A Book Review by Tony Williams.
Before you can say “Meryl Streep”, “Mamma Mia”, “Shazam”, in addition to the many superheroes and heroines and recent critical studies, Superheroes on World Screens (University Press of Mississippi, 2016) co-edited by two “Wonder Women” appears. Despite the earlier necessary demolition done by William Klein in Mr. Freedom (1969), the figure is more prevalent today than ever. In my one exploration of a certain comic book store in my local “heart of darkness” I searched in vain for evidence of Savoy publications such as Lord Horror and Meng & Ecker, but was informed by the owner that his customers were into superheroes rather than the more interesting Dark Lord of Melnibone created by Michael Moorcock and other radical deconstructions within this tradition.
Such are the times we live in. It is an era when Tina Turner’s once relevant ode “We Don’t Need another Hero” becomes deafened by more versions of “Super Trooper,” a song associated by one of the more camp representatives of 70s pop still taken seriously today. However, despite reservations over the commercial proliferation of this phenomenon, it is an unavoidable part of the cultural landscape and deserving of study if only to ask “Why do we need such images now in a time of personal and political despair?” Such a question is not really answered in this study that devotes its attention to the transnational aspect of the superhero as it occurs in so many intersecting aspects of world culture.
Following an Introduction, the editors divide various contributions into three main areas – Section One comprises “Not Just the American Way: Rethinking the `Americanness’ of US Superheroes”; Section Two examines “Superheroes on World Screens: From Local Productions to Transnational Blockbusters” while Section Three concludes with “The Politics, Morality, and Socio-cultural Impact of Superheroes of World Screens”. Despite my skepticism concerning the status of the whole Superhero concept as a secular substitution for those deities of ancient times designed to provide different types of opium for duped masses, I have to stop joking in the same manner that the TV Batman character evolved from Cesar Romero into the more darker performances of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger and seriously admit that the co-editors have provided a diverse collection of essays for those interested in following this phenomenon beyond national boundaries into more global versions of a Douglas Sirk film starring Zarah Leander Zu Neuen Ufern (1937). (I earnestly hope that evidence will emerge sometime proving Zarah to be an undercover Soviet agent like Marika Rokk, but I’m wandering away from my focus on this book). I still miss the camp fun of the original Batman TV series which never took the concept seriously rather than its current gloomy representations. But if one critic writing in Wide Angle years ago pointed out that today’s Realism often changes into tomorrow’s Melodrama then Camp may be taken seriously decades later. This may explain Abba’s later canonization via a stage musical and film version starring Hollywood’s contemporary Diva Meryl Streep.
This collection is the first concentrated attempt to think through the meanings and significance of the superhero not just as a product of US culture, but as a series of “local, transnational and global exchanges in popular media” (3). All contributors trace “the appearances of superhero texts as part of wider cultural negotiations between globalizing media exchanges and local histories and texts” revealing that “meanings are culturally and contextually dependent, and that the superhero genre is often subject to local reinterpretations and remodeling” (4).
Kevin Patrick’s Section One essay “The Transplanted Superhero: The Phantom Franchise and Australian Popular Culture” notes the difficult path of negotiation involving the movement of one product from America to Australia in its different manifestations. The eventual 1996 film version (directed by Simon Wincer and starring Billy Zane) “became an unintended victim of the phenomenal success of Tim Burton’s Batman which did more than just demonstrate the commercial potential of comic book movie franchises, it also proved that audiences were more than ready to embrace darker, morally ambivalent superheroes” (33). In “Thor, God of Borders,” Vincent M. Gaine notes how Thor (2011) problematized the notion of an “American product” culturally and commercially in terms of its transnational elements. Interesting those these aspects are, the question arises why this film at this particular time and whether globalization proved monolithic in terms of critiquing a Western European concept of masculinity rather than questioning it.
In Section Two, Lincoln Geraghty provides an interesting study of the role of the San Diego Comic-Con, “Heroes of Hall H”, in developing Doctor Who as a transnational Superhero in terms of the later manifestations of this character. Broadening the appeal to American audiences in the reboot resulted in this.
Alongside the likes of Batman and Superman, iconic symbols of Americana ever present at Comic-Con, the Doctor has become more of a `super-hero’ character in his own right. Still distinctly British in origin, he is also American in character, influenced by the changing contexts of how television heroes have been depicted on screen. More conflicted and emotional, the Doctor is a troubled superhero attractive to a young and increasingly media-savvy audience. His superheroism is all the more remarkable for the way it has been retrospectively re-cast with homages to the alien origins, costuming, and super-intelligence of traditional American superheroes, despite the Doctor’s overtly British origins. (92)
Significant though this may be, the complex issue of global cultural appropriation and imperialism is left unexplored. Throughout this collection, contributors trace how changes in culture and transnationality have influenced the current depiction of superheroes but the question of loss often needs a more detailed treatment. Daniel Martin does raise this in the conclusion of the Japanese/Korean Animation Blade of the Phantom Master where he sees the visibility of the heroine’s national origin sacrificed “in favor of emphasizing the character not as a hero but as a superhero” where the Japanese animation aspects “contributes to a global narrative of female superheroism, continued in American comic books and other worldwide media, celebrating while objectifying the female hero” (111).
In “`Tu Mera Superman’: Globalization, Cultural Exchange, and the Indian Superhero”, Ian Robert Smith applies the five successive stages of cultural exchange devised by Russian semiotician Yuri Lotman in The Universe of the Mind (1990) to the Indian appropriation and cultural development of the American Superman model to present “a contemporary vision of India that is culturally hybrid and globally engaged. Taking us away from the notion that the Indian superhero is necessarily a localized imitation of the US superhero, or indeed that the character himself must be located within India, the film (Krrish, 2006) instead draws our attention to the ways in which the Indian superhero now functions in dialogue with the local and the global” (128).
In “Fighting for Truth, Justice, and the Islamic Way”, co-editor Rachel Mizsei-Ward notes the reaction of American right-wing bloggers to an Islamic cartoon series many of them had never seen that resulted in its delayed general release in America, as well as commenting on the role of superheroine costume such as the hijab worn for many different reasons. Despite The 99 being “politically and culturally conservative” (167), it also contains several ideological traits such as superhero desire for helping those in trouble and providing a role model for good behavior that parallel many of the values of right-wing blogger opponents (163). Ironically, after gaining Netflix distribution, The 99 “continues in its attempt to emulate the success of America’s global superhero brands” (167).
This collection represents an interesting development in examining the international developments of a national manifestation and should lead to further studies exploring its implications. However, better proof-reading was needed as in the occasional lack of bibliographic entries for cited texts as with Dittmer, 2012 on p.7; Olson, 2000 on p.37 (citing another collection as reference is unacceptable); Buckingham, 2002 on p. 67; Lawrence and Jewett, 1977 on p. 87; and Kozloff on p.120. Different dates are given to David Bordwell on p. 62 and the bibliography. Hopefully, these will all be corrected in a future edition. However, despite the excavation undertaken by this collection, the question remains: “Do we need Another (Super) Hero” both in Cinema and Everyday Life in view of other pressing threats to our daily existence?
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the English Department of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Contributing Editor to Film International, author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and co-editor of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh UP, 2016).