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?