Friday, January 27, 2012

Link - Indian Cinema Superheroes

An interesting roundup of Indian cinema superheroes from the Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill! blog: Indian Superhero Roll-Call. This blog takes a non-academic, but not uninformed, look at the sort of pop cinema from around the world that rarely makes it to the US or UK, although some of the films reviewed are better known than others. There are plenty of entries on non-English language superhero films, which adds up to an interesting view of how the figure of the superhero has been used outside the US. If there was one claim made in this entry that I would like to challenge, it's that Krrish has two sequels; as far as I can tell the first sequel to the film is in early production at the time of writing, although there is an understandable source of confusion, as it is apparently titled Krrish 3. Actor Hrithik Roshan explains this in an interview with 'Actually it is Krrish 3, because first was Koi Mil Gaya (2003), then Krrish (2006) and now Krrish 3.' In any case, those of us who enjoyed Krrish will no doubt be glad to hear that the sequel is actually underway.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Quick Links

Two quick links for you:

For the many of you who have read our entry on La Mujer Murcielago, the University of Stirling's fascinating Gothic Imagination blog has an entry on the Blue Demon comics that is well worth reading. Blue Demon was a luchador who had a long screen history, but also appeared in other media, as well as the wrestling ring, including the photocomics explored in this entry.

Secondly, the 2012 Film and History Conference currently has a Call for Papers for an area of multiple panels entitled America's Pantheon: Superheroes and Sports Heroes in Film and Television.

Friday, November 11, 2011

'Smallville' and the Legacy of John Williams

Over the past ten years, Smallville (CW, 2001-2011) has shown the weekly adventures of Clark Kent before he takes on the mantle of Superman. From the beginning, it has tied itself to the Christopher Reeve Superman films (Warner Bros., 1978, 1980, 1983, 1987) through a number of intertextual connections, including the casting of Terence Stamp (General Zod in Superman II) as the voice of Jor-El, the crystalline form of the Fortress of Solitude, and repeated musical references to the John Williams Superman March which so dramatically and distinctively introduced Superman: The Movie. This theme was used a number of times throughout Smallville, typically to indicate Clark Kent taking another step towards becoming Superman, but its most extensive reprise came at the end of the final episode, where Clark finally put on the blue bodysuit and red cape (primarily through the power of CGI, as the series used the Brandon Routh suit from Superman Returns (Warner Bros., 2006) as a prop rather than make a new suit for Welling). But why make these connections, and particularly why make this musical connection, one which is also retained in Superman Returns, rather than use an original theme by series composers Mark Snow (seasons 1-6) or Louis Febre (seasons 7-10)?

The opening credits for each episode of Smallville are backed by the rock track 'Save Me' by Remy Zero, a track which would be expected to connect more with the teen / young adult audience that is the primary target audience for the CW than an instrumental score. Indeed, the producers of the show used commercial music tracks by various popular artists throughout the programme to underscore particular scenes, a practice found throughout programming aimed at this age group throughout the '90s and onwards, as in Dawson's Creek (Warner Bros., 1998-2003) or Buffy the Vampire Slayer (20th Century Fox / Warner Bros., 1997-2003). However, the use of the John Williams themes allowed a nostalgic connection back to the Reeve movies, acknowledging, as did the repeated use of other elements and cast members from the films, that there was a pre-existing audience for the character that extended beyond the core CW audience, one that was familiar with the Reeve films. This acts in a similar way to the appearances and mentions of other characters from the wider DC universe within the show (see our post on the trailer for The Avengers and subcultural capital), but reaching a potentially broader audience rather than seeking to connect with comics fans specifically.

In addition to its intertextual importance, the theme also has its own musical significance, well-tailored to the character of Superman in its balance of powerful martial drums and brass with sweeping, romantic strings and playful woodwind. For a character known to balance enormous power with a conscience, a sense of right, a smile and a wave for onlookers, and a romance with Lois Lane, this combination works to sum up the character as much as it works at the start of Superman: The Movie to suggest the movements of the coming film. Thus, its appearance throughout the run of Smallville in small segments, in call-backs to the melody (for example, the distinctive first five notes of the theme on a lonely trumpet to indicate the initial revelation of the ship which brought baby Kal-El to Earth) serves to suggest that the elements of the Superman character are there and are gradually coming together. This all culminates in the extended use of the full theme at the end of the last episode, following Clark Kent's most extensive and impressive displays of power yet, in full costume, finally flying under his own full control and volition, Superman at last.

Friday, November 4, 2011

LEGO Heroes

As part of a strategy to expand interest in their construction bricks LEGO have licensed a number of popular film properties. All of these properties have cross generational appeal and include Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and most recently Pirates of the Caribbean. In addition to producing themed construction sets, LEGO has also licensed the LEGO property to TT Games to create video games based around the figures.

LEGO Batman

Most relevantly to this blog is the LEGO Batman game, which, unlike the other games is based around the comic book version of Batman, rather than any specific film release. This is reflected in the choice of characters, their costuming and the way the narrative is framed. Unlike the other licensed properties which use the existing narratives from the films, the LEGO Batman game uses a story specially written for the game. This enables the game's most interesting aspect - the opportunity to play each level from the perspective of both Batman and his heroic friends and the Joker and his villainous cronies.

However the LEGO Batman game is ultimately less successful than the other licensed LEGO/TT Games products. The pleasure of these games lies ultimately in the chance to control familiar film characters and guide them through their stories. This allows us to experience the narratives from a new perspective, that of a protagonist, rather than the passive viewer. In addition there is a fascination about seeing the familiar characters reconfigured into LEGO bricks. The cut-scenes of these licensed games are not direct LEGO recreations of sequences from the films the game is based on. Instead they frequently satirise the films infecting the games with a sense of ironic knowingness. In the case of LEGO Batman there is only a limited element of familiarity so it has to stand a lot more on the quality of its gameplay, narrative and characterisation, while there is no opportunity to satirise an original version. Batman is heavily rooted in camp but the overriding comic quality of all LEGO games does not work to the advantage of the LEGO Batman game. Instead it makes the game feel trivial, rather than a serious superheroic quest.

LEGO Harry Potter

Friday, October 28, 2011

Chronicle - and the Question of Realism

MTV have recently posted the trailer for the found footage-style superhero film Chronicle. Initially, the footage is reminiscent of the home video used to introduce cheerleader Claire in Heroes (2006-2010), showing somebody demonstrating and testing their new-found weird abilities, but it soon becomes clear that the majority, if not the entirety, of the film is shot in this style. This approach is not without precedent in relation to comics, with Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' Marvels (1994) using Ross' photo-realistic artwork to illustrate events in the Marvel universe as seen by an ordinary person, giving a different viewpoint on events.

The use of this style in films is typically associated with attempts to add to the verisimilitude of the film, even one with a fantastic premise, as with The Blair Witch Project (1999), Cloverfield (2008) or Troll-Hunter (2010). These films seek to position the dramatic visual effects of the fantastic within a "real" universe, drawing on the long tradition of fantastic literature which has used a documentary form, including Frankenstein, Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and numerous stories by Poe, Lovecraft and others. Within the framework of fantastic film, however, these approaches have to leave aside the sublime approach to special effects that Scott Bukatman identifies in the work of Douglas Trumbull, where the visual effect is less integrated with the narrative of the film than it is with the audience and the theatre, placing them inside the visuals. Instead, these films have to aim for the more realistic, simulationist style of effects in order not to breach the apparent 'realism' of the allegedly documentary movie.

What does this mean for superheroes, whose powers are often spectacular and almost specifically something to be gazed at, a dazzling display? A film in such a style would seem to be more suited to a lower-powered story than something like a Superman or X-Men film, but then Cloverfield was a generally successful attempt to transfer something of the scale of a Godzilla film to the found-footage style, and the trolls of Troll-Hunter become steadily larger and stranger. And that may be where the clue is as to the way this style works, as it is with the fantastic documentary literary style. The strangeness of such tales is often introduced gradually, building from a glimpse of oddness, up to occasionally apocalyptic levels, allowing for a build of effects from simple sleight of hand, or sleight of camera, up to an extravagant display which no longer seems weird in the setting of the film. An examination of the Chronicle trailer suggests that it promises just such a build, and just such a dramatic conclusion.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Avengers - Official Trailer

The recent expansion in superhero appearances on screen has brought some lesser-known characters into wider currency. Of course, for those who are already fans of the characters, this provides an opportunity for the flexing of their subcultural capital muscles, pointing out to others the references to established plotlines, showing their knowledge of less well-known characters, and deducing potential aspects of the film or television narrative based on their identification of elements from other iterations of the character and their associated narratives. This could mean identifying Scarlett Johansson's character Natasha Romanoff from Iron Man as the member of the Avengers known as Black Widow, or putting together the clues of a purple costume and a bow to deduce that Jeremy Renner's cameo in Thor was the introduction of fellow Avenger Hawkeye.

The makers of these productions are well aware of the way that fans use these hints and references as ways to engage with forthcoming films or TV series, or even current ones, and can be rather obscure. The Martian Manhunter was introduced in Smallville by the indistinct appearance of a figure with glowing red eyes who flew off in a green and red streak, leaving behind an Oreo biscuit, a favourite of the comic book character. The fact that there are often multiple iterations of characters in comic book continuity, and through various media interpretations, means that the makers have a broader range of possibilities to draw upon and to tempt the fans with, while also running the risk that a particular interpretation made for the purposes of what is supposed to be a general market film may not appeal to different parts of the fan community. Trailers, however, often serve to provide a Schrodinger's Cat introduction to the particular version of the characters and narratives that the films will ultimately collapse into, making links to multiple versions of these characters and stories in order to tease and tempt fans of different iterations and to encourage debate, and therefore the much-desired 'buzz', amongst the fan community.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Captain "America"?

by Dr Vincent Gaine

Editors' note: This week we present a first for Superheroes on Screen: a guest entry for the blog, in the form of a review of the recent Captain America: The First Avenger by Dr Vincent Gaine, providing an additional viewpoint on the film to those expressed in previous posts which considered it in relation to, for example, US Superheroes in Global Markets and Iconography and Aesthetics. Gaine here looks at the narrative of the film in order to consider its internationality.

One of the challenges and great opportunities of superhero narratives is their applicability to different historical contexts. Whereas Iron Man was first formed in Vietnam, the 21st century film places his origin in Afghanistan. Spider-Man and Superman have been updated several times for contemporary events, while the recent screen incarnation of Batman carries many allusions to the War on Terror. The very name “Captain America” suggests an America-centric ideology, the character implied as an embodiment of American ideology, a problematic notion especially in the contemporary era of globalisation, with non-American audiences forming a significant potential market. Notably, the new screen version Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) shows a significant engagement with globalisation, making Steve Rogers a hero for the world and not just the USA.

Captain America, like many a Hollywood war movie as well as other films such as the Indiana Jones franchise, uses World War II as its dramatic backdrop. This creates an almost mythic time when an international clash between good and evil can be presented simplistically, rather than the myriad shades of grey today. Captain America takes pains to present its conflict as even more clear cut, as the supervillain Johann Schmidt/the Red Skull is even more evil than Hitler and plans to conquer the Nazis as well as everyone else with his super weapons. By making the threat wider than the war but the culprit more specific than the Nazis, the film presents Captain America as a hero for all humanity, not one just fighting for the American way. This is made more apparent by placing much of the film’s action in Europe, with Cap fighting specifically against the Red Skull’s organisation Hydra. Furthermore, the serum which transforms the emaciated Rogers into a super soldier is designed by a German exile, Dr. Erskine, while Cap has a team of Allied soldiers with him, including Americans, British and French, while his love interest is British agent Peggy Carter. Fighting the Nazis, and more especially Hydra, is an international effort even if its leader bears the name “America”. Even the subtitle, The First Avenger, links Cap with the broader narrative of the Avengers franchise, in which figures such as the Incredible Hulk and Thor travel to or from non-American environments. As Nick Fury tells Cap upon his awakening, they are trying to save the world.

Despite the seeming internationalism of Captain America, the centrality of the United States remains apparent. Two of the key action sequences involve Captain America protecting the US specifically. The first occurs when Doctor Erskine is killed by a Hydra agent and Cap uses his new powers for the first time to capture him. The second is the film’s climax when Cap battles the Red Skull aboard his bomber, which will target US cities. As the climax of the narrative and the spectacle, the sequence is intended as the most exciting and the most significant, a direct threat to America being the most dramatic scenario possible. The stakes are raised further by the sequence being one of only three scenes in which Cap is actually hurt, the others being (consistently), when he fights the Red Skull. Not only is America threatened, but our hero might actually lose this time. The allied international forces work together to save the world, but the stakes are highest when the US itself is in danger. It will be interesting to see if the threat in The Avengers has a similar global dimension.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Other Screens

)So far we have considered superheroes primarily on film and television screens, but these are not the only screens on which these characters appear. There are a number of web series online that draw upon the superhero genre, and the internet has provided a distribution medium which has enabled numerous fan films to reach a viewership beyond that found at conventions or by video tape swaps. (The practice of making fan films may be the topic of a future post; in the meantime, Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers offers the classic academic exploration of fan cultures and fan production, while Clive Young's Homemade Hollywood provides a more general historical approach to fan production.)

Of course, this is not the only way in which superheroes appear on our computer screens. Superhero computer gaming goes back at least as far as 1979's Superman for the Atari 2600 and has ranged through platform games, first- and third-person shooters, as well as multi-player online games such as DC Universe Online (2011). These games allow players to control the actions of their favourite heroes, or their own characters, with a focus on the visual action of superhero conflict. With game studies a growing field, this area of screen superhero adventures is ripe for exploration.

Similarly, the viewing of comics on the computer or similar screen is an understudied area. Whether these are fan-produced scans and translations ('scanlations') of comics from other countries, or digital reproductions of archival or new material, or new material produced explicitly for electronic presentation, the use of the computer or mobile 'phone screen or similar for viewing comics material is a fairly new and growing market. As with any new development, the industry and the consumer face both benefits and drawbacks from this approach. Access to material no longer depends on what is stocked at the comics store, which can be of particular benefit in relation to more unusual or older material, but the direct distribution to the consumer threatens the continued existence of those comics stores. (A useful overview of some of these issues can be found in Hochstein, Joseph, "After the Boom: Why the Comics Industry May Need to Adapt to its Recent Growth" (2009). Master of Science in Publishing. Paper 12.

Industry aside, there are also questions about how consuming these comics through different media affects that consumption. Does accessing a back issue on the glowing screen of a tablet computer have any difference to reading the paper-based issue, with its tactility, its smell, the sound of turning pages? Does the possibility of instant delivery change how comics are consumed? Does the semi-animation of motion comics enhance the story or limit its interpretation by incorporating actor voice performances and disrupting the composition of the image by animating parts of it? Whatever the answers, this is clearly fertile ground for further exploration.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

End of Call for Papers Period: Early Observations

As we draw to the close of our Call for Papers Period (on Sunday 31st July), we thought this would be a good opportunity to summarise some of our findings, and to assure you all that we will be continuing to post entries about the project, and about superhero texts. 

While it would be easy to assume that superheroes have travelled the globe beginning from American origin points, this has often not been the case, as shown by early examples of non-American superheroes like the Mysterions in Japan or Darna, from the Phillippines, one of the world's first superheroines (see our earlier posts for more on these superheroes). Even the marketing, merchandising and adaptation processes we see so often in relation to blockbuster American franchises have be mirrored within local global cultures (see our earlier post on Sailor Moon, for example). Moreover, the blockbuster superhero productions from America also have their world cinema counterparts in high profile Bollywood and Chinese films in particular (see posts on Mr and Mrs Incredible, and information about Ra.One and Krrish).But there are also independent, low-budget versions of the superhero being made within world cinema, for instance Griff the Invisible from Australia, or La Mujer Murcielago (see earlier posts for more).

World television, too, has produced some exceptional superheroes ranging from Bananaman to Misfits in the UK alone, covering the gamut from children's animated television to more gritty adult shows. Television provides  perhaps the best examples of imaginative re-workings of the idea of the superhero for different local contexts, with animation providing the potential of grandeur and scope; with the sitcom providing ironic reinterpretations of the superhero; with soap operas and dramas creating a space for super-families on screen and with television series giving a longer life to these varied interpretations than would ever be possible in a film (or even film franchise).

In these ways, then, we believe that superheroes do not just follow "the American Way", but interact with culture in complex, challenging and exciting ways that speak to our changing understanding of contemporary globalisation; a globalisation that includes as many local, national inputs as it does American.

Friday, July 29, 2011

World Animation and Superheroes

While Hollywood has long dominated the live-action market for superhero films because of the high quality special effects its big budgets are able to generate, the animated superhero offers a distinctly different picture. For example, Japanese animation is filled with superheroic characters for girls and boys, not least of which might be Sailor Moon or the Gatchaman phenomenon. These too, could quite rightly be considered some of the most important of superheroes for this project, given the ways that Japanese animation has traversed the globe, attracting wide audiences of fans. Animation, then, provides a venue for the superhero that we believe might be usefully explored in a project like this one.

Moving beyond Japan, too, there are numerous animated heroes we might attend to, both on television and in film. From new computer generated French animated film The Prodigies ( by Studio 37 and Warner Brothers, to British variations in television cel animation like Superted ( Bananaman (, animation from around the world is replete with idiosyncratic versions of the superhero. These animated superheroes are intriguingly non-uniform in nature – offering films and television shows made to appeal to disparate audience demographics, stories with themes from the emphatically local to the global, visual styles from the realist to the surreal and histories that are intrinsically linked to shifts in notions of the popular around the world. These animated heroes are radically under-represented in academic writing, and we expect that this collection will highlight some of their importance in maintaining the global presence of superheroes even in moments where there were very few live action, big budget superhero films being made.