- The Modern Superhero in Film and Television by Jeffrey A. Brown
By Jeffrey A. Brown
New York City: Routledge, 2016, 182 pp.
Much of the previous research surrounding superhero films has situated the films within other genres, often as extensions of action, fantasy, or other applicable categorizations. In The Modern Superhero in Film and Television, Jeffrey A. Brown argues that since the start of the new millennium, beginning with X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000), the canon has been large enough that superhero films can now be validated as being their own genre. And, while comic books may have inspired superhero films, since 2000 these films have become more and more independent from this source material.
Using Thomas Schatz’s theory of genre evolution, Brown outlines how genres develop over time until they are “formalized” (7) with established storytelling and cinematic tropes that eventually move into a phase which is a “self-aware or self-reflexive period” (7). Instead of describing the evolution in a linear fashion, Brown does so thematically. The book is structured into six chapters with each chapter introducing a new theme. While Brown mostly addresses film adaptations, he describes how characters can exist on film and TV simultaneously (The Flash [on The CW, 2014–], for example), with both characters evolving concurrently but at different paces in different media. Given the different rates of development Brown focuses on cinema, which is the slower but more spectacular of the two media.
The first chapter examines the economics of the genre and Brown makes a clear argument about the appeal of these films. That is, as expensive as they are to make, they generate a lot of money. The genre’s profitability since the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU) in 2008 has contributed to the popularity of the genre as a whole. The vast number of films being released in a year, the spin-offs, and the creation of the uncompetitive DC Cinematic Universe (the DCCU) are further evidence.
The second chapter shifts focus to gender as it is read through contemporary superhero films and is by far the strongest chapter. Brown’s three basic arguments are: men are overly masculine in the genre; men are overrepresented as both protagonists and as fans; and, narratively, women are fetishized as sexual objects of desire rather than as independent characters. Male superheroes reinforce hegemonic masculinity and, the assumption is, like most action-based genres the majority of audience members are straight males. Consequently, protagonists are not only predominantly male, but also predominantly straight. As [End Page 99] Brown points out, the male superhero will often be paired with an oversexualized female partner in an effort to both appease the male viewer and reinforce their heterosexuality.
In the third chapter Brown takes an interesting approach in illustrating the obvious connection between the growing interest in the genre and the events of 9/11. Discussing the correlation between 9/11 and American “hypermasculinity,” superheroes function as stand-ins for the average man, allowing filmmakers to reinvent and rectify the pasts of individual superheroes (such as origin stories wherein they are orphans) and/or collective pasts (the destruction of a city using mise-en-scène aesthetics that illicit memories of 9/11). Yet Brown argues that orphan origin stories get redundant, and after over a decade of 9/11 storytelling, these narratives are both clichéd and exploitative if done in the wrong manner (see Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice [Zack Snyder, 2016]). Furthermore, audiences are divided about the type of masculinity that emerges from such narratives.
Brown’s next chapter turns to nostalgia and American exceptionalism using Superman and Captain America as cases for nationalist superheroes. Brown explains the shift of two propaganda characters created during WWII, both of whom represent a differing set of ideals than their contemporary, post-9/11, counterparts. In the case of Superman, the character morphs from the naïve boy scout into the version introduced in Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013) who is dire and dark, representing a less optimistic view of America. Captain America’s focus is much more organic...