For Superhero Movies


Julia Leyda (b. 1969) is Associate Professor of Film Studies in the Department of Art and Media Studies at NTNU, where she helped to found the Environmental Humanities research group. She researches climate change screen narratives, and her forthcoming book is «Reframing Todd Haynes: Feminism’s Indelible Mark» (co-edited with Theresa L. Geller, Duke University Press).

«They’re controlling our stories!»
– Hannah Gadsby, Nanette

In July 2017, after seeing Patty JenkinsWonder Woman at my local cinema, I was walking along the river with my partner discussing the movie. We encountered another group of walkers: two adult women with a young boy, about 8 years old, I would guess. The women were chatting as the boy capered ahead of them on the path, whirling around and mimicking battle-like sound effects.

The women were making appreciative noises and he was declaring how he would fight this or that way, with which kind of weapon – I couldn’t really understand as my Norwegian isn’t very good yet. But then the young man ran up to us and announced that they had just seen a movie! I managed to reply that we had too and asked which movie they saw. “Wonder Woman!” he shouted. “It was really good!” And he took off again to continue his mimicry of the superhero’s bad-ass fighting style. The women with him grinned widely and said something to the effect that they liked it too; we agreed.

Less than a year later, on Valentine’s Day 2018, I settled into the same cinema for the sold-out premiere of Black Panther with a younger and more diverse audience than usual. Afterwards, there was enthusiastic applause and excited conversation as we waited for the customary Marvel mid-credits sequences and then as the lights came up. Both these film experiences felt connected to me, not only because the content of the films was in some ways similar—superhero movies with central characters who depart in some way from the norm—but because of the audience responses I witnessed, shared in, and later read a lot about in the media.

Gal Gadot as «Wonder Woman».

The fervor with which both these films were received, in many countries and by many viewers, extended even to film reviewers who insisted that they normally don’t like “genre” films, superhero films, or some other seemingly derogatory descriptor of such hugely profitable and globally popular products of the transmedia culture industries. After I watched Wonder Woman while blinking away tears almost the whole time, I read articles, reviews, and op-eds in which women described a similar reaction: an unexpectedly strong and overwhelmingly visceral response to what they had perhaps expected to be a mediocre or perhaps simply entertaining summer movie.

Several women journalists and scholars writing these pieces in national media admitted that sharing this collective experience taught them (apparently for the first time) that representation matters. I would add that the criticism that calls attention to the cinematic failings of Wonder Woman (and there are many) is important to read and consider too. But what struck me as truly remarkable was not that this was an artifact of popular culture with serious flaws (most do); it was that so many people (female people in particular) felt personally affected by the film’s gender representations in a way that surpassed questions of plot, narrative coherence, plausibility, faithfulness to the source material, and even the ways in which problematics of race, femininity, and sexuality come across in the film.

Yet for many women the affective power of that cinematic experience rendered, however temporarily, many other considerations utterly moot. And for many of the boys in the audience, well, they seemed ready to accept and celebrate the female superhero without much hesitation.

«Black Panther».

With Black Panther, some of those dynamics came into play again. Once more, a superhero movie gave audiences images and characters that they have very rarely been able to enjoy on the big screen. Whereas several commentators noted that the first 20 minutes or so of Wonder Woman featured no men onscreen, Black Panther unveils a nearly all-black world in loving detail. Arguably a better film in many ways, the intricate world-building involved in crafting Wakanda onscreen surpasses the less developed and quickly abandoned Themiscyra, land of the Amazons.

The eruptions of excitement over the premiere and the astonishing and seemingly never-ending global box office juggernaut (the movie played in Trondheim until mid-July if I remember right), the viral videos of dancing fans in South Africa and director Ryan Coogler speaking at the Oakland premiere, the countless articles detailing the film’s production process – all attest to the appetite for news and information about Black Panther.

And while I’m not black and thus not responding to a direct identification with the racial representations on the screen, I still found breathtaking the power of the film’s jubilant representation of its wide array of black characters; I felt giddy realizing that I was a experiencing a truly historic event in cinema history, as an actual historian details in the pages of The Hollywood Reporter. The sheer critical mass of black talent at work on and behind the screen constitutes an indictment of the routine exclusions and tokenism in mainstream cinema (see cast image below, facsimile).

Source: Facebook/MarvelCinematicUniverse (facsimile).

The film’s complex portrayals of black masculinity, patriarchy, and even monarchy; its charismatic, aggressively intelligent women; and the profound ambivalence with which it portrays both its African hero and its African American villain, add up to a film worth watching and discussing regardless of its box office success. And unlike the previous film’s plotline, which for the most part sidesteps serious gender issues, Black Panther addresses the social problems that its 1960s source material references already in its title: the oppression of African Americans.

There are passionate debates in the media about whether the film’s racial politics are ultimately conservative, and those are fascinating to read and consider; I have my own opinions about that. But as with Wonder Woman, those debates also feel secondary to the affective power of Black Panther.

Colleagues in film studies have expressed both in person and online a range of opinions on these two films, but many of the conversations had difficulty breaking out of the orbits our different viewing positions as film scholars: the film’s artistic merit vs. the cultural significance and affective resonance of their representations. Those of us who work more often with the theoretical models of cultural studies – in which we seek to elucidate not primarily the artistic or aesthetic quality of the film, but its cultural context and significance – have tended to take both Wonder Woman and Black Panther much more seriously than those with a greater investment in “good” films.

Yet this opposition still makes me uneasy. I come down unambiguously on the cultural side: I have worked most of my academic career in what could be called intersectional feminist cultural studies. My doctoral dissertation included research on the black-cast musical Westerns of the 1930s – by almost no stretch of the term could those films be called “good” and they almost entirely disappeared from film history. But they meant a lot to their black audiences back then, and part of why I get choked up about the success of Black Panther is because I have read powerful accounts of the revelatory experiences of black audience members in those days. And despite the long history of sexism and racism in every aspect of cinema, there are still people who write about film for a living who are only now realizing that representation matters.

«Black Panther».

The fact that these two films were directed by a woman and an African American respectively allows for even a very commercial aesthetic to look different to its audience, and to look differently at its subject. Even in the “popular arts” as we could call superhero films, diversity and representation do matter. As Hannah Gadsby argues in her explosive stand-up special Nanette, we must not leave our stories in the hands of such a small segment of our population.

In her example, white male artists like Picasso: “They’re controlling our stories. They’re shifting our culture. They’re the ones people look at and go: ‘This was a turning point in our culture. This art is important because this great artist did this thing.’ So they’re essentially driving culture and driving our sense of selves culturally.” Her punchline: Picasso’s innovative contribution to painting, Cubism, gives us dozens of male perspectives on female nudes instead of just one. The overwhelming successes of these two superhero films attest to the screaming need for more diversity behind the camera and on the screen, which can result in different kinds of stories that speak to different kinds of audiences.

The caricatured “film snob” position (I use this hyperbolic expression to include one side of my own film scholar identity, fully admitting my devotion to certain auteurs) on these films would dismiss them perhaps even because of their popularity, their genre, their affiliation with the commercial enterprise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, I’ve had the privilege of being mentored by film scholars who problematize or completely disregard the high vs. low culture divide, and I have always insisted on my own idiosyncratic right to love and to study movies from both realms, from New German Cinema to science fiction to romcoms to indie auteurs.

«Nude under a Pine Tree» (1959).

The film world’s continued adherence to this high-low divide can only limit the future of movies and screen cultures more widely. A case in point: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences imagines itself as rewarding excellence in artistically superior films, even as film snobs scoff at such affectation, and decry the Oscars as more often rewarding banality rather than quality.

Yet how are we to take the news that the Academy has just created and then mere weeks later quickly withdrawn a Best Popular Film category, which many saw as a cynical move meant to assure Black Panther an Oscar? If the film had won the Popular statuette, would it have demonstrated that the Academy has overcome its customary disregard for “genre” films (not to mention black people)? Or would it have instituted a new “separate but equal” Jim Crow award designed to protect the Best Picture category from contamination by inferior superhero movies?

Elsewhere I’ve argued that Sharknado was, in at least some regards, a better film than Beasts of the Southern Wild (don’t get me started on that again). I suspect that the upcoming awards season will inspire more polemics in that vein.

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