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.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Superhero Adaptations

At the moment there appears to be an almost constant flow of material from comic books to film, television and computer gaming. Adaptations can be very appealing to audiences with “their mixture of repetition and difference, of familiarity and novelty.” (Hutcheon 2006: 114) The film adaptations of novels are often subjected to very negative comments that take a “profoundly moralistic” tone, with a suggestion that the adaptation is unworthy and a betrayal of the viewer’s feelings for the text. (Stam 2000: 54) This also happens with comic book films, especially as there are multiple aspects of fidelity to deal with. With a book adaptation there is some flexibility in elements such as a character’s appearance because textual descriptions can be interpreted in different ways. However for comic books the illustrated panels are a key part of the work, defining in a very concrete manner what things should look like. This visual fidelity is on top of the usual issues of narrative fidelity. In addition many of the most successful comics are long running epic narratives, with characters such as Superman, Batman and Spiderman in continuous monthly publication for decades. These characters often appear in several comics each month, which do not necessarily combine into one meta-narrative. When it comes to creating a film, this means there are multiple narratives, as well as different versions of the same narrative, and characters and the creators have to make choices over which one is used.
Unfortunately the adaptation of graphic novels which are frequently self-contained narratives is equally problematic.

Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was heavily changed when adapted into a film. The role of Allan Quatermain was heavily expanded, to make greater use of Sean Connery. In the graphic novels he is a self-interested and pragmatic character and a sidekick to the leader of the League Mina Murray. To fit more with Connery’s star persona Quatermain has become the heroic leader of the League, sidelining Mina to a secondary role. In addition a father-and-son narrative with Quatermain and Tom Sawyer has been inserted which bulks out Connery’s role further but adds a very different spin to the story. This kind of narrative is common in blockbusters, but not necessarily so common in independent comics, and becomes out of place. In addition it required the insertion of an appropriate character to perform this function, Tom Sawyer, who it appears was picked to appeal to American audiences.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

One Week Left

This is a reminder that there is only one week left for you to submit your proposals for our collection! Details are at the Call for Papers. Email us your 250-word proposals at by 31st July.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Special Effects and Superhero Film and Television

It could be argued that, since the claim that “You’ll believe a man can fly!” made for the 1978 Superman film, the history of special effects has been married in no small way to the history of the comic book film. But is this true of superheroes from outside America? And what of superhero films and television with smaller-than-blockbuster budgets? Recent American superhero franchises have helped to push the boundaries of computer generated technology on a global level, but the same could be argued for local production; for instance in Krishh(2006) or Ra.One(2011) in India. Ra.One provides a fascinating example of a film heavily showcasing CGI stunts, which were produced by a company owned by its star actor, Shahrukh Khan. In overlooking such connections, we might risk missing the power relations between the companies responsible for realising the “super” within superhero films.

Moreover, within television the international, or even global, language of visual effects is complicated by local companies vying for recognition within local, regional and global industrial communities. For example, UK series Misfits (2009-) uses The Bluff Hampton Company, based in London, for its remarkable effects that include prosthetics and visual effects work. However, these effects mirror the kinds of work undertaken within Hollywood productions; for example, producing onscreen doubling of characters, erasing wires used to hold actors mid-air, creating explosions and so on ( While these effects may have been localised within the show’s London-based diegesis, they still conform to the uses of effects within US films and television, and thereby enable The Bluff Hampton Company to showcase its global standard production work. Of course, more experimental work exists, and these can help to create different kinds of aesthetics, and can work to challenge the dominance of a Hollywood-centred narrative of special effects production.

Neither route is seen as “better” in this collection, but we are concerned to engage with how the techniques of production can alter or adhere to aesthetic techniques used to produce the “super” of heroes on screen. Consequently, special and visual effects, as well as stunts, performance capture, prosthetics, animatronics and make-up are all areas we would be interested in receiving proposals on.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Blockbuster Aesthetics and the Global Languages of X-Men: First Class

The X-franchise has long embraced notions of cross-cultural communication, be it through the incorporation of Ororo “Storm” Munroe, worshipped as a goddess in her native country, within the X-family, or Wolverine/Logan’s time in Japan, or bringing together of internal American others like the X-Men with the literally underground mutant Morlocks. These, intra-, cross- and transnational aspects of the X-texts has been revisited across the film franchise to date, which stars an openly multi-national cast, and features scenes set in a range of disparate countries (even emphasising the disparities between US States, for example in Rogue/Marie’s tracing of her planned journey from the Southern United States through to Canada). I would argue, however, that X-Men: First Class is the first of the films to overtly emphasise multiple language.

In X-Men: First Class, for example, we travel with Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender, who has yet to become villain Magneto) as he tracks down Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) in a quest for revenge over the death of his mother. Along the way we hear not just English, but also get subtitled German, French, Russian and Spanish among others. A particularly intriguing scene shows Lensherr in conversation with former Nazis in South America, and they all shift languages throughout the scene from Spanish to both German and English. In addition, the film even builds to a multi-national moment of crisis as the mutants become embroiled in the Cuban missile crisis. In doing so, the aural and visual landscapes of X-Men: First Class offer a new array potential pleasures to global audiences, embedding its “American” narrative within a diegetic landscape that is perhaps more extremely global than ever before. We hope that this example from the X-franchise will sparks ideas among contributors relating to the languages of superhero films, and we would welcome your thoughts on the subject.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Gender, Sexuality and Ideology and the Superhero

Female superheroes in American film and television are often subordinate to male superheroes. This is in stark contrast to super-heroines outside America who are more likely to get their own films and television series, with examples such as Darna, the Mexican luchador Batwoman and Mega Mindy from Holland.

Heroic Trio (1993) is a Hong Kong superhero film which features the top three female stars of Hong Kong cinema of the 90s; Anita Mui, Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh. These beautiful actresses make particularly stunning super-heroines, but a superhero film relies on more than having attractive cast  members. In comparison many American superheroes are effectively sexless, with their out of costume liaisons acting as nothing more than a front for their more important heroic activities. The most famous character that does this is Bruce Wayne, who is portrayed as a rich playboy, and uses women as an accessory to conceal his Batman persona. Peter Parker, and Clark Kent, although both paired with regular girlfriends (Mary-Jane Watson, Lois Lane) have difficulty moving their romantic relationships forward, especially within the context of the films, for a variety of reasons. 

The plot of Heroic Trio is unusual for a superhero film as it revolves around an ancient eunuch stealing male babies, a threat that – the film suggests – women are particularly adept at dealing with, as in contrast male superheroes usually don’t have to deal with this kind of threat to society. It could be suggested that the plot (and some of the action sequences) owes a considerable debt to a similar sequence in Hard Boiled (1992) where Chow Yun-Fat’s character Tequila must save newly born children in incubators in a maternity ward from a gun battle between gangsters and the police. Heroic Trio, by making this minor theme the entire story, suggests that super-heroines, and by extension women, would only be interested in cute babies in danger. The interesting part of this is that these are male babies in danger, arguably suggesting that female babies aren’t worth considering, although it takes heroic women to save the boys.

The villain as an eunuch, occupies a liminal position as being both a man, but not a male. However it is important to note that eunuchs are common villainous characters in Hong Kong martial arts films. Therefore we should be careful to see this as suggesting that heroines are unable to fight men. For example in 1992 (the year before Heroic Trio) we saw Asia the Invincible, a eunuch played by Brigitte Lin in Swordsman 2. The issues of gender and sexuality are probably more interesting in this film than in Heroic Trio. The character of Asia is a man who has castrated himself to gain supernatural powers, yet portrayed by an actress. In addition Jet Li’s character, Ling Wu-Chung, falls in love with Asia, putting homosexuality upfront in a mainstream Hong Kong action film.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

La Mujer Murcielago (1968)

Mexico's luchadors, the masked wrestlers, are a well-known pop-culture export, to the extent that the most famous of them all, Santo, appears not only in his own series of 54 films but also as a character in Turkey's 3 Dev Adem (1973). Luchador films often position their heroes as fighting crime and encountering supernatural and superscience villainy which, combined with their physical ability, hidden identities and masks, places them at least on the borders of the superherhero genre, with some examples lying firmly within it. One such example is the 1968 La Mujer Murcielago, also known as Batwoman. Not only is that a direct translation of the title, and the character's name, but she also wears variations on the Adam West Batman costume as wrestling and adventuring gear, including a bikini version complete with mask, cape and mini-utility belt in which she makes her first entrance, by parachute, and continues wearing as she is briefed by a pathologist and, indeed, through most of her subsequent adventures, while wearing a full body suit for her professional wrestling engagements.

Maura Monti as La Mujer Murcielago is clearly intended to be the subject of the male gaze, while also being the star and representing a successful, skilled woman who is called upon by men to resolve a problem they cannot. She represents one of the many female superheroes found around the world; indeed, it seems that female superheroes are subjects of their own films or television productions much more outside the US and UK than they are within those countries, with Darna alone clocking up at least nineteen films and TV series, alongside characters such as Mega Mindy, Heroic Trio, Lady Black Cat, Shakira, Cutie Honey, and many others, although they are still outnumbered by the representations of male heroes.

Is this true, and if so, why? How do these representations reflect local as well as international conceptions of gender and genre? How do these conceptions shift over time?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Reception of Superheroes

The comic book movie has had a patchy reception history: when it has led the way in producing new film technologies and spectacle it has often been well-received (for example, the 1970s-80s Superman franchise), but the genre has also seen nadirs in reputation ranging from Howard the Duck (Willard Hyuck, 1986) to Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (1997), and this before a global element of superhero filmmaking is included. The current cycle of American superhero films, which many cite as beginning with Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), has now become well-developed enough to be producing films seen as “bad” by critics. The last few months alone have seen the critical mauling of Green Lantern (Martin Campbell, 2011) and wildly divergent opinions on Thor (Kenneth Brannah, 2011) and X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011). While it is perhaps understandable that a maturing genre or cycle of film production will result in films of varying quality, what we might add as academics is a sense of the contexts through which the reputation of the superhero film keeps rising and falling.

This is important because, with the rise and fall of reputation, we get new kinds of superheroes in new contexts. Moreover, the reception of the superhero film in a global framework can take on a multitude of local forms. As well as the significant differences that can emerge between, for instance, a Thai or a South African reading of an American superhero film, we also have widespread review and opinion online that are bringing ever more obscure examples of the superhero film to light. We hope that reading this post will inspire some of you to tackle the fast-changing discussions of the superhero in print, online, on television or in the myriad other formats that currently make or break the reputation of screen superheroes.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Supersonic Man (1980)

Spain / Italy, Dir. Juan Piquer Simón

The theme of this week's main article is the reception of superhero films, so as an accompanying clip we present the 1980 Spanish film Supersonic Man.

The responses to this film on the internet, and also from the American distributors of a DVD version, illustrate the ways that differing contexts of reception can change the understanding of a product. A review on the blog Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill! mentions 'laughable dialog augmented by overwrought English dubbing', raising the issue of reception being influenced by linguistic understanding. The IMDB entry on the film uses an American DVD release cover as an illustration, which positions the film as 'A Superspoof of Superheroes'. But how much of this is true of the original production? And how much is this simply another example of genre cinema from one nation being measured against the production and narrative values of a different national industry?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Iconography and Aesthetics

There are hundreds, possibly thousands of superheroes worldwide. However some of the most successful have instantly recognisable iconography. This iconography is hugely important and Henry Jenkins has argued that the costumes, insignia and weaponry of modern heroic characters “mirrored the detailed descriptions of the shields and weapons of the different Greek heroes found in Homer, suggesting that heraldry in some forms remains an active element in stories across history.” It is this ‘heraldry’ that makes different superheroes easily identifiable, something that was crucial in the early comics which were frequently poorly printed. Today, in a film like X Men: First Classor Watchmen where a large number of superheroes and villains are introduced in a short space of time, audiences need to be able to quickly identify the different characters. A secondary part of a superhero’s iconography is the way that it can tell a viewer something about the character, their personality and attitudes. If we look at Green Arrow and Green Lantern, two green-suited DC superheroes that often work together and have similar goals, their iconography is key to telling them apart. In addition Green Arrow’s Robin Hood inspired costume reflects the way he takes radical action against social and political issues, just like his forebear.

As a wartime creation Captain America was deliberately patriotic and symbolic of the nation he represented. This connection to America is depicted clearly through his iconography. He wears a red, white and blue costume decorated with the stars and stripes. It is interesting to note that Captain America usually carries only a shield which (although used as a discus), suggests that he and by extension America, is a defender not an aggressor.

I am wondering how well this kind of patriotic character will translate internationally. Politically, America is not universally respected, and a character that defines himself by his American values may be poorly received. However in this Captain America film the character has been safely contained within a historical past with an unproblematic war that has universally accepted villains. By contrast his appearance in the upcoming Avengers film may be more problematic because it is set in the present. What other examples of patriotic superheroes are there, and how well have they travelled outside their geographical boundaries?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Deadline Reminder: 1 Month to Go

Just a quick reminder that there is just one month to go before the deadline for proposals for our edited collection Not Just The American Way: Screen Superheroes in National, International and Transnational Contexts. All proposals need to be sent to by 31st July 2011. If you want a reminder of what we are looking for, please check our Call for Papers, and see the posts throughout this blog for some potential inspiration. Essentially, however, we are looking for 250-word proposals for chapters that examine screen representations of superheroes outside the US; if you have an idea but are not sure if it will fit, then email us at the address above.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mr and Mrs Incredible (San kei hap lui)

Dir: Vincent Kok. China/Hong Kong. 2011. 100 mins


Mr and Mrs Incredible is a Hong Kong comedy film about a pair of married superheroes who decide to retire. The film was released during the Chinese New Year festival, which as it's a national holiday, is one of the key periods for cinema going in China. An interesting thing to note is that this film is supposed to be set in Feudal China. These kind of historical periods are typical for martial arts and wuxia films, where characters typically have remarkable physical skills. Certainly it could be argued that the wuxia hero is somewhat similar to the superhero; both honouring a code of chivalry, while fighting for what is right and helping the poor and oppressed. On this basis it doesn't seem strange to place superheroes in this kind of context.

Here's the attractive-looking website for Mr and Mrs Incredible, but if you don't read Chinese there is probably little point visiting.

This is in contrast to many Bollywood film websites which frequently incorporate enough English to be understandable for those of us who don't speak the right language.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Superheroes on TV

The superhero genre is one that is often considered to be one of spectacle. After all, the comics from which many of the genre's tropes derive are full of displays of power, be it flight, strength, energy beams or fighting prowess. But it is this spectacle which is limited on television particularly by the budget and the production schedule, which cannot typically afford either extensive effects or the time for extravagant fight choreography.

One way around this has been to avoid the more spectacular displays of power. This frequently happens with live-action superhero shows, such as the British series Misfits, where the central characters have abilities which are mostly conveyed through performance and editing effects, with a little post-production work. The other empowered individuals that they encounter similarly have less spectacular abilities, at least in terms of them producing effects to be looked at - spectacle. This avoids the issue of poor effects rendering something which should be spectacular as ridiculous (an effect arguably embraced by the superhero sitcom My Hero, with its flight effects no more sophisticated than those used with George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman in the 1950s). It also allows for a concentration on the characterisation and narrative, rather than presenting a series of special effects set pieces which are tied together by story.

An alternative is to use animation rather than live action. The exploits of the Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, whether as G-Force or Eagle Riders or Ke Xue Xiao Fei Xia, involved spectacular feats of acrobatics, combat skills, amazing vehicles, visions of technology and massive explosions.

While the individual action may have been hampered by its marionette style, British series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons also presented an unkillable lead character and the by then standard fantastic array of vehicles engaged in impressive action scenes expected from a Gerry Anderson series.

The state of any particular television industry and its relations to the film industry also influence the options open to productions, which is why the Japanese live action Spider-Man television series from 1978-1979 was able to show a more spectacular approach to the character than the exactly contemporary American The Adventures of Spider-Man. The access to Toei's effects and stunt departments and their experience with the then-popular mecha shows meant that they were able to achieve a very different, and rather more spectacular, version of the character than the American television version.

But this raises a series of other questions: how much of this difference is cultural rather than medium-specific? Are production companies more restrained by their conceptions of what is appropriate for particular genres than they are by the actual limitations of budget and production? And how important is spectacle to the superhero genre in any case? The primary special effects for the Linda Carter Wonder Woman and the Bill Bixby / Lou Ferrigno The Incredible Hulk were arguably their performers, together with some creative use of camera angles and basic stunt work, yet these remain fondly-remembered and highly influential versions of the characters. Do superheroes need to defy gravity to be super?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


The multi-award-winning E4 series Misfits presents a very British look at teenage superheroes. Well, superpowered individuals, as their actions are often governed by selfishness and result in a number of deaths, even while also being driven by some basic ideas of morality. Misfits takes Stan Lee's idea that Spider-Man, and various other of his creations, are identifiably like 'real' teenagers and places it in a recognisable modern London, where the characters' motivations are not changed into sudden nobility and maturity (signified by teen Peter Parker taking on the persona of a Spider-Man) by their gaining of powers, but where they are also not actually bad - just young.

The trailer for the second series linked above also suggests the ways that the programme engages with one of the issues of superheroes on television - the question of spectacle. That is the question we will return to on Friday for a longer look at international superheroes on television.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Transmedia Franchising and the Superhero

The phenomenon of transmedia franchising is nothing new, particularly in America. Pulp characters, many of whom can be argued to be prototype superheroes, were quickly turned into films. Zorro first appeared in the 1919 story The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley which was turned into The Mark of Zorro in 1920, staring Douglas Fairbanks. While the Shadow started life in 1930 as the mysterious narrator of the radio show Detective Story Hour before getting his own pulp stories. This kind of transmedia franchising has become increasingly common, mostly due to sound business reasons. Jenkins quotes an unnamed screenwriter: "When I first started you would pitch a story because without a good story, you didn't really have a film. Later, once sequels started to take off, you pitched a character because a good character could support multiple stories, and now, you pitch a world because a world can support multiple characters and multiple stories across multiple media." (Jenkins 2006:114)

A richly detailed world can support not only lots of different stories in different media, but also lots of different merchandising. This is where the superhero fits so well, because the stories do not just feature one superhero - there are frequently multiple heroes and villains, all suitable for turning into merchandising products - from action figures, to lunch boxes, clothing, bedding, school bags, computer games and so on. This is all in addition to selling the comic book and film.

This is common practice in America - but how common is it in the rest of the world?

If we consider the Japanese franchise Bishōjo Senshi Sailor Moonthis kind of merchandising does happen outside of America. Sailor Moon is a “magical girl” manga about a group of high school girls who discover that they are celestial guardians with magical powers. The manga was converted into not just an anime, but also stage musicals, a live action tokusatsu series and more than 20 computer games, along with merchandising.

It's hard to decide if this is a golden age, where our fanboy interests are pandered to by the production of films, television shows and all manner of wonderful merchandising, or a consumerist hell, where we fiddle while Rome burns?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Co-Produced Superheroes

International co-production is a fact of life for the modern film industry. With many films costing between tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and market, few production companies can shoulder the cost (and risk) alone. In addition countries such as Germany offer highly favourable tax breaks for film production, making their financial contribution highly valuable, and an essential partner for many productions.

For example the English language 1995 Crying Freeman adaptation was produced by American, French and most notably Japanese production companies. These in particular seem out of their usual comfort zone, with Fuji Television Network, Toei Company and Tohokashinsha Film Company being better known for producing Japanese language films, and TV movies for consumption in Japan. In comparison this film seems an anomaly in their back catalogues. The companies would certainly have an interest in producing a film based on a well known Japanese property, despite the French director Christophe Gans, the English language production and entirely Canadian locations (despite being partially set in Japan). Toei Company also went on to distribute the film in Japan.

Does this kind of co-production matter? In some cases the production companies involved will try to influence the production because they have an interest in the property, but often it’s seen as a tax efficient way of investing money for companies that care little about film production. From my experience of looking at responses to Underworld, I found that fans weren’t concerned who the producer was, rather they were more interested in seeing a film with a gothic-punk genre, staring “badass” vampires and werewolves. As a result I seriously question whether audiences actually care how the film is funded, as long as they get the product.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Griff the Invisible

Griff the Invisible
Dir/scr: Leon Ford. Australia. 2010. 94mins

Here's a superhero film from Australia which shows that English language superheroes don't have to be American. Although compared unfavourably to the similar American film Super (2010), it might be worth watching for fans of True Blood because it stars Ryan Kwanten, who plays the role of Sookie's brother, Jason. As I write this, I realise that the reason I'm suggesting for watching this film, is its connection to an American programme. However I imagine that this connection will be a key aspect of the international marketing, and it does seem a part of the discourse surrounding the film on the internet. Does this speak of the ways that non-local cinemas are made familiar to an audience? This example exploits a familiar star, but others might use character, genre, spectacle or location to sell the film internationally.

Friday, June 3, 2011

US Superheroes in Global Markets

Continuing our series of brief looks at some of the potential areas of exploration that we mention in our Call For Papers, this week we are considering the ways that US superheroes are positioned in global markets.

The obvious current example of this can be found in the news stories that this year's upcoming Marvel film Captain America: The First Avenger will simply be titled The First Avenger in some overseas markets (see, for example, this story from the Los Angeles Times, which seems to have been the original source). The film's director, Joe Johnston, has emphasised that the version of Captain America depicted in the film will be one that represents the ideals of America, ideals that Johnston indicates to be essentially universal, rather than being an unthinking flagwaver. Of course, this approach is taken at least in part to ensure that the appeal of the character is broad in a domestic as well as an international context, as well as fitting with interpretations of the character from the original comics, where the character has, at times, resigned his position as a government symbol because of a conflict between his ideals and the practice of the government.

The international marketability of a property is obviously key within the globalised media industries. According to BoxOfficeMojo, Marvel's previous production, Thor, has made a little over 60% of its box office from non-US distribution; based on domestic takings alone, it would only just have made back its production budget, a figure which probably does not include marketing and prints. Both Iron Man films made approximately half of their box office from domestic and half from international screenings, but would clearly have been far less profitable without their international success. The same applies to the X-Men films released to date, as well as Superman Returns, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Television also has examples of the renaming of productions to focus on particular aspects: Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was known only as The New Adventures of Superman in Britain, retaining its connection to the 1950s George Reeves series, which had been shown in Britain from 1956 on, but losing the focus on the relationship between the two characters to emphasise the superhero aspects of the series. While Smallville did not have its title sequence changed, British television listings and continuity announcers referred to it as Smallville: Superman: The Early Years, to again focus on the recognisable superhero rather than to suggest any focus on the community in which the character developed which the original title suggests.

But it is not just titles that change. Last week's post mentioned the 1970s Japanese Spiderman series, which changed the character's origin and various characteristics in order to better fit with the expectations of Japanese programming. The X-Men are the subject of a current Japanese animé series, with a different aesthetic to the American X-Men cartoons of the past and present. The Turkish film 3 Dev Adam (1973) featured Captain America fighting alongside Mexican luchador Santo to defeat an evil Spiderman - all unlicensed. Which indicates that there are larger, and potentially more interesting, questions with the way that US superheroes are used in global markets, as opposed to the way that the copyright holder tries to position them.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"The Prodigies" Film Trailer

On Friday we will be posting our next blog entry based on the suggested categories from our Call for Papers. But first, here is the first of our accompanying short entries showing some of the wealth of international superhero material that is out there.

This is the trailer for the film The Prodigies, a co-production between France, Britain, Belgium, Canada, India and Luxembourg. So, with this international, largely European background, why is the film set in the United States? Are superheroes perceived as so distinctly American that such superpowered narratives have to be set there? As we will demonstrate with our examples over the following weeks, this is clearly not always the case, so why is it the case with The Prodigies? And why an English-language title, and some on-screen English text, when the rest of the trailer is in French?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Local and national superheroes outside the United States

Until recently the superhero has been considered largely an American phenomenon. This edited book collection is designed to open up the realm of the superhero to further debate in a moment of heightened inter-cultural exchange and transcultural production and reception. As part of this series of debates we are seeking to investigate the relationship between American superheroes and those that have been produced in other local cultures.

Superheroes are becoming an increasingly visible part of cultures far beyond American borders. This is in part due to the ways cultures have historically produced their own superheroes in response to America’s screen incarnations of popular comic book figures. From the Fillipino superheroine Darna, who first appeared in film in 1951 and is among the first superheroines, to the Japanese television incarnation of Spider-Man (see:, the concept of the superhero has long been a part of global discourse.

This stated, these local, non-American superheroes have, until very recently, been hard to find. We argue that the digital shift in (re-)production, along with the Internet, now allow us as academics far greater access to information about locally produced superheroes than has been possible in the past. Whether legal or grey-market fan-subtitled in origin, the local superhero is becoming increasingly global. Moreover, the American superhero, long dominant in global screen markets is now more prominent than in preceding decades and this has potential consequences outside America that are, as yet, little discussed and understood. We hope that in posing the questions of: whose superheroes are being watched, and by whom?; and, what do superheroes mean when dislocated from their original national contexts?, that we will spark further discussions about global flows in superheroes, and about how superheroes are understood in myriad local contexts around the world.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Clarification

Following a couple of enquiries we would just like to make this clarification: our Call for Papers (see below) is for an edited collection which will be published in book form or as a special edition of an academic journal.

Thank you for your interest, and please check back for further updates, coming soon.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Call for Papers

Not Just The American Way:
Screen Superheroes in National, International and Transnational Contexts

The figure of the superhero is primarily seen as an American one, dominated by Marvel and DC comics and their adaptations across multiple media. These superhero franchises operate across media networks within many of the world’s global markets, influencing local representations of heroism and being altered to meet local expectations of the superhero in turn. American culture and, indeed, American superheroes play significant roles in these phenomena and historically have often led the way in debates around the representations around superheroes in culture. However, super-powered and costumed heroes are not just American in origin; they appear in screen media across many cultures, whether as the anti-social teenagers of Britain’s Misfits, India’s alien-empowered Krrish or Japan’s Ultraman. This collection examines super-heroes and heroines as they travel around the world, exploring the figure of the superhero beyond the North American context. As such, we are interested in the local, international and transnational manifestations of superheroes, as well as in their reach beyond their originating contexts. Furthermore, we are seeking papers on the importance of the superhero to global media markets.

Potential subjects include, but are not limited to:
Local and national superheroes outside the United States
US superheroes in global markets
Co-produced superheroes
Transmedia franchising and the superhero
Superheroes on TV
Iconography and aesthetics
The reception of the superhero
Gender, sexuality and ideology and the superhero
Marketing the superhero internationally
Geographically dislocated superheroes
Cultural specificity of the superhero
Special effects and the superhero in film and/or television
Superhero adaptations
Industrial and narrative origins
The geography of superheroes
International cultural flows and exchanges in superhero phenomena

Abstracts of no more than 250 words should be sent no later than 31st July 2011 to:

Please see the blog for this project at

The collection will be edited by Rayna Denison, Derek Johnston and Rachel Mizsei-Ward.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Call for Papers Release Date

This is just a quick note to let you know that the Call for Papers for this collection will be released on 20 May to a number of mailing lists. At the same time it will be posted here on this blog. At that point, please spread the word as broadly as you can.

The release of the Call for Papers will be followed up by a number of brief blog entries in which the editors of this project take a quick look at some of the potential areas which prospective contributors might explore further.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Welcome to Superheroes on Screen. This blog has been created initially to supplement and promote a collection of academic essays on international screen superheroes - see the Call For Papers in the next post. What you will see here in the weeks to come will all be connected to superheroes on screen: trailers, articles, ideas, that might even spur ideas for your own proposals for the collection. We will also obviously keep you up to date with the progress of the book project.

Feel free to contact us and to add your comments. Please note that all comments will be moderated.

Thank you for visiting Superheroes on Screen!