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Title:Vigilantes, incorporated: an ideological economy of the superhero blockbuster
Author(s):Claverie, Stephen Ezra
Director of Research:Capino, José B.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Capino, José B.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Hansen, Jim; Kaganovsky, Lilya; Rushing, Robert A.; Grady, Frank
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Abstract:Since 2000, the comic-book superhero blockbuster has become Hollywood's most salient genre. "Heroes, Incorporated: A Political Economy of the Superhero Blockbuster" examines these seemingly reactionary fantasies of American power, analyzing their role in transmedia storytelling for a conglomerated and world-spanning entertainment industry. This dissertation argues that for all their apparent investment in the status quo and the hegemony of white men, superhero blockbusters actually reveal the disruptive and inhuman logic of capital, which drives both technological and cultural change. Although focused on the superhero film from 2000 to 2015, this project also considers the print and electronic media across which conglomerates extend their franchises. It thereby contributes to the materialist study of popular culture and transmedia adaptation, showing how 21st century Hollywood adapts old media for new platforms, technologies, and audiences. The first chapter traces the ideology of these films to their commercial roots, arguing that screen superheroes function as allegories of intellectual property. The hero's "brand" identity signifies stability, even as the character's corporate owners continually revise him (rarely her). Because young men spend the most on ancillary merchandise, studios favor iconic characters and repeatable coming-of-age narratives that flatter this audience without alienating others. In this production regime, economic and intellectual capital takes human shape in superheroes and their logos, trademarks that outlive both their creators and the filmmakers who depict them. The second chapter examines Time Warner's Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan, arguing that they dramatize the work of bricolage involved in making a commercial brand. Producers assemble blockbuster movies from disparate sources, and each movie in turn becomes a new source from which the studio can borrow elements to extend the brand across other media. By combining elements drawn from many Batman comic books (sold by Time Warner subsidiary DC Comics), Nolan's films simultaneously address a mass audience that interprets them as a more self-contained texts, and a cult audience that interprets them as remixes and revues of familiar scenes and narrative elements, often decades old. Moreover, these films justify the ways of brand management to the audience, preparing us for future Batman narratives by different filmmakers or featuring different actors. The third chapter looks at Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009) as an example of a conglomerate’s attempt to convert a modernist, "off-brand" superhero comic book into a transmedia franchise. Although this film fared poorly at the box office, its release sent reprints of the 1987 Watchmen graphic novel to the top of the bestseller lists. The film adapts Watchmen as prestige films adapt novels, transferring narrative and even dialogue to the screen, and producers marketed the film explicitly in terms of its "fidelity" to its source. Yet the franchise's mixed results show the company's failure to bridge mass and cult audiences. Where the graphic novel indicts US conglomerates' exploitation of superheroes as intellectual property, the movie franchise performs that exploitation. My study of this franchise thereby illuminates the processes at work as producers decide which texts to adapt, how to adapt them, and for what audience segments. The fourth chapter analyzes the cultural logic of Blackness in superhero movies, perhaps the most visible way that studios negotiate between the segments of their core US audience while modeling racial inclusion for global audiences. Superhero blockbusters both show and suppress racial difference, reinforcing white hegemony in the US through gestures that appear inclusive. Bricolage here operates at the intersection of race, textual source, and star image, as filmmakers cast internationally famous Black actors, creating an aura of diversity without examining American race relations. Wary of alienating whites, superhero blockbusters either keep silent about race or treat racism as part of a remote past even in films set in the past. In their handling of race, superhero movies once again ask viewers to feel pleased with the world they inhabit, and not to make, or even to remember, organized attempts to change that world.
Issue Date:2016-05-04
Rights Information:copyright 2016 Ezra Claverie
Date Available in IDEALS:2016-11-10
Date Deposited:2016-08

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