“Set apart from all other human organizations”

Warner Brothers’ Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006) reprises much from Superman (Richard Donner, 1978) and from Superman II (Richard Lester, 1980). Once again, Lex Luthor plots a land grab, but the DVD-era Luthor uses Kryptonian technology that he steals from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic. Luthor compares himself to Prometheus, explaining the allusion for his moll and the audience:

“Prometheus was a god who stole the power of fire from the other gods and gave control of it to mortals. In essence, he gave us technology. […] I don’t want to be a god. I just want to bring fire to the people. And I want my cut.”

The 1978 Superman: The Movie showed only one Jor-El at a time, but here in Superman Returns (Warner Brothers, 2006) Lex Luthor conjures multiple apparitions. Marlon Brando’s repeated images make visible the film’s anxiety about scarcity and replication. In Superman Returns (Warner Brothers, 2006), Luthor goes to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, where he gains unauthorized access to the Kryptonian data archive. “Tell me everything,” he demands, “staring with crystals.”
“I just want what Prometheus wanted,” says Luthor in Superman Returns (Warner Brothers, 2006). The camera pans to Luthor’s bas-relief of Prometheus in Superman Returns (Warner Brothers, 2006).
In Superman Returns (Warner Brothers, 2006), Luthor not only steals Kryptonian technology, but he also steals the kryptonite that he plans to use against Superman. Here, we see the piece his goons drilled from a meteorite they stole from the Metropolis Museum of Natural History. Soon, Luthor will launch it into the Atlantic to begin constructing his new landmass.

Lex Luthor cradles the seed of his kryptonite-laced continent in Superman Returns (Warner Brothers, 2006).

Luthor seeds the ocean floor to begin growing a continent of towering crystals, but where the crystals of Superman’s Fortress gleam white, Luthor's resemble coal, and their growth causes earthquakes that wreak havoc in Metropolis. The crags of Luthor’s new continent make visible the moral contrast between him and Superman through their uses of Kryptonian technology. Superman possesses the complete archive of Kryptonian civilization, including their surveys of alien worlds in the “twenty-eight known galaxies,” and he uses it to create a private Olympus where he can safeguard such wonders from a species not (yet) ready. Luthor uses the same knowledge to rupture continents, a scheme that he gleefully acknowledges will kill “billions.”

As Miller et al. point out regarding U.S. intellectual property law, “copyright traditionally refuses to grant legitimacy to the pirated product as a form of social good.”[74] [open endnotes in new window] In keeping with that stance, superhero films always present the unauthorized copying of the hero’s intellectual property as a moral and social evil, even when the copiers present that copying as a good. In addition, these films always de-couple the superhero’s stewardship of intellectual property from his immediate economic interests: that is, no DC or Marvel hero adapted for the screen uses superpowers to make a living.[75] If villains copy the disinterested hero’s intellectual property, he does not risk losing his livelihood, but millions of others risk losing their lives.

Outside the diegesis, we find two other motivations for this narrative of concentrated ownership and control. First, the norms of the Superman franchise require him to inhabit our recognizable world, not a science-fiction wonderland of humans using Kryptonian technology.[76] Second, and more fundamentally, Superman replicates the unaccountable way corporations manage intellectual property. Ordinary shareholders cannot vote on how executives use intellectual property; they can only buy in or cash out. The film does not entertain the possibility that Superman might have an obligation to share Kryptonian technology with his human hosts or that the presence of alien archives on Earth warrants consultation with humanity. Instead, it implies that Superman does right by keeping them beyond our reach.

Luthor’s plan darkly mirrors Superman’s custodial relation to Kryptonian intellectual property as well as Time Warner’s own relationship to Superman texts. Although Luthor invokes Prometheus’ radical sharing, he actually plans to control scarcity: “the rest of the world will be begging me for a piece of high-tech beachfront property. In fact, they’ll pay through the nose for it.” Land, for both the 1978 and 2006 versions of Luthor, constitutes an absolute limit on wealth. The 2006 version recites something his father used to tell him: “You can print money, manufacture diamonds, and people are a dime a dozen, but they’ll always need land. It’s the one thing they’re not making any more of.” Unwilling to settle for the existing limits on the availability of land, Luthor seeks to create new limits by demolishing North America. Miller et al. note,

“Establishing scarcity through exclusivity is one of the enduring aims of copyright protection.”[77]

Here, too, Luthor, performs the inverse of Superman’s pro-social defense of intellectual property.

Moreover, Luthor performs a homicidal version of conventional marketing. In 1954, Peter F. Drucker influentially argued that marketing, and not manufacturing, trade, or the development of new commodities, constituted the unique feature of the commercial enterprise: “A business is set apart from all other human organizations by the fact that it markets a product or a service.”[78] The creation of commodities takes second place to the act of creating demand:

“Markets are not created by God, nature, or economic forces but by businessmen. […] There may have been no want at all until business action created it […] In every case it is business action that creates the customer.”[79]

Luthor creates nothing, but he seeks to use the creations of now-anonymous Kryptonian scientists to manufacture demand. Luthor understands this logic because Time Warner understands it.

Luthor’s speech about land sounds familiar because the 2006 Luthor repeats lines from the 1978 film. Superman Returns recycles much from the Christopher Reeve films, from the mise en scène of giant crystals, to John Williams’s “Superman March,” even to the re-used footage of Marlon Brando as the digital ghost of Jor-El, Superman’s father. As Matt Yockey notes, this footage “confirms the link to the first Superman film,” “distinguishes it from that film’s three sequels, none of which featured Brando,” and suggests “not only that Singer’s film should be regarded as part of the canon but that it should occupy a privileged place there.”[79a] Brando and Reeve both died in 2004, so we can read the overdetermined nostalgia of Superman Returns as an allegory of another kind of scarcity: the scarcity of Superman movies themselves. We can reformulate Luthor’s maxim accordingly:

“Time Warner can print more comic books, manufacture DVDs, and screenwriters are a dime a dozen, but they’ll always need Superman movies. The Christopher Reeve Superman films are the one thing they’re not making more of.”

Still, some dispute Time Warner’s claims to Superman. The estates of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster have continued to challenge DC and Warners into the 21st century, long after the creators’ deaths. In 2009 a judge ruled that Warners had to begin production of another Superman film by 2011 or face a suit from the Siegel estate for additional royalties.[80] The resultant film, Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013), takes the superhero as intellectual property to baroque extremes.

Snyder’s Superman faces the Kryptonian rogue General Zod, who arrives on Earth with a band of fellow exiles. Zod seeks to recover a Codex holding the genetic codes of the people of their lost planet, which Zod believes came to Earth with the baby Superman. With this “library of characters” (to use the metaphor of intellectual property managers), Zod plans to re-constitute his dead race on Earth, incidentally exterminating humans. To overdetermine Zod’s evil, the script also makes his plans explicitly racialist and genocidal, even toward Kryptonians: he plans not just to “save our race” but to “sever the degenerate bloodlines that led us to this state.” Zod’s forces cannot find the Codex, until the icy Kryptonian scientist Jax-Ur solves the mystery. Before Jor-El launched the infant Kal-El to earth, the father “took the Codex, the DNA of a billion people, and he bonded it within his son’s individual cells—all Krypton’s heirs, living, hidden in one refugee’s body.”

Kryptonian scientist Jax-Ur prepares medical torture for Superman as the villains hunt for the Codex in Man of Steel (Warner Brothers, 2013). Jor-El inscribes the genetic codes of a billion unborn Kryptonians into the cells of his son before launching him to Earth in Man of Steel (Warner Brothers, 2013).

Jax-Ur’s German accent obscures the Canadian nationality of the actor who plays him, Mackenzie Gray. On the Vancouver television show The Rush, Gray explained that when he auditioned for the part, the director surprised Gray by asking him to do the audition “in a German accent.” Snyder “loved it” and gave Gray the role “on the spot.”[81] Moreover, the filmmakers flew Gray to Chicago to rehearse with German actress Antje Traue, who would play another evil Kryptonian. According to Gray, “they wanted us to be from the same place, and Antje’s got a German accent, and they wanted me to adopt that.”[82] Traue, to my ear, does not sound recognizably German in the film, but Gray does. In contrast, General Zod, played by Michael Shannon (from Chicago), has a Midwestern U.S. accent, as does Superman, played by Henry Cavill (from England). What should we make of Gray’s Hollywood-German accent?

Jax-Ur uses a fine metallic probe to perform painful, invasive medical tests on the bound Superman, a refugee he considers dangerous to the Kryptonian race. In the context of Zod’s plan to use the Earth as Kryptonian Lebensraum, Jax-Ur—with his shaven head, high-collared black-and-gray uniform, and metallic torture-probe—sounds not merely German but Nazi German, somewhere between central-casting SS and Laurence Olivier’s Dr. Szell from Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976).

Viewers recognized the character as an evocation of the Third Reich. Film-student blogger Joey Katz remarks on the “out of place” “evil Kryptonian Nazi scientist.”[83] A forum regular at the EyesSkyward Superman fan site begins his complaint about the film,

“what was up with crazy Nazi Kryptonian guy? […] he has a weird Nazi scientist vibe. He even has what sounds like a German accent.”[84]

However, these writers do not look into Gray’s nationality or Snyder’s request for the accent, they do not discuss the rhetorical function of Nazis as Hollywood and discussion-board shorthand for Bad Guys, and they do not consider lawsuit that forced Time Warner into production. The real-world heirs of Nazi-hating U.S. Jews Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster challenged Time Warner for larger shares of the franchise’s profits, and the resulting film quietly offered a comparison: those who would challenge the distribution of Superman’s intellectual property resemble the would-be enslavers of modern Europe.

In Man of Steel (Warner Brothers, 2013) Kryptonian Jax-Ur, played by Canadian Mackenzie Gray, announces the true location of the hidden library of characters: the body of “the refugee” Superman.

The Luthor of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Warner Brothers, 2016) steals Kryptonian intellectual property in order to create a giant monster to defeat Superman, but he thereby endangers the entire planet.
Doomsday, Luthor’s monster in Batman v. Superman (Warner Brothers, 2016), hails from DC Comics’ bestselling Death of Superman (1992) story arc. However, the film re-imagines the monster as a parable of the evils of copying superhero IP. Its first blast shears the tops from half a dozen skyscrapers. In Batman v. Superman (Warner Brothers, 2016), Doomsday becomes a walking series of explosions.

The sequel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016), offers a vision what happens when mere humans copy Kryptonian intellectual property. Lex Luthor, here rebooted as a mop-haired young tech billionaire, talks the US government into giving him access to Superman’s Kryptonian ship and the corpse of General Zod. Luthor uses the ship’s replication technology and Zod’s DNA to create a hulking monster, which emits progressively larger blasts of destructive energy that even it cannot control. To the horrified Superman, Luthor identifies the monster as “Your doomsday!” Readers will recognize this brute as the Doomsday of the comics, who killed Superman in the 1992 Death of Superman arc.

However, in the comics, Doomsday does not result from intellectual property theft but arrives on Earth already formed.[85] Furthermore, unlike Doomsday in the comics, who rages like Marvel’s Hulk, the movie’s Doomsday also endangers the whole planet with its energy blasts. So although General Zod in Man of Steel at least had a pro-social plan to resurrect the Kryptonians (albeit at the expense of humanity), Doomsday exists only to destroy. Dawn of Justice revises this comic-book character to fit the studio’s melodrama of endangered intellectual property, making Doomsday threaten destruction without rebirth.

Interpellation, anamorphosis, and the
phenomenology of the branded hero

Superhero blockbusters thus merge narrative, marketing, and pedagogy in a normative model of conduct toward intellectual property. Yet if we dismiss these films as mere commercial exercises, we miss the sophistication that the studios demonstrate not only in curating intellectual property but also in grooming their audiences for long-term engagement with the brand, an engagement that can include modes of ironic or even oppositional spectatorship. Business writer David A. Aaker explains the marketing strategy that he describes as the “brand-as-person”:

“Like a person, a brand can be perceived as being upscale, competent, impressive, trustworthy, fun, active, humorous, casual, formal, youthful, or intellectual. […] it can help create a self-expressive benefit that becomes a vehicle for the customer to express his or her own personality. For example, an Apple user might identify himself or herself as casual, anti-corporate, and creative.”[86]

For marketers, virtues of the self-sacrificing, altruistic, or anti-corporate hero can become elements of corporate brand equity. Whether viewers identify with the hero or oscillate among hero, villain, and others, these films offer audiences opportunities for pleasurable self-definition. I propose that we invert Aaker’s formula and read the superhero as person-as-brand, to better parse the affective appeals of these films and the connection of those appeals to the goals of conglomerates.

Take a scene from the film that arguably established the comic-book superhero as the staple of 21st-century Hollywood: Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002). Crass, penny-pinching J. Jonah Jameson, editor of the tabloid Daily Bugle, has named the costumed villain who fought with Spider-Man in Times Square. “The Green Goblin!” says Jameson to Peter Parker. He barks at his assistant, “Hoffman, call the patent office! Copyright the name ‘Green Goblin’—I want a quarter every time somebody says it!”

Irony works here on two levels. First, on the dramatic level: the audience, but not Jameson, knows Parker’s secret identity as Spider-Man, whom Jameson sensationally presents as a “menace” to boost circulation. Yet on a second level the scene illustrates the logic of intellectual property and licensing while exaggerating it for comic effect. Actor J. K. Simmons, who plays Jameson, steals the scene with rapid delivery around a cigar. The film thereby reveals the marketing logic by which Marvel and Sony operate, but through the mouth of a character that the filmmakers expect us to enjoy disliking. Peter Parker has already learned, through his unwitting role in his Uncle Ben’s murder, that he must never use his powers for financial gain, but Marvel, who licensed Sony Pictures Classics to produce the film, learns no such lesson. Neither does Sony; after all, the Goblin’s first public appearance in the film happened in Times Square, under the logos of dozens of real-world companies that struck product placement or brand partnership deals for the film.

In superhero blockbusters, the brand hides in the guise of the title character. In “The Purloined Letter,” Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin compares the methods of advertisers and the methods of a blackmailer who has hidden in plain sight the letter of title. Dupin asks the narrator,

“have you ever noticed which of the street signs, over the shop doors, are the most attractive of attention? […] the over-largely lettered signs and placards of the street, escape observation by dint of being excessively obvious; and here the physical oversight is precisely analogous with the moral inapprehension by which the intellect suffers to pass unnoticed those considerations which are too obtrusively and too palpably self-evident.”[87]

The superhero resembles these advertising slogans that we fail to recognize as such. We see the chevron on Superman’s chest, or the spider on Spider-Man’s back, but we see it as part of a costume, not as a trademark.

When Spider-Man lands atop a hurtling Carlsberg truck as he races to catch his uncle’s murderer, we might notice that advertisers address us through product placement for beer, but we habitually forget that advertisers address us through the heroes themselves. David Bordwell, in homage to Poe’s analysis of advertising seen but not recognized, called classical Hollywood “an excessively obvious cinema,” but the superhero blockbuster exceeds classical norms in this regard.[88] The superhero’s status as the commercial enunciation of Capital hides before our eyes, such that we recognize one layer of commercial address (the beer truck) while misrecognizing the other (the superhero).

As the superhero’s melodrama of altruism engrosses us, his status as brand disappears through what Slavoj Žižek has called anamorphosis.[89] We see the other trademarks and brand names in the mise en scène, and we even might groan at Hollywood’s crass handling of a character we remember fondly from comics or from other movies (far enough in our own pasts that we have forgotten their encrusting ads and product-placements).[90] However, we may still fail to recognize the superhero as the anamorphic object, the mis-seen blot with power to inflect the meaning of everything else in the composition.

In his analysis of I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007), Kirk Boyle describes the advertisements that still clutter the film’s post-apocalyptic Manhattan as “anamorphic advertising,” a mise en scène laden with corporate signifiers that register from the corner of the eye.[91] But the superhero film operates according to a bolder logic, one more like that of The Ambassadors by Holbein the Younger. In Žižek’s analysis of that painting, the anamorphic element remains unintelligible “when viewed straightforwardly.”[92] In superhero blockbusters, the film interpellates us into the straightforward viewing position from which we cannot see the hero as brand, a position somewhere between the popcorn-munching newcomer and the familiar, even jaded, long-time fan.

When viewed in the terms that the narrative offers us, the superhero remains understandable primarily as brand managers wish it understood. However, if “we look at the picture from a precisely determined perspective,” the anamorphic element “suddenly acquires well-known contours.”[93] As with the skull in The Ambassadors, our recognition of the superhero as brand shifts our interpretation of the whole text. The character becomes intelligible as the avatar of shareholder capital seeking to grow, an advertisement among advertisements, one that proclaims value rational altruism and self-sacrifice even as it advances the instrumentally rational goals of corporations. 


Film scripts address a potential audience of moviegoers, but they must first address an actual audience of executives who vet and shape scripts according to the needs of the company. Imagine a thousand screenwriters, their scripts filtered through a board of ten executives, each keen to protect and exploit intellectual property: the selective pressure of such a board would produce the Hollywood superhero blockbuster’s obsession over intellectual property. Screenplays that make the cut appeal simultaneously to a mass audience and to producers anxious to curate the company’s intellectual property.

Risk-averse corporations have economic incentives for updating and re-using established narrative brands, but we need not see this as dooming proprietary characters to serve always and only reactionary or acquisitive ends. Both superheroes and supervillains appeal to audiences by offering glimpses of ways to live outside the logic of neoliberal capitalism, which reduces everything to market value. Yet we must remember that media conglomerates use the virtues of the superhero to pursue the vices of the huckster; they interpellate us into admiration of the hero to encourage our repeat purchases.

My proposal to read the superhero first as brand and second as character offers a materialist approach to these texts that acknowledges the pleasures they offer while resisting the reification of corporate brands. Stories of branded heroes offer audiences the pleasures of canonicity and authenticity coupled with innovation within parameters. Yet as scholars and teachers we should also attend to the pleasures of the off-brand, the subversively generic. Within the comics duopoly, titles like Watchmen or Squadron Supreme use generic versions of familiar characters to critique the narrative conventions and political economy of superhero narratives; outside the duopoly, we see other critiques from titles like WildStorm’s Stormwatch and Image Comics’ Astro City.

Superhero narratives need not serve purely as instruments of capital because of their genre, and even conglomerate productions like Deadpool (Tim Miller, 2016) show that superhero movies need not trudge through the routines of marketing-department “best practices” in order to succeed with audiences and critics. Reading DC and Marvel superhero movies as allegories of intellectual property offers a method for better understanding how these films try to use character and narrative to monetize the same impulses that also empower us to critique and resist the neoliberal order.