The American and non-American ways of superhero cinema
Review of Superheroes on World Screens. Ed. Rayna Denison and Rachael Mizsei-Ward. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2015. 224 pages. Casebound $60. Paperback $30. Eleven black-and-white illustrations.
Superheroes on World Screens began as a call for papers entitled, “Not Just the American Way,” which signaled its goal of challenging the assumed Americanness of the superhero genre. The resulting collection looks at some of the ways this genre has traveled internationally, not just with the recent overseas successes of Hollywood superhero blockbusters, but for as long as U.S. comics have traveled overseas and as long as Hollywood studios have pried their way into other countries’ film distribution systems. The anthology aims “to create a space for future debates about the figure of the superhero” by widening its geographic scope (16).
The essays here deal only tangentially with comics as a medium and comic books as a platform, yet these case studies will nevertheless interest scholars working on the transmedia or transnational circulation of characters produced by the U.S. comics industry. Other scholarship has looked at the production of superhero screen texts outside the United States, for example, Miller et al.’s case study of the production of Blade II in Prague, Cherish Brillon’s work on the Darna franchise in the Philippines, and Mark Gallagher’s “Batman in East Asia.” But Superheroes on World Screens assembles in one place a range of research on both texts and contexts, thereby offering both an overview and a model for this emerging sub-field. Some essays here look at the international co-production and marketing of films (and, to a lesser extent, television) based on characters owned by the DC-Marvel duopoly; others look at films produced outside the United States and based on local characters. The book therefore warrants attention from scholars of international film co-production, distribution, and adaptation, as well as anyone studying superheroes as they circulate or arise outside the United States.
The essays’ subject matter ranges widely from superheroes as classically defined (by Peter Coogan and others) to characters having less clear connections to the four-color, long-underwear heroes of the U.S. comics duopoly. For example, Kevin Patrick’s essay looks at how the film version of The Phantom (Simon Wincer, 1996), shot in partly in Australia and with significant Australian investment and talent, exploited Australian fans’ fondness for the U.S. newspaper comic strip, syndicated internationally since its 1936 inception. Vincent M. Gaine’s analysis of the production and distribution of Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011) reveals a multinational production by a U.S. media conglomerate aiming for international audiences. Editor Rayna Denison examines Marvel Comics’ licensing of Spider-Man to Japanese studio Toei in the 1970s, which resulted in the fascinating oddity Supaidāman. This hybrid combined tropes from U.S. superhero comics with tropes from the Japanese tokusatsu (“special effects”) TV genre, where science ninjas and giant robots fight alien monsters in shows like Tsuburaya Productions’ Ultraman [Urutoraman](1966-67) and Toei’s earlier Kamen Rider [Kamen Raidā](1971-73). Lincoln Geraghty’s account of Doctor Who promotion at San Diego Comic-Con claims, with a straight face, “Doctor Who is arguably the quintessential superhero” (88). Daniel Martin discusses the Japanese-Korean animated co-production Blade of the Phantom Master (Joji Shimura and Ahn Tae-geun, 2004) in the context of South Korea’s rise from Japan’s shadow to become a major exporter of mass culture. Ian Robert Smith charts multiple waves of superhero films in India, in both the Hindi and Tamil cinemas, from knock-offs of Superman to original heroes written for the screen. Jochen Ecke and Patrick Gill draw connections between British television shows, both comedic and dramatic, that use the figure of the superhero to address social inequality and the UK’s cultural relation to the United States. Editor Rachel Mizsei-Ward’s essay looks at the international career of the Kuwaiti comic series The 99 and its adaptation into an animated cartoon (Endemol Productions UK, 2011-12). Islamophobic reactionaries in America scared the cable company Hub Network (a Hasbro subsidiary) into dumping the Kuwaiti show because of its supposed promotion of sharia. Finally, Mary J. Anslie treats the Thai superhero film Insee Daeng (Wisit Sasanatieng, 2010) in the context of both contemporary Thai cinema and this film’s mixture of homage to the 1960s Insee Daeng (“Red Eagle”) films and political criticism of its present.
The strongest chapters offer materialist accounts of the production of their focal texts. Gaine, in his chapter on Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011), attends to the mechanics of international production and co-production, parsing the film’s use of above-the-line talent to appeal to various markets as well as its outsourcing of the film’s visual effects to studios around the world. Most criticism of superheroes that deals with the genre in terms of myth attend little, if at all, to production and circulation; in contrast, Gaine uses Miller et al.’s concept of the New International Division of Cultural Labor (36-37), and the not-so-new division of ownership, concentrated in the shareholding classes of the Global North. Moreover, unlike most writers who deal with the relationships between superheroes and myth, Gaine cites not the crowd-pleasing PhD-dropout Joseph Campbell (along with Carl Gustav Jung, one of the red flags of hack “pop culture” criticism) but anthropologist Victor Turner (48), whose work on liminality informs Gaine’s reading of the film’s planet-hopping narrative and its international marketing.
Denison’s chapter presents an almost equally satisfying account of the history of The 99, a show bankrolled in part by the sharia-compliant Islamic Unicorn Investment Bank and explicitly aimed at “reframing the discourse surrounding Islam after 9/11” (150). Reactionary U.S. bloggers criticized the show’s depiction of ninety-nine superheroes with powers based on a list of ninety-nine Koranic virtues, and they convinced Hasbro’s Hub Network not to broadcast the series (151). Yet after this setback, the show’s producers secured distribution by Netflix, by which point the reactionary bloggers moved on to other targets (166). Here one might ask for a fuller account of the business side of The 99 franchise, how investors or licensors profited from either the production or the distribution of this adaptation of a superhero comic, and how the comic’s creators did or did not profit from those circulations. Further, we might ask what values both sharia-compliant and non-sharia-compliant banks share, and how those values necessarily filter both explicit religious messaging and all other content. Other chapters offer similar opportunities for scholars to build on the work done here. Smith’s chapter on Indian superhero films applies Yuri Lotman’s five-step model of the development of national culture industries on the pattern of Tom O’Regan’s Australian National Cinema (115). The Indian film Superman (B. Gupta, 1987) not only remakes Warner Brothers’ Superman (Richard Donner, 1978), but it also lifts special-effects sequences, complete with John Williams’s “Superman March.” Although Smith’s essay offers a history of how the Indian superhero film genre moved from such knock-offs to originals like Krrish (Rakesh Roshan, 2006), it never discusses how DC Comics or Time Warner responded to piracy of one of their most recognizable properties in the same year that Warners distributed Cannon Films’ Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (Sidney J. Furie). Nor does Smith’s essay raise issues of intellectual property or the Indian film market’s history of imperviousness to Hollywood domination, issues relevant to understanding such trans-cultural copying. What did DC and Warner executives have to say about B. Gupta’s cut and paste job? Did they even watch the Indian market enough to notice?
Like much criticism of popular genres, this book’s essays sometimes suffer from a fannish disregard of the sausage factory that produces entertainment franchises, instead focusing on hybridity, ubiquity, nostalgia, and above all “fun.” The introduction’s first paragraph (unnecessarily) reminds us that U.S. superheroes have traveled worldwide: “Their images have been co-opted for purposes commercial and political, and those creating superhero texts range from media conglomerates to grassroots fans” (Denison, Mizsei-Ward, Johnston 3). The claim that anyone has “co-opted” superheroes suggests that they and their images somehow precede commercial purposes, yet anyone familiar with the history of the DC-Marvel duopoly, or with the film studios that bought them, knows that commercial purposes have always preceded the creation of art both in this corporate genre and in the disposable medium of comics that gave it birth. “Grassroots” versions not only come later but also arrive entangled with the commercial purposes of those who own the copyrights. The book’s introduction frames the collection’s aim to go “beyond a textual formulation of the superhero genre, instead reconsidering superheroes as parts of larger cultural matrices (Brooker 2012) or intertextual networks (Meehan 1991)” (5). The authors here cite Eileen Meehan’s foundational essay, “‘Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!’: the Political Economy of a Commercial Intertext,” which looks at Batman (Tim Burton, 1989) not as a movie but as a Time Warner marketing strategy designed to feed the conglomerate’s internal markets. Meehan’s work reveals not an aca-fan’s intertextual network, a playground of textual poaching and cosplay, but a corporate intertextual network, mediated by contracts and attorneys to serve the needs of shareholders. Yet few of the book’s chapters show adequate attention to political economy, instead favoring “cultural matrices” more or less abstracted from production and ownership.
The book merits attention from scholars and from university libraries building collections on either superheroes or international media production. The book’s weaknesses, symptomatic of much “popular culture” scholarship (and para-scholarship) suggest areas where others can intervene, expand, and otherwise enrich the debate that the book seeks to widen, as well as ways that we can hold edited collections to higher standards. For example, a surprising number of essays in the book draw on work published by para-scholarly press McFarland. In her essay on Supaidāman, for example, Denison notes that U.S. comics companies have a history of licensing their intellectual property “to producers from other nations” (53-54). Denison cites as her source for this claim Dan O’Rourke and Pravin A. Rodrigues’s essay, “The ‘Transcreation’ of a Mediated Myth: Spider-Man in India” from the 2007 McFarland collection The Amazing Transforming Superhero! (exclamation point in original) First, why cite a secondary source for this information, when most readers—who either study either duopoly comics or Japanese mass culture—already know of licensed manga versions of Batman and other U.S. characters? Second, why not do better than a McFarland anthology? We can maybe excuse the editors’ impulse to cite more rather than fewer sources, but not the failure to vet those sources: among various missteps, the essay by O’Rourke and Rodrigues repeatedly cites articles from Wikipedia: not the Free Encyclopedia’s sources but its edited-by-anyone articles (O’Rourke and Rodriguez 122-123). That would not fly in better high schools; leaving aside why it flies at McFarland, scholars editing a collection like Superheroes on World Screens should not regard such work as authoritative, especially on a point that arguably counts as common knowledge for this audience. Why not just present and cite a primary source, like some hybrid U.S.-Japanese superhero manga?
Yet the book’s strengths point to where other scholars might build related arguments. Hollywood’s use of international co-production has only increased since the call for papers that spawned this book, with duopoly superhero films now using locations around the world and increasingly courting Mainland China. Qingdao-based Dalian Wanda Group now owns great swaths of the U.S. theatrical film exhibition market; Mainland Chinese locations and stars now feature prominently in franchises like Star Wars and The Transformers, while ads for X-Men: Dark Phoenix (Simon Kinberg, 2019) and Spider-Man: Far from Home (Jon Watts, 2019) fill the Metro stations of Shanghai. These developments suggest only one possible direction for future research in this area. As with any edited collection, most scholars will find only a handful of these essays useful, but the better ones here offer windows on national cinemas, genres, and production practices little studied in Anglophone scholarship. They will no doubt make their way into topics courses and bibliographies for years to come.
Brillon, Cherish. “Darna and Intellectual Property Rights.” Plaridel. 4.1 (February 2007): 97-114.
Denison, Rayna, Rachel Mizsei-Ward, and Derek Johnston. “Introduction.” Superheroes on World Screens. Ed. Rayna Denison and Rachael Mizsei-Ward. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2015: 3-16.
Gaine, Vincent M. “Thor, God of Borders: Transnationalism and Celestial Connections in the Superhero Film.” Superheroes on World Screens. Ed. Rayna Denison and Rachael Mizsei-Ward. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2015: 36-52.
Gallagher, Mark. “Batman in East Asia.” Many More Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media. Ed. Roberta E. Pearson, William Uricchio, and Will Brooker. London: British Film Institute, 2015: 88-106.
Geraghty, Lincoln. “Heroes of Hall H: Global Media Franchises, Doctor Who, and the San Diego Comic-Con as a Space for the Transnational Superhero.” Superheroes on World Screens. Ed. Rayna Denison and Rachael Mizsei-Ward. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2015: 75-93.
Meehan, Eileen R. “ ‘Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!’: the Political Economy of a Commercial Intertext.” The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media. Ed. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio. New York: Routledge, 1991: 47-65.
Miller, Toby, Nitin Govil, John McMurria, and Richard Maxwell. Global Hollywood. London: British Film Institute, 2001. Print.
Mizsei-Ward, Rachel. “Fighting for Truth, Justice, and the Islamic Way: The 99, Global Superheroes for the Post-9/11 World.” Superheroes on World Screens. Ed. Rayna Denison and Rachael Mizsei-Ward. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2015: 150-168.
O’Rourke, Dan, and Pravin A. Rodrigues. “The ‘Transcreation’ of a Mediated Myth: Spider-Man in India.” The Amazing Transforming Superhero! Ed. Terrence R. Wandtke. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2007: 112-128.
Smith, Ian Robert. “Tu Mera Superman: Globalization, Cultural Exchange, and the Indian Superhero.” Superheroes on World Screens. Ed. Rayna Denison and Rachael Mizsei-Ward. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2015: 113-130.