nick 10 Wolf-Meyer, Matthew 69 Wolverine 38, 51, 116, 125, 126, 127, 128, 154 Wolverine (2013) 48 World Trade Center (2006) 64 World War II, 1, 13, 43, 57, 65, 66, 90, 92, 93, 95, 101–108, 113, 161 World War Z (2013) 64 Wonder Woman 37, 51, 55, 157 Wonder Woman (1975–1979) 96, 138 Wonder Woman (2017) 51, 111, 156, 157, 161 X-Men, The (2000) 1, 10, 13, 14, 18, 19, 38, 51–54, 63, 111, 112, 119, 124, 125, 133, 140 X-Men 2 (2003) 121, 122 X-Men: Last Stand (2006) 121 X-Men: First Class (2011) 38, 53, 121–24 X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) 16, 121, 122 X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) 121, 122 X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) 38, 48, 126 Yockey, Matt 94, 98 Zacharek, 157, 160 Zoller Seitz, Matt 26, 62, 151 Zoom (2006) 134