The Hollywood superhero as
brand manager: an allegory of intellectual property

by Ezra Claverie

The hero of the Marvel Studios Iron Man films, Tony Stark, has no super-powers in the strict sense, just inherited wealth and genius as an inventor. In Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008), Obadiah Stane, an unscrupulous executive within Stark Industries, envies Stark’s genius. Stane reverse-engineers a knock-off of Stark’s prototype Iron Man armor, but without Stark’s miniature fusion reactor, he cannot power it. Stane bullies the company’s research and development engineers, but even they cannot duplicate the tiny reactor. Stane finally resorts to murder, stealing the reactor that Stark uses to keep his damaged heart beating. As Stark lies paralyzed and dying, Stane exults:

“Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you? Your father, he helped give us the atomic bomb. Now what kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you? [Stane holds up the reactor, admiring it.] Oh, it’s beautiful. Tony, this is your Ninth Symphony. Ah, what a masterpiece—look at that. This is your legacy.”

“Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?” gloats villain Stane in Iron Man (Marvel Studios, 2008). In Iron Man (Marvel Studios, 2008), the villain’s knock-off armor belches smoke despite running on (stolen) fusion, a detail that suggests technological inferiority, social irresponsibility, and moral evil.

Stane’s name suggests the stain of moral contamination, and so does his version of the Iron Man armor: despite running on fusion, it belches dark smoke. Stane’s behavior in the film suggests that the first-rate invent while the wicked and second-rate copy or steal. Despite his comparison to the symphony, Stane does not plan to put the reactor in the public domain, where we can find Beethoven’s compositions; instead, he plans to sell the armor to Stark Industries’ arms clients. Furthermore, Stane’s pro-social rhetoric about the bomb undercuts his argument about sharing technology: after all, even hawkish viewers see nuclear weapons as the limit case of the dissemination to technical knowledge. The Bush Administration premised their case for invading of Iraq on the need to control the proliferation of weapons that the USA had the power to make for generations.

In the films of the linked “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” Stark makes his armor and reactor using earthly materials, and he does not keep his identity secret, so many rivals attempt to copy his work. However, even superhero films less concerned with industrial design and espionage show a preoccupation with intellectual property absent from their comic book sources. Supervillains in DC and Marvel comics hatch a variety of schemes, but in their Hollywood iterations, one occurs more than any other: the illicit copying of the hero’s powers or super-technology.

My analysis seeks to explicate the cultural and pedagogical work that these films do regarding intellectual property relations. These relations have made the exploitation of superheroes created in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1960s profitable for media conglomerates well into in the 21st century. Superhero blockbusters tell us little about the experience of rank and file workers in the comics or movie industries, but they tell us much about how studio and conglomerate executives want us to view intellectual property relations. As Janet Wasko writes of Hollywood films, they “may offer engaging fantasies and convenient escape from the drudgeries of daily life, but they also offer explicit visions of the world and lessons for living in that world.”[1] [open endnotes in new window]

This essay therefore proposes a reading of these corporate “lessons for living”: the superhero blockbuster as an allegory of the management of intellectual property. It looks at DC and Marvel superhero films against two apparently unconnected historical phenomena: the so-called DVD boom of the 2000s and the concurrent U.S. project of restructuring of Iraq to create an environment friendly to multinational corporations. Along the way I offer readings of films from Marvel’s Iron Man franchise (later integrated into the larger Avengers franchise) and DC’s Superman franchise (recently integrated into a larger Justice League franchise). Finally, I propose an oppositional heuristic for reading the Hollywood superhero primarily as the anthropomorphic sign of a brand—a mask worn by shareholder capital—and only secondarily as a character.

Superheroes and political economy

This essay continues the kinds of analysis that earlier political economies of mass media have performed, while also attending closely to the narratives of the films themselves. My analysis has ambitions, however modest, at the level of political praxis: to change the way that students, scholars, and even casual audiences understand not just superhero movies but also their own affective relations to narrative brands. Media corporations seek to create brand loyalty, harnessing fans as unremunerated labor; both film artists and corporate marketers interpellate us as virtuous and clever while trying to yoke us to media brands generations old. I seek to demystify the discursive operations of one group of such brands. Following Janet Wasko, my attention “to ownership and control” becomes a means to explicate the relations between “a class system and structural inequalities” and escapist film narratives.[2]

Since Umberto Eco’s 1972 essay “The Myth of Superman,” critiques from the left have pointed out that U.S. superheroes work to preserve the status quo and its arrangements of power and wealth. Recent critiques have elaborated.[3] Many commentators have noted that Hollywood superhero movies also serve to advertise brands, but scholars have not yet adequately discussed the films’ tendency to build their narratives around the policing of intellectual property. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy drew comments on its dramatization of branding, with Dan Hassler-Forest remarking on Bruce Wayne’s creation of “his own brand of crime-fighting.”[4] Will Brooker calls Batman “a ‘range brand,’ not just in our world but in his own”:

“The ‘W’ logo that adorns Wayne Tower in Nolan’s films is echoed as the Bat-symbol across Batman’s costume, gadgets, vehicle, environment, and associates.”[5]

Also in regard to Batman, Martin Fradley argues,

“Wayne/Batman’s neurotic branding of his crime-fighting persona—his unmistakable logo and militarized ‘toys’—all too clearly mirrors the U.S. film industry’s selfsame practices.”[6]

However, these critics do not examine the broader pattern of intellectual property melodrama that recurs across films based on characters owned by Time Warner subsidiary DC Comics and by Disney subsidiary Marvel comics. This essay does.

Villains in the comics sometimes copy the superhero’s powers, but conglomerate Hollywood obsesses over this crime. Chuck Tryon argues that the financial success of DVDs in the 2000s pushed studios to think of films as gateways to other commodities and “to reconceptualize film narrative in ways that tie together the fictional world of a film with the economic goals of a studio.”[7] Fixation on the piracy of intellectual property within superhero film narratives brings the fictional worlds and moral horizons of the superhero closest to the real-world goals of media corporations.

I propose that we can most usefully read this fixation as an incursion into the story world of the strategic preoccupations of conglomerate Hollywood’s executives and upper-level creative workers, who make their fortunes by curating intellectual property on behalf of shareholders. Superhero blockbusters make normative claims about challenges to intellectual property relations; the films resemble anxiety dreams of corporate secrets disastrously exposed. The mass audience never wakes from nightmares of intellectual property theft, but they don’t approve blockbuster scripts. My analysis lays bare the fears of people who do.

In her widely cited 1991 essay, “‘Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!’: the Political Economy of a Commercial Intertext,” Eileen Meehan uses Batman (Tim Burton, 1989) to study brand management across multiple platforms, “orchestrated by the conglomerate in its search for more profitable and cost-efficient ways to manufacture culture.”[8] Only in her conclusion does she use the term “commodity fetishism” to put a name to our failure to perceive the branded character as a “complex structure of interpenetrating cultural industries and the corporate interests of media conglomerates,” a structure that remains “generally invisible to us.”[9] Meehan puts this invisibility last, but I seek to put it first, as the gap in the scholarly reception of these films. Meehan’s essay has a claim to being the first to study superhero movies in Marxian terms, but it performs a three-quarters analysis, leaving to us that last step: explicating these films’ dramatization of the same intellectual property logic that drives their production.

This essay’s focus on narrative in the context of industrial history entails a methodological choice to pay less attention to the differences within and between media corporations. Scholars like Jerome Christensen and Derek Johnson have helped us understand how workers within conglomerates make and defend claims of company or individual agency, but here such an approach can risk reifying the notion of the exceptional individual who transcends his or her structural setting. Many forms of mass culture, especially the superhero film, valorize the individual while actually strengthening the collective and class-based relationship we call the corporation. Havens, Lotz, and Tinic have called for “critical media industry studies” of the “quotidian practices and competing goals […] not subject to direct and regular oversight by corporate owners” that “define the experiences of those who work within the industry.”[10] Yet in a secretive and risk-averse industry like Hollywood, studying everyday practices of those who control a major brand presents extraordinary barriers to outsiders. The study of “competing goals” also seems to invite the false equivalency of treating worker, shareholder, and executive interests as having equal sway within the industry or having equal claims to our sympathy.

Furthermore, media corporations can and sometimes do adapt oppositional discourses in ways that increase shareholder equity, even when that opposition challenges intra-industry hierarchies or subverts the narrative or marketing norms of genres. We see this in films like Deadpool (Tim Miller, 2016). Star Ryan Reynolds produced the modestly budgeted film, adapting the anarchic and fourth-wall-breaking Marvel antihero against industry norms. In both in its promotion and also during its running time, Deadpool constantly breaks the “rules” of superhero blockbuster filmmaking and marketing. It ridicules the larger X-Men franchise, to which it belongs; it seeks an R rating, thumbing its nose at the still-growing theatrical market in Mainland China; and it mocks prominent brands (like Ikea) that other blockbusters would go out of their way to promote in positive terms. Yet Deadpool broke box-office records, showing that Hollywood can identify seemingly uncooperative texts that will actually boost shareholder value. 

Modes of superhero production

DC and Marvel Comics now occupy analogous positions within the armatures of two conglomerates, Time Warner and Disney. Fredric Jameson’s allegorical method of studying the novel offers a useful interpretative model when approaching art produced by such corporations. He argues, “what we formerly regarded as individual texts are grasped as ‘utterances’ in an essentially collective or class discourse.”[11] In movie production, this “collective” origin becomes literal: unlike novels, Hollywood blockbusters emerge from the coordinated labor of thousands of workers.

Yet as discourse, these films “speak” on behalf of executives and brand managers who green-light projects and approve final cuts, not on behalf of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees or the Directors Guild of America. Blockbusters do not speak on behalf the non-unionized workers in animation studios around Asia to which Hollywood studios outsource CGI work. And they certainly do not speak on behalf of artists in the non-unionized, work-for-hire comics industry. In Marx’s terms, a superhero franchise consists not merely of new textual commodities, but also of the “machinery” of production: characters and stories alienated from their creators via work-for-hire agreements. Here, fixed capital inheres not just in soundstages and cameras, or in a bullpen for comics artists, but in a “library” of copyrighted characters and narratives.

Jameson treats allegory as a category hermeneutic rather than ontological. That is, he uses allegory as mode of reading texts, one that seeks patterns of meaning about the social context from which those texts emerged, but not necessarily intended by their authors. Where medieval Christian writers deliberately structured texts around allegorical codes, nineteenth-century liberal novelists like Josef Conrad did not consciously do so. Therefore, Jameson seeks to infer the unacknowledged codes that shape texts in ostensibly “free” and “creative” art forms produced under capitalism.

Following Jameson’s example, I take individual authorial intention as, at best, secondary to the commercial objectives of a work collectively and industrially produced in the manner of a franchise blockbuster. Some scholars offering allegorical readings of Hollywood film assume intentionality; Christensen proposes a reading of Batman (Tim Burton, 1989) as an “allegory contrived to accomplish corporate objectives” within the newly merged Time Warner conglomerate.[12] However where Christensen reads the film as a deliberately allegorical, intra-conglomerate utterance from Warner Brothers executives to Time executives, I pursue instead signs of the shared class interests that all such executives represent, notwithstanding their tactical or corporate-cultural differences. After all, canny investors disdain comic-store loyalties to DC or Marvel and instead buy stock in both the Walt Disney Company and Time Warner.

The superhero emerged as a generic model in 1938, and by 1940 the genre had coalesced into public conventions, easily and legally copied by competitors, as well as proprietary content, protected under copyright law. Marketing literature distinguishes between brand and commodity, but Scott Lash and Celia Lury develop this distinction in terms informed by Marxian analyses of value:

“you cannot go to a market and buy a brand. Brands do not typically exchange at all. They are only for sale on capital markets […] The commodity is produced. The brand is a source of production. The commodity is a single, discrete, fixed product. The brand instantiates itself in a range of products, is generated across a range of products.”[13]

Lash and Lury suggest, but stop short of, explicitly framing the brand as I will here: as a non-material element of the means of production.

Under the current system of intellectual property laws, nobody has a monopoly on the conventions of superhero stories; anyone can make a generic or off-brand superhero movie. Hollywood has produced superhero films not adapted from comics—Darkman (Sam Raimi, 1990), The Meteor Man (Robert Townsend, 1993), Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan, 2000), Sky High (Mike Mitchell, 2005), My Super Ex-Girlfriend (Ivan Reitman, 2006), Hancock (Peter Berg, 2008)—but studios do not wrangle over the rights to off-brand characters created for the screen, as they do over characters with strong brand equity.

Marvel survived in the 1990s by spinning off titles from their bestselling characters, the X-Men.[14] In 1993, Marvel sold to Fox the film rights to the X-Men and associated characters, including Deadpool, as well as the term of art mutant.[15] Although X-Men titles dominated Marvel’s production schedule during the 1990s, after the success of Fox’s X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000) and X-Men 2 (Bryan Singer, 2003), Marvel began reducing its output of X-titles. In 2001, X-Men titles still topped the comic sales charts eleven out of twelve months, but by 2005 Marvel’s reduced production and promotion led to no X-Men titles charting.[16] In 2014 Marvel writer Chris Claremont confirmed rumors that had circulated among fans: “the X-department is forbidden to create new characters. [….] Because all new characters become the film property of Fox.”[17] In 2015, when a fan asked Marvel’s Senior Vice President of Publishing Tom Brevoort why the company had done no tie-ins for X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, 2014), Brevoort evaded with another question:

“If you had two things, and on one you earned 100% of the revenues from the efforts that you put into making it, and the other you earned a much smaller percentage for the same amount of time and effort, you’d be more likely to concentrate more heavily on the first, wouldn’t you?”[18]

Moreover, a few characters, such as the siblings Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, lie in a zone claimed by both companies. The studios negotiated a deal wherein Marvel can use the pair provided Marvel does not identify the siblings as mutants, a term “exclusive to the X-Men”: “They’re also not allowed to have any connection to their famous father, Magneto.”[19] Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015) moved the siblings’ origin to a European country invented for the film, where their parents died long ago.

Although some fans blame 21st-century Hollywood for treating comics as a mere testing ground for material to license into other media, the DC-Marvel duopoly has used superheroes this way since before World War II. As Gerard Jones has shown, Superman’ creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, hoped that their creation would prove popular enough to license: drafts of Superman stories from 1935 show Siegel trying out marketing slogans and Shuster sketching “boxes for cereal and whole wheat crackers with Superman’s likeness.”[20] The duo had created Superman by cobbling together elements from other characters. From Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars, they borrowed the notion of a man granted virtual super-powers by visiting a planet with lower gravity than that of his birth. From Emma Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel and Johnston McCulley’s Zorro stories, they borrowed the vigilante with a dual identity. In the nexus of invention, copying, and variation that we call “creative” work, Siegel and Shuster feared that others would try to profit from their new character, that Superman would escape the networks of property relations that guaranteed them a share, however small, of the revenue that he generated for National Allied Publications (later renamed DC). In Action Comics no. 6, November 1938, the duo had Superman expose a crooked marketing agent who licensed the hero’s image to sell breakfast cereal, gasoline, and automobiles without his consent.[21]

In 1947 Siegel and Shuster sued National, seeking ownership of Superman and five million dollars in compensation for licensing revenues that they believed National had unfairly withheld.[22] Siegel and Shuster lost, and National fired them. The court did rule that National had unfairly exploited some of Siegel and Shuster’s ideas for the Superboy title, and required National to pay a settlement of $100,000 to the plaintiffs, “one fiftieth of what they’d asked.”[23] National retained ownership of Superman.

In 1968, conglomerate Kinney National Services purchased Superman’s publisher, DC Comics, as well as Warner Brothers; then in 1971, Kinney renamed itself Warner Communications Incorporated.[24] Since the 1970s, executives at DC have worked less to sell comic books than to develop and curate intellectual property. Beginning in 1976, president Jenette Kahn reconfigured DC from a publisher of comic books to what she called a “creative rights company” that generated content not only for other divisions of WCI but also for outside licensees.[25] By 1985, DC took in “about a third of its approximately $70 million in revenues from comics, with the other two-thirds […] split between licensing and other products.”[26]

In contrast to DC’s four stable decades as a subsidiary of a media conglomerate, Marvel took a more tortuous path. In 1968 publisher Martin Goodman sold Marvel to the Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation, which later changed its name to Cadence Industries; from there, Marvel passed through other hands, including Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.[27] In 1989, “junk-bond king” Ron Perelman bought Marvel for his McAndrews & Forbes Group.[28] Perelman said that he wanted Marvel to become a “mini-Disney in terms of intellectual property.”[29 The Walt Disney Company provided both the model and apotheosis of intellectual property management, as Disney’s strategy of corporate “synergy” had made them synonymous with characters autonomous from the animated shorts in which most of those characters originated.

Mike Budd has argued that this synergy makes “every Disney product […] both a commodity and an ad for every other Disney commodity” and enables every new text to strengthen “the Disney brand.”[30] Marvel imitated that strategy and added a rhetoric of custodianship to legitimate their practices to fans. In 2008, Marvel Studios chair David Maisel said,

“We are in the Iron Man business […] so whether it be a major motion picture or a video game, we have somewhat of an obligation to our fans and the consumer to stay involved with the creative process.”[31]

 After IMS Capital Value Fund bought a stake in Marvel in 2002, a manager at IMS remarked,

“Marvel needs to be sold to a larger entertainment company, like Disney or AOL Time Warner, with the leverage to make better films and promote the library of characters.”[32]

Disney’s 2009 purchase of Marvel and their 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm cemented their lead over competitor Time Warner as the world’s biggest generator of licensing fees from media properties. In 2005, License! magazine ranked Disney first, with $15B in licensing revenue, and Warner Bros. Consumer Products second, with $6B. That same year, Marvel surged from sixty-ninth place (and a mere $189M) to fourth place (and $4B).[33] After Disney’s acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm, they still rank first, but now with $45.2B in licensing.[34] Warners holds on in sixth, still bringing in just $6B.[35] If we needed a reminder of the power of conglomerate Hollywood to retread old content, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015) broke box office records, but Disney expects to make more from licensing than from ticket sales.[36] As Vox notes,

Star Wars merch is expected to bring in $5 billion in sales over the coming 12 months, rising to as much as $20 billion in the next five years.”[37]