2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, fall 2016
The Hollywood superhero as brand manager: an allegory of intellectual property
The hero of the Marvel Studios Iron Man films, Tony Stark, has no super-powers in the strict sense, just inherited wealth and genius as an inventor. In Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008), Obadiah Stane, an unscrupulous executive within Stark Industries, envies Stark’s genius. Stane reverse-engineers a knock-off of Stark’s prototype Iron Man armor, but without Stark’s miniature fusion reactor, he cannot power it. Stane bullies the company’s research and development engineers, but even they cannot duplicate the tiny reactor. Stane finally resorts to murder, stealing the reactor that Stark uses to keep his damaged heart beating. As Stark lies paralyzed and dying, Stane exults:
“Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you? Your father, he helped give us the atomic bomb. Now what kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you? [Stane holds up the reactor, admiring it.] Oh, it’s beautiful. Tony, this is your Ninth Symphony. Ah, what a masterpiece—look at that. This is your legacy.”
Stane’s name suggests the stain of moral contamination, and so does his version of the Iron Man armor: despite running on fusion, it belches dark smoke. Stane’s behavior in the film suggests that the first-rate invent while the wicked and second-rate copy or steal. Despite his comparison to the symphony, Stane does not plan to put the reactor in the public domain, where we can find Beethoven’s compositions; instead, he plans to sell the armor to Stark Industries’ arms clients. Furthermore, Stane’s pro-social rhetoric about the bomb undercuts his argument about sharing technology: after all, even hawkish viewers see nuclear weapons as the limit case of the dissemination to technical knowledge. The Bush Administration premised their case for invading of Iraq on the need to control the proliferation of weapons that the USA had the power to make for generations.
In the films of the linked “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” Stark makes his armor and reactor using earthly materials, and he does not keep his identity secret, so many rivals attempt to copy his work. However, even superhero films less concerned with industrial design and espionage show a preoccupation with intellectual property absent from their comic book sources. Supervillains in DC and Marvel comics hatch a variety of schemes, but in their Hollywood iterations, one occurs more than any other: the illicit copying of the hero’s powers or super-technology.
My analysis seeks to explicate the cultural and pedagogical work that these films do regarding intellectual property relations. These relations have made the exploitation of superheroes created in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1960s profitable for media conglomerates well into in the 21st century. Superhero blockbusters tell us little about the experience of rank and file workers in the comics or movie industries, but they tell us much about how studio and conglomerate executives want us to view intellectual property relations. As Janet Wasko writes of Hollywood films, they “may offer engaging fantasies and convenient escape from the drudgeries of daily life, but they also offer explicit visions of the world and lessons for living in that world.” [open endnotes in new window]
This essay therefore proposes a reading of these corporate “lessons for living”: the superhero blockbuster as an allegory of the management of intellectual property. It looks at DC and Marvel superhero films against two apparently unconnected historical phenomena: the so-called DVD boom of the 2000s and the concurrent U.S. project of restructuring of Iraq to create an environment friendly to multinational corporations. Along the way I offer readings of films from Marvel’s Iron Man franchise (later integrated into the larger Avengers franchise) and DC’s Superman franchise (recently integrated into a larger Justice League franchise). Finally, I propose an oppositional heuristic for reading the Hollywood superhero primarily as the anthropomorphic sign of a brand—a mask worn by shareholder capital—and only secondarily as a character.
Superheroes and political economy
This essay continues the kinds of analysis that earlier political economies of mass media have performed, while also attending closely to the narratives of the films themselves. My analysis has ambitions, however modest, at the level of political praxis: to change the way that students, scholars, and even casual audiences understand not just superhero movies but also their own affective relations to narrative brands. Media corporations seek to create brand loyalty, harnessing fans as unremunerated labor; both film artists and corporate marketers interpellate us as virtuous and clever while trying to yoke us to media brands generations old. I seek to demystify the discursive operations of one group of such brands. Following Janet Wasko, my attention “to ownership and control” becomes a means to explicate the relations between “a class system and structural inequalities” and escapist narratives on the screen.
Since Umberto Eco’s 1972 essay “The Myth of Superman,” critiques from the left have pointed out that U.S. superheroes work to preserve the status quo and its arrangements of power and wealth. Recent critiques have elaborated. Many commentators have noted that Hollywood superhero movies also serve to advertise brands, but scholars have not yet adequately discussed the films’ tendency to build their narratives around the policing of intellectual property. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy drew comments on its dramatization of branding, with Dan Hassler-Forest remarking on Bruce Wayne’s creation of “his own brand of crime-fighting.” Will Brooker calls Batman “a ‘range brand,’ not just in our world but in his own”:
“The ‘W’ logo that adorns Wayne Tower in Nolan’s films is echoed as the Bat-symbol across Batman’s costume, gadgets, vehicle, environment, and associates.”
Also in regard to Batman, Martin Fradley argues,
“Wayne/Batman’s neurotic branding of his crime-fighting persona—his unmistakable logo and militarized ‘toys’—all too clearly mirrors the U.S. film industry’s selfsame practices.”
However, these critics do not examine the broader pattern of intellectual property melodrama that recurs across films based on characters owned by Time Warner subsidiary DC Comics and by Disney subsidiary Marvel comics. This essay does.
Villains in the comics sometimes copy the superhero’s powers, but conglomerate Hollywood obsesses over this crime. Chuck Tryon argues that the financial success of DVDs in the 2000s pushed studios to think of films as gateways to other commodities and “to reconceptualize film narrative in ways that tie together the fictional world of a film with the economic goals of a studio.” Fixation on the piracy of intellectual property within superhero film narratives brings the fictional worlds and moral horizons of the superhero closest to the real-world goals of media corporations.
I propose that we can most usefully read this fixation as an incursion into the story world of the strategic preoccupations of conglomerate Hollywood’s executives and upper-level creative workers, who make their fortunes by curating intellectual property on behalf of shareholders. Superhero blockbusters make normative claims about challenges to intellectual property relations; the films resemble anxiety dreams of corporate secrets disastrously exposed. The mass audience never wakes from nightmares of intellectual property theft, but they don’t approve blockbuster scripts. My analysis lays bare the fears of people who do.
In her widely cited 1991 essay, “‘Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!’: the Political Economy of a Commercial Intertext,” Eileen Meehan uses Batman (Tim Burton, 1989) to study brand management across multiple platforms, “orchestrated by the conglomerate in its search for more profitable and cost-efficient ways to manufacture culture.” Only in her conclusion does she use the term “commodity fetishism” to put a name to our failure to perceive the branded character as a “complex structure of interpenetrating cultural industries and the corporate interests of media conglomerates,” a structure that remains “generally invisible to us.” Meehan puts this invisibility last, but I seek to put it first, as the gap in the scholarly reception of these films. Meehan’s essay has a claim to being the first to study superhero movies in Marxian terms, but it performs a three-quarters analysis, leaving to us that last step: explicating these films’ dramatization of the same intellectual property logic that drives their production.
This essay’s focus on narrative in the context of industrial history entails a methodological choice to pay less attention to the differences within and between media corporations. Scholars like Jerome Christensen and Derek Johnson have helped us understand how workers within conglomerates make and defend claims of company or individual agency, but here such an approach can risk reifying the notion of the exceptional individual who transcends his or her structural setting. Many forms of mass culture, especially the superhero film, valorize the individual while actually strengthening the collective and class-based relationship we call the corporation. Havens, Lotz, and Tinic have called for “critical media industry studies” of the “quotidian practices and competing goals […] not subject to direct and regular oversight by corporate owners” that “define the experiences of those who work within the industry.” Yet in a secretive and risk-averse industry like Hollywood, studying everyday practices of those who control a major brand presents extraordinary barriers to outsiders. The study of “competing goals” also seems to invite the false equivalency of treating worker, shareholder, and executive interests as having equal sway within the industry or having equal claims to our sympathy.
Furthermore, media corporations can and sometimes do adapt oppositional discourses in ways that increase shareholder equity, even when that opposition challenges intra-industry hierarchies or subverts the narrative or marketing norms of genres. We see this in films like Deadpool (Tim Miller, 2016). Star Ryan Reynolds produced the modestly budgeted film, adapting the anarchic and fourth-wall-breaking Marvel antihero against industry norms. In both in its promotion and also during its running time, Deadpool constantly breaks the “rules” of superhero blockbuster filmmaking and marketing. It ridicules the larger X-Men franchise, to which it belongs; it seeks an R rating, thumbing its nose at the still-growing theatrical market in Mainland China; and it mocks prominent brands (like Ikea) that other blockbusters would go out of their way to promote in positive terms. Yet Deadpool broke box-office records, showing that Hollywood can identify seemingly uncooperative texts that will actually boost shareholder value.
Modes of superhero production
DC and Marvel Comics now occupy analogous positions within the armatures of two conglomerates, Time Warner and Disney. Fredric Jameson’s allegorical method of studying the novel offers a useful interpretative model when approaching art produced by such corporations. He argues, “what we formerly regarded as individual texts are grasped as ‘utterances’ in an essentially collective or class discourse.” In movie production, this “collective” origin becomes literal: unlike novels, Hollywood blockbusters emerge from the coordinated labor of thousands of workers.
Yet as discourse, these films “speak” on behalf of executives and brand managers who green-light projects and approve final cuts, not on behalf of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees or the Directors Guild of America. Blockbusters do not speak on behalf the non-unionized workers in animation studios around Asia to which Hollywood studios outsource CGI work. And they certainly do not speak on behalf of artists in the non-unionized, work-for-hire comics industry. In Marx’s terms, a superhero franchise consists not merely of new textual commodities, but also of the “machinery” of production: characters and stories alienated from their creators via work-for-hire agreements. Here, fixed capital inheres not just in soundstages and cameras, or in a bullpen for comics artists, but in a “library” of copyrighted characters and narratives.
Jameson treats allegory as a category hermeneutic rather than ontological. That is, he uses allegory as mode of reading texts, one that seeks patterns of meaning about the social context from which those texts emerged, but not necessarily intended by their authors. Where medieval Christian writers deliberately structured texts around allegorical codes, nineteenth-century liberal novelists like Josef Conrad did not consciously do so. Therefore, Jameson seeks to infer the unacknowledged codes that shape texts in ostensibly “free” and “creative” art forms produced under capitalism.
Following Jameson’s example, I take individual authorial intention as, at best, secondary to the commercial objectives of a work collectively and industrially produced in the manner of a franchise blockbuster. Some scholars offering allegorical readings of Hollywood film assume intentionality; Christensen proposes a reading of Batman (Tim Burton, 1989) as an “allegory contrived to accomplish corporate objectives” within the newly merged Time Warner conglomerate. However where Christensen reads the film as a deliberately allegorical, intra-conglomerate utterance from Warner Brothers executives to Time executives, I pursue instead signs of the shared class interests that all such executives represent, notwithstanding their tactical or corporate-cultural differences. After all, canny investors disdain comic-store loyalties to DC or Marvel and instead buy stock in both the Walt Disney Company and Time Warner.
The superhero emerged as a generic model in 1938, and by 1940 the genre had coalesced into public conventions, the genre had coalesced into public conventions, easily and legally copied by competitors, as well as proprietary content, protected under copyright law. Marketing literature distinguishes between brand and commodity, but Scott Lash and Celia Lury develop this distinction in terms informed by Marxian analyses of value:
“you cannot go to a market and buy a brand. Brands do not typically exchange at all. They are only for sale on capital markets […] The commodity is produced. The brand is a source of production. The commodity is a single, discrete, fixed product. The brand instantiates itself in a range of products, is generated across a range of products.”
Lash and Lury suggest, but stop short of, explicitly framing the brand as I will here: as a non-material element of the means of production.
Under the current system of intellectual property laws, nobody has a monopoly on the conventions of superhero stories; anyone can make a generic or off-brand superhero movie. Hollywood has produced superhero films not adapted from comics—Darkman (Sam Raimi, 1990), The Meteor Man (Robert Townsend, 1993), Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan, 2000), Sky High (Mike Mitchell, 2005), My Super Ex-Girlfriend (Ivan Reitman, 2006), Hancock (Peter Berg, 2008)—but studios do not wrangle over the rights to off-brand characters created for the screen, as they do over characters with strong brand equity.
Marvel survived in the 1990s by spinning off titles from their bestselling characters, the X-Men. In 1993, Marvel sold to Fox the film rights to the X-Men and associated characters, including Deadpool, as well as the term of art mutant. Although X-Men titles dominated Marvel’s production schedule during the 1990s, after the success of Fox’s X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000) and X-Men 2 (Bryan Singer, 2003), Marvel began reducing its output of X-titles. In 2001, X-Men titles still topped the comic sales charts eleven out of twelve months, but by 2005 Marvel’s reduced production and promotion led to no X-Men titles charting. In 2014 Marvel writer Chris Claremont confirmed rumors that had circulated among fans: “the X-department is forbidden to create new characters. [….] Because all new characters become the film property of Fox.” In 2015, when a fan asked Marvel’s Senior Vice President of Publishing Tom Brevoort why the company had done no tie-ins for X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, 2014), Brevoort evaded with another question:
“If you had two things, and on one you earned 100% of the revenues from the efforts that you put into making it, and the other you earned a much smaller percentage for the same amount of time and effort, you’d be more likely to concentrate more heavily on the first, wouldn’t you?”
Moreover, a few characters, such as the siblings Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, lie in a zone claimed by both companies. The studios negotiated a deal wherein Marvel can use the pair provided Marvel does not identify the siblings as mutants, a term “exclusive to the X-Men”: “They’re also not allowed to have any connection to their famous father, Magneto.” Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015) moved the siblings’ origin to a European country invented for the film, where their parents died long ago.
Although some fans blame 21st-century Hollywood for treating comics as a mere testing ground for material to license into other media, the DC-Marvel duopoly has used superheroes this way since before World War II. As Gerard Jones has shown, Superman’ creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, hoped that their creation would prove popular enough to license: drafts of Superman stories from 1935 show Siegel trying out marketing slogans and Shuster sketching “boxes for cereal and whole wheat crackers with Superman’s likeness.” The duo had created Superman by cobbling together elements from other characters. From Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars, they borrowed the notion of a man granted virtual super-powers by visiting a planet with lower gravity than that of his birth. From Emma Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel and Johnston McCulley’s Zorro stories, they borrowed the vigilante with a dual identity. In the nexus of invention, copying, and variation that we call “creative” work, Siegel and Shuster feared that others would try to profit from their new character, that Superman would escape the networks of property relations that guaranteed them a share, however small, of the revenue that he generated for National Allied Publications (later renamed DC). In Action Comics no. 6, November 1938, the duo had Superman expose a crooked marketing agent who licensed the hero’s image to sell breakfast cereal, gasoline, and automobiles without his consent.
In 1947 Siegel and Shuster sued National, seeking ownership of Superman and five million dollars in compensation for licensing revenues that they believed National had unfairly withheld. Siegel and Shuster lost, and National fired them. The court did rule that National had unfairly exploited some of Siegel and Shuster’s ideas for the Superboy title, and required National to pay a settlement of $100,000 to the plaintiffs, “one fiftieth of what they’d asked.” National retained ownership of Superman.
In 1968, conglomerate Kinney National Services purchased Superman’s publisher, DC Comics, as well as Warner Brothers; then in 1971, Kinney renamed itself Warner Communications Incorporated. Since the 1970s, executives at DC have worked less to sell comic books than to develop and curate intellectual property. Beginning in 1976, president Jenette Kahn reconfigured DC from a publisher of comic books to what she called a “creative rights company” that generated content not only for other divisions of WCI but also for outside licensees. By 1985, DC took in “about a third of its approximately $70 million in revenues from comics, with the other two-thirds […] split between licensing and other products.”
In contrast to DC’s four stable decades as a subsidiary of a media conglomerate, Marvel took a more tortuous path. In 1968 publisher Martin Goodman sold Marvel to the Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation, which later changed its name to Cadence Industries; from there, Marvel passed through other hands, including Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. In 1989, “junk-bond king” Ron Perelman bought Marvel for his McAndrews & Forbes Group. Perelman said that he wanted Marvel to become a “mini-Disney in terms of intellectual property.”[29 The Walt Disney Company provided both the model and apotheosis of intellectual property management, as Disney’s strategy of corporate “synergy” had made them synonymous with characters autonomous from the animated shorts in which most of those characters originated.
Mike Budd has argued that this synergy makes “every Disney product […] both a commodity and an ad for every other Disney commodity” and enables every new text to strengthen “the Disney brand.” Marvel imitated that strategy and added a rhetoric of custodianship to legitimate their practices to fans. In 2008, Marvel Studios chair David Maisel said,
“We are in the Iron Man business […] so whether it be a major motion picture or a video game, we have somewhat of an obligation to our fans and the consumer to stay involved with the creative process.”
After IMS Capital Value Fund bought a stake in Marvel in 2002, a manager at IMS remarked,
“Marvel needs to be sold to a larger entertainment company, like Disney or AOL Time Warner, with the leverage to make better films and promote the library of characters.”
Disney’s 2009 purchase of Marvel and their 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm cemented their lead over competitor Time Warner as the world’s biggest generator of licensing fees from media properties. In 2005, License! magazine ranked Disney first, with $15B in licensing revenue, and Warner Bros. Consumer Products second, with $6B. That same year, Marvel surged from sixty-ninth place (and a mere $189M) to fourth place (and $4B). After Disney’s acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm, they still rank first, but now with $45.2B in licensing. Warners holds on in sixth, still bringing in just $6B. If we needed a reminder of the power of conglomerate Hollywood to retread old content, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015) broke box office records, but Disney expects to make more from licensing than from ticket sales. As Vox notes,
“Star Wars merch is expected to bring in $5 billion in sales over the coming 12 months, rising to as much as $20 billion in the next five years.”
Since the development of the blockbuster model in the 1970s, the major studios have shifted their focus away from stand-alone hits and toward franchises, what Thomas Schatz calls “calculated megafilms designed to sustain a product line of similar films and an ever-expanding array of related entertainment products.” U.S. superhero comics, no longer a mass medium crowding newsstands, now provide content for those franchises.
But as Clare Parody argues, we can most usefully think of the “content” that studios adapt not as narrative or even necessarily character, but as “brand identity, the intellectual property […] and presentational devices that cohere, authorize, and market the range of media products that together comprise the franchise experience.” In their big-screen adaptations of these brands, studios turn the policing of intellectual property into a heroic melodrama, a “presentational device” at the center of the “franchise experience.”
But why, readers may ask, do superhero blockbuster fixate so on copying? Why don’t other Hollywood genres worry over intellectual property within their narratives?
From the birth of the comic-book superhero, publishers copied the pattern of successful characters and attacked competitors who copied their own characters, and this work still preoccupies the managers of these brands. Superman first appeared in the June 1938 Action Comics no.1, the sales of which exceeded everyone’s expectations for the still-new medium of monthly comic books filled with original stories (i.e. not just reprints of newspaper strips). It sent publishers scrambling to duplicate its success. Unlike a hit Hollywood movie, a hit comic book required little capital and planning; a few dozen pages of four-color newsprint cost little compared to a knock-off Gone with the Wind.
National Allied Publications, which published both Action Comics and Detective Comics, wanted to duplicate the success of Superman. So Detective Comics artist and editor Vin Sullivan asked Bob Kane to invent another superhero. Kane and his (usually uncredited) collaborator Bill Finger whipped up the Bat-Man, who, like Superman, wore a circus-acrobat costume, had a dual identity, fought antisocial crime, and had special powers (here, martial-arts prowess and the genius to invent gadgets).
But such imitation also crossed lines of company ownership. Jones writes about the lore of this “gold rush.”
“One story passed among creators for years, now presented as fact in nearly every history of comics, concerned a Detective Comics bookkeeper named Victor Fox who saw the sales figures for the first issue of Action Comics, closed his ledger, said he was going to lunch, rented and office in the same building, and that same afternoon announced that he was a comic book publisher. The story isn’t true. Fox never worked for Detective Comics [….] How he heard about the comic book bonanza is unknown, but in late 1938 he appeared to the Eisner and Iger studio and said, ‘I want another Superman.’”
Will Eisner and Jerry Iger ran an independent comics shop, a shop not in the retail sense but the factory sense: a suite of writers and artists who supplied stories on demand to publishers who needed to fill pages. Eisner and Iger’s shop delivered Wonder Man, “a blond, red-costumed superhero with powers duplicating those of Superman” who “had his first and last appearance in Wonder Comics no.1 (May 1939).” National immediately sued Victor Fox for infringing their copyright on Superman.
In his 29 April 1940 opinion in the case of Detective Comics, Inc., v. Bruns Publications, Inc., et al., Judge Learned Hand notes three ways that Wonderman copies Superman. Wonderman styles its star “champion of the oppressed,” as Action Comics styled Superman; Wonderman possesses preternatural strength and immunity to firearms; and Wonderman “at times conceals his strength beneath ordinary clothing” only to reveal “a skintight acrobatic costume” beneath. Hand’s opinion also cites two precedents, Sheldon v. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corporation and Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp. Hand’s citation of Hollywood precedents tells us something important about the relation between intellectual property and industrial practice: since at least 1940 comics publishers and Hollywood studios have influenced one another, exchanging not just content to remediate but also legal precedents, a body of intellectual property law that regulated the two industries long before conglomeration brought them together. The ground on which 21st-century studios build new superhero narratives consists of sedimented layers of innovation, duplication, and managerial anxiety about intellectual property.
The pedagogical blockbuster
Superhero movies became major studio business during a period of explosive growth in home video sales between 2002 and 2007, a period that Billboard, Retailing Today, Variety, Video Business, and the Wall Street Journal called the DVD boom. During the boom, DVD retail became the “the largest source of consumer spending on filmed entertainment across all distribution channels.” By 2007, theatrical exhibition supplied only 21.4% of Hollywood’s revenues, while home video supplied 48.7%. In order to protect their revenues, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) pursued a campaign to reduce the unauthorized copying of video. One public aspect of that campaign resulted from the partnership between the MPAA and the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS).
The IPOS launched a public-relations initiative called “Honour IP,” shortened to “HIP.” From this partnership resulted a trailer, “Piracy: It’s a Crime,” which then screened in Singapore before House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, 2004). A techno score pounds over a montage of thefts shot with speed-ramping and breakneck zooms, as intertitles in a distressed font hail the viewer:
“You wouldn’t steal a car. You wouldn’t steal a handbag. You wouldn’t steal a television. You wouldn’t steal a movie. [Here, a shoplifter steals a DVD.] Downloading pirated films is stealing.”
The MPAA then made this trailer available for U.S. DVD manufacturers, who put it on discs before movies. Manufacturers added a feature that angered buyers: viewers could not skip this propaganda film. “Someone really wants you to watch this,” wrote Finlo Rohrer, covering the backlash among DVD buyers. Parodies of the trailer became an online meme, subverting the IPOS’s goal of making their anti-copying position hip.
In a bit of unintended farce, the makers of “Piracy: It’s a Crime” had used music by Dutch artist Melchior Rietveldt, but they had told Holland’s music royalty collection agency, Buma/Stemra, that the trailer would run only “at a local film festival.” Rietveldt later discovered his own music playing in the trailer on a Harry Potter DVD. Worse, when Rietveldt complained to Buma/Stemra, one of the agency’s officers offered to help him sue for royalties on the illegal condition that Rietveldt give the officer a third of any settlement that Rietveldt obtained. According to court documents from Rietveldt’s ensuing lawsuit (which he won), the trailer ran on “at least 71” different DVD titles.
“Piracy: It’s a Crime” falsely conflates copying with various kinds of stealing. Unlike a thief who steals one of my belongings, an unlawful copier does not deprive me of my use of the thing copied. Copying only deprives me of a possible future “use” if I have a limited monopoly on the reproduction of the thing in question. Crucially, such a monopoly does not depend on my having made the thing. Singapore’s Senior Minister for State and former law professor Ho Peng Kee said of the “Honour IP” campaign,
“Whether it is a fancy gadget, a household brand or music and movies, someone invested time and effort to create it and owns the intellectual property in it. We need to realise that it takes numerous parties working endless 18-hour days to bring to us a unique piece of movie magic.”
Ho pays lip service to the labor that goes into media production while obscuring the legal relations that exclude most workers from a share in the profits their work generates.
Below-the-line workers directly benefit from intellectual property laws only if they have organized to bargain for a share of residual profits, and then only according to the terms that they negotiate. Hollywood labor unions have collective bargaining agreements that require studios to pay residuals from movie profits to unions not in individual compensation, via payroll, but in payments to the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plans. The Screen Actors Guild secured these agreements in 1960 (ironically, under Ronald Reagan’s leadership). Changes in the locations of production and in the profitability of distribution platforms mean that such agreements come under re-negotiation, as seen in the 2007 strike by the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television, and Radio Artists (ACTRA) over the terms of compensation for digital media residuals with U.S. studios. Workers not represented by unions receive no share in the profits from the intellectual property they create, whether they work in Los Angeles, Vancouver, or at the new Oriental Movie Metropolis in Qingdao. Some might argue that media franchises dependent on existing intellectual property constitute long-term projects that require future labor to keep running, and that therefore intellectual property laws indirectly benefit workers hired by those franchises, but this amounts to saying that those who work for a living benefit from having the chance to be exploited by those who merely own.
Unlike many workers in the U.S. film industry, including cartoon animators, comic book artists failed to organize into unions. The freelance and work-for-hire contracts under which the great majority of comics artists have worked shut them out of participation in the profits from their work. When the Copyright Act of 1976 took effect, it solidified the legal basis for artists to claim sole copyright to their work, but as Paul Lopes notes, “a loophole in the act exempted ‘work-for-hire’ artists from these rights,” such that “DC and Marvel immediately made up new contracts and release forms that designated artists as work-for-hire artists.” These contracts shield publishers and studios from sharing profits with labor.
Supplementing the pedagogical project of implicitly pro-shareholder texts like “Piracy: It’s a Crime” we find the narratives of superhero blockbusters that position copycats as villains. In Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (Sidney J. Furie, 1987), Lex Luthor cloned Superman against his will, but we would not see the trope return to the screen until the DVD era, when piracy and torrenting became such worries for studios. In a parody of Copyleft or Creative Commons activism, these films present illicit copiers as fools at best, genocidal sociopaths at worst.
“A fair, efficient, and predictable environment”
Marvel’s Iron Manfilms contain a paradox: Tony Stark invents technology that should radically change human civilization, but each film begins in our familiar world, not changed by flying armor or clean energy. This becomes most apparent in Iron Man II (Jon Favreau, 2010). Early in the film, Tony Stark testifies to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee about the Iron Man armor in a set-piece that shows director Favreau and his actors in top comedic form while also making the case for private control of the armor. A senator named Stern declares, “My priority is to get the Iron Man weapon turned over to the people of the United States of America.” Yet Favreau’s casting of Gary Shandling as the senator telegraphs to viewers that we should not take this stern and pompous man seriously. Favreau’s casting of Sam Rockwell as the smarmy, incompetent defense contractor Justin Hammer, CEO of Hammer Industries, helps render Hammer as the farcical, Louis-Napoléon inverse of Tony Stark.
Stark’s sidekick, Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes, played with confidence and grace by Don Cheadle, testifies regarding attempts by Iran and North Korea to develop their own versions of the Iron Man armor. He presents satellite photos of the test sites. Stark interrupts Rhodes’s testimony, using his super-smartphone to hack the room’s computer system; Stark then shows the committee footage taken on the ground by the foreign governments. The North Korean armor malfunctions, spraying bullets among onlookers, and the Iranian suit explodes. Finally, in a video bearing the Hammer Industries logo, Justin Hammer appears beside another malfunctioning suit. “I’d like to point out that that test pilot survived,” says Hammer.
By hacking the monitors to show these failures, Stark demonstrates technological mastery, not just compared to competitors but also compared to the U.S. government, whose intelligence he bests and whose equipment he hacks. “You want my property? You can’t have it!” he says. “I have successfully privatized world peace.” Stark, already a billionaire, need not sell his technology, even to the state.
While this sounds like a neoliberal dream, Iron Man II’s narrative presents the “private” element of privatization as a fragile ideal requiring defense. The film pits Stark against an alliance between copycat Hammer and Russian genius Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke). Vanko develops not only a suit of powered armor but also a fleet of drone suits for Hammer Industries. In the film’s climax, Stark confronts something like a capitalist’s nightmare: the proprietor finds his own intellectual property turned against him, the alienator now the victim of alienation. Stark defeats the drones and Vanko, such that the film gives Capital a happy ending, but Labor doesn’t get one. Even in the interior shots of Justin Hammer’s factories, workers rarely appear, and when they do, they appear far in the background, out of focus.
Iron Man II frames Stark’s rivals and the state as neither ethical enough to trust with the armor nor competent to duplicate it. Only Vanko, motivated by a personal (and therefore non-commercial) grudge, has the necessary ability, but his defeat in the film’s climax ends his competition with Stark. The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012) and Iron Man III (Shane Black, 2013) therefore take place in a world without ubiquitous flying armor or miniature fusion reactors. Stark thus protects the world by protecting his intra-diegetic monopoly on what Marvel Studios would call “the Iron Man business.” Within the diegesis, the hero creates intellectual property, while outside the diegesis, corporations sell and license the hero as intellectual property.
Of all superhero films, the Iron Man franchise shows the most sustained interest in recent U.S. military interventions overseas. The first film in the series re-writes the hero’s place of origin from Vietnam to Afghanistan, into the context of Stark Industries’ sale of weapons to U.S. clients in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; the third film pits the hero against a terrorist organization seemingly based in Muslim countries, which exploits veterans of recent U.S. occupations. Neither this superhero movie franchise nor any other sends its hero to Iraq, the most bloody and least popular U.S. intervention since Vietnam. Studio executives showed instrumental rationality in avoiding even the appearance of taking a side that might provoke opposition from potential viewers.
Yet if the U.S. occupation of Iraq constitutes a subtext of Iron Man’s adventures, then U.S. attempts to rebuild Iraq along lines favorable to multinational corporations therefore constitute a subtext of the 21st-century superhero film genre’s obsession with intellectual property. As superheroes battled would-be copycats on the screen and MPAA trailers equated copying with theft, the Coalition Provisional Authority, installed in Iraq by U.S. military force, proclaimed a set of legal and economic reforms known as the 100 Orders. Order 80 aimed to secure intellectual property, because “companies, lenders and entrepreneurs require a fair, efficient, and predictable environment for protection of their intellectual property.” The language suggests neutrality, but the Orders set the stage for the privatization of Iraqi industry and resources by foreign corporations
Like Justice Kennedy’s 2010 opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Order 80 says nothing about structural imbalances of power or wealth. For Kennedy, corporations merely represent “associations of citizens,” and laws that restrict corporate spending (here equated with speech) unfairly discriminate against a category of those associations. Like the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, the Coalition Provisional Authority uses language that obscures the economic relations that it actually promotes. Order 80 instead frames the need to protect intellectual property in populist terms, “as necessary to improve the economic condition of the people of Iraq.” In May of 2003, Paul Bremer announced, “Iraq is open for business again.” As many critics of the occupation pointed out, Bremer meant a particular kind of business: that of multinational corporations.
Wendy Brown notes that Iraqi farmers had long obtained seed “from a national seed bank […] in Abu Ghraib, where the entire bank vanished after the bombings and occupation.” Into this void stepped foreign agribusiness, who could now, under Order 81, apply for “plant variety protection” for genetically modified seeds. Nancy Scola says that Bremer’s announcement amounted to “telling Monsanto that the same conditions had been created in Iraq that had led to the company’s stunning successes in India.”  Scola reminds us that hundreds of Indian farmers bankrupted by their dependence on Monsanto seeds committed suicide by drinking the company’s Round-Up herbicide. She also notes that genetically modified seeds contaminate the larger gene pools of related crops, such that “eventually much of the world’s seeds could labor under patents controlled by one agribusiness or another.”
Lest we think that Monsanto would not use such a scenario for their benefit, Monsanto has refused to pledge not to sue farmers who claim that Monsanto seeds have colonized their stocks. The company declared,
“A blanket covenant not to sue any present or future member of petitioners’ organizations would enable virtually anyone to commit intentional infringement.”
Genetically modified plants propagate independent of farmers’ volition, colonizing non-proprietary seed stocks, much as corporate media brands can propagate spontaneously through social networks of fans.
Iron Man III departs from its precursors’ fixation on the copying of the Iron Man armor, but its narrative focuses on intellectual property in a way even closer to the neoliberal geopolitics of the 2000s. The first hint about the true nature of the villain appears in the form of a genetically modified plant that, when damaged, first regenerates and then explodes. The second hint appears in the spontaneous combustion of returning U.S. military veterans. These veterans have volunteered as test subjects for a mad-scientist-entrepreneur’s experiments in the hope of recovering limbs they lost in war. “I’ll own the War on Terror,” crows the villain. “I’ll create supply and demand!” He plans to monetize the cycle of US military intervention: using his biotechnology, a bogus “terrorist” network will strike targets worldwide, while he sells biotechnology to the U.S. military to regenerate maimed soldiers.
The villain of Iron Man III thus presents a comic book version of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism,” using and even engineering large-scale destruction to create commercial opportunities. Like the neoliberals who rebuilt occupied Iraq for corporations, the villain of Iron Man III does not disdain state power. Unlike an Objectivist or an “anarcho-capitalist” he requires the state’s intervention even as he subverts its purposes.
While Iraq represents an extreme example of the re-structuring a country’s legal order for the benefit of corporations, it differs in tactics but not in strategy from Disney’s intervention to promote the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), which gave corporations an additional twenty years of rights to their intellectual property. The CTEA extended copyrights of individual works, but it also extended copyrights of corporate works—like those produced under the work-for-hire agreements at DC and Marvel—from seventy-five to ninety-five years after first publication. Disney, as Wasko notes, “provided campaign contributions to ten of the 13 initial sponsors of the House bill and eight of the 12 sponsors of the Senate bill.” Without the CTEA, “Golden Age” comic-book characters like Captain America, the Human Torch, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman would already have fallen into the public domain.
Critics of the CTEA call it the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, noting that every time copyright on the Mouse nears expiration, Disney and other powerful intellectual property holders lobby Congress to extend their claims. Derek Khanna, making what he calls “The Conservative Case for Taking on the Copyright Lobby,” writes,
“The recapture of works that would be in the public domain represents one of the biggest thefts of public property in history.”
Intellectual property law scholar Chris Sprigman calls out the owners of DC and Marvel by name:
“The only reason to extend the term is to give private benefits to companies like Disney or Time Warner.”
“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.
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.” 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. 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. 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.”
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.” 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.”
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. 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.” 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.”
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.
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. 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.”
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.”
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. 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. 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). 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. But the superhero film operates according to a bolder logic, one more like that of The Ambassadors by Holbein the Younger. [image 69] In Žižek’s analysis of that painting, the anamorphic element remains unintelligible “when viewed straightforwardly.” 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.” 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.
1. Janet Wasko, “Critiquing Hollywood: The Political Economy of Motion Pictures,” in A Concise Handbook of Movie Industry Economics, ed. Charles C. Moul (New York: Cambridge UP, 2005), 18. [return to text]
2. Wasko, “Critiquing,” 8.
3. For example, Dan Hassler-Forest looks at the superhero as both a reflection and also a tool of neoliberal privatization of the once-public in Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012). Richard Cooper argues that “Superheroes are a Bunch of Fascists” in Salon, November 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/30/superheroes_are_a_bunch_of_fascists/. And James Lamb argues that the casting of Black sidekicks in films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2014) rehearses tropes of white political and economic domination as old as the transatlantic slave trade in “Figures of Empire: On the Impossibility of Superhero Diversity,” The Hooded Utilitarian, May 12, 2015, http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2015/05/figures-of-empire-on-the-impossibility-of-superhero-diversity/.
4. Hassler-Forest, 97.
5. Will Brooker, Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman (London: I. B. Tauris, 2012), 79.
6. Martin Fradley, “What Do you Believe In? Film Scholarship and the Cultural Politics of the Dark Knight Franchise,” Film Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 3 (2013): 22, http://fq.ucpress.edu/content/66/3/15.
7. Chuck Tryon, Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2009), 30.
8. Eileen R. Meehan, “‘Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!’: the Political Economy of a Commercial Intertext,” in The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media, ed. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio (New York: Routledge, 1991), 56.
9. Ibid., 56.
10. Timothy Havens, Amanda D. Lotz, and Serra Tinic, “Critical Media Industry Studies: A Research Approach,” Communication, Culture, & Critique, vol. 2, no. 2 (2009): 236.
11. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981), 80.
12. Jerome Christensen, “The Time Warner Conspiracy: JFK, Batman, and the Manger Theory of Hollywood Film,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 3 (2002), 591.
13 Scott Lash and Celia Lury, Global Culture Industry (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007), 6.
14. Derek Johnson, Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (New York: New York UP, 2013), 88-89.
15. “Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation v. Marvel Enterprises Inc. US,” 01-7983 (US Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, January 14, 2002), FindLaw, http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-2nd-circuit/1136021.html.
16. Gus Lubin, “It’s Astonishing How Far Disney is Going to Bury the X-Men,” Business Insider, last updated April 6, 2015,
17. Chris Claremont, “Nerdist Comics Panel no.58,” Nerdist, 57:19, June 7, 2014, last updated September 21, 2014,
18. Tom Brevoort, “New Brevoort Formspring,” Tumblr, last updated July 31, 2015,
19. Kirsten Acuna, “Why these Two Characters are Allowed to Appear in Both the ‘X-Men’ and ‘Avengers’ Movies,” Business Insider, last updated April 30, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/why-quicksilver-is-in-
20. Gerard Jones, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 114-15.
21. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, “Superman’s Phony Manager,” November 1938, Action Comics 6, in The Superman Chronicles, vol. 1 (New York: DC Comics, 2006), 71-72.
22. Jones, 247.
23. Ibid., 249.
24. Daryl F. Mallett and Christina M. Stansell, “DC Comics Inc.,” International Directory of Company Histories, ed. Tina Grant, vol. 98 (Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 2009), 88-94, Gale Virtual Reference Library,
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25. Quoted in Philip S. Gutis, “Turning Superheroes into Super Sales,” New York Times, January 6, 1985,
27. Elizabeth Rourke, Christina M. Stansell, and Chris Herzog, “Marvel Entertainment, LLC,” International Directory of Company Histories, ed. Tina Grant, vol. 160 (Farmington Hills, MI: St. James Press, 2014), 212-220,
28. Derek Johnson, “Will the Real Wolverine Please Stand Up?: Marvel’s Mutation from Monthlies to Movies,” Film and Comic Books, ed. Ian Gordon, Mark Jancovich, and Matthew P. McAllister (Jackson, MS: U of Mississippi P, 2007), 70.
29. Quoted in Jeremy Lott, “Smash! Pow! Bam! Why Superheroes Go Bankrupt,” Reason, October 2002,
30. Mike Budd,“Introduction: Private Disney, Public Disney,” in Rethinking Disney: Private Control, Public Dimensions, ed. Mike Budd and Max K. Kirsch (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2005): 1.
31. Quoted in David Ward, “Sega Plays Marvel Video Game,” Hollywood Reporter, May 1, 2008, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/
32. Dwight Oestricher, “Marvel: Powerhouse Potential?” The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2002,
33. Dawn Wilensky, “Are you on the List?” License! vol. 8, no. 3 (2005): 16.
34. “The Top 150 Global Licensors,” License!, vol. 18, no. 2 (2015): 7, http://www.licensemag.com/license-global/top-150-global-licensors-1.
35. Ibid., 10.
36. Brent Lang, “Star Wars has Already Sold over $50 Million in Advanced Tickets,” Variety, November 19, 2015, http://variety.com/2015/film/box-office/star-wars-the-force-awakens-budget-1201645026/.
37. Maddison Connaughton, “Star Wars will Make its Real Money in the Mall, Not the Cinema,” Vox, last modifiedDecember 18, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/12/18/10606300/star-wars-business-explained.
38. Thomas Schatz, “New Hollywood, New Millennium,” Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies, ed. Warren Buckland (New York: Routledge, 2009), 30.
39. Clare Parody, “Franchising/Adaptation,” Adaptation, vol. 4, no. 2 (2011), 214.
40. Peter Coogan, “The Definition of the Superhero,” in Super/Heroes: From Hercules to Superman, eds. Wendy Haslem, Angela Ndalianis, and Chris Mackie (Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, 2007), 22.
41. Jones, 147-48
42. Coogan, 23.
43. Detective Comics, Inc., v. Bruns Publications, Inc., et al., 111 F.2d 432 (2d Circuit, 29 April 1940), Cyber.Law.Harvard.Edu, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University,
45. Paul McDonald, Video and DVD Industries (London: British Film Institute, 2007), 150-51.
46. Jeff Ulin, The Business of Media Distribution: Monetizing Film, TV, and Video Content (Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2010), 161.
47. “Be HIP at the Movies,” Wayback Machine, Internet Archive, last modified July 27, 6,
49. Finlo Rohrer, “Getting Inside a Downloader’s Head,” BBC News: Magazine, last updated June 18, 2009,
50. Jason Mick, “Anti-Piracy Ad Creators Fined for Stealing Musician’s Work,” DailyTech, July 18, 2012, http://www.dailytech.com/AntiPiracy+Ad+Creators+Fined+For+Stealing
51. Aram Sinnreich, The Piracy Crusade: How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties (Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 2013), 133.
52. Enigmax [pseudonym], “Rights Group Fined for Not Paying Artist for Anti-Piracy Ad.” TorrentFreak, last modified July 17, 2012,
53. “Be HIP,” 4.
54. See “5 Things You Need to Know about Residuals,” Above and Below the Line, last updated November 14, 2013, http://aboveandbelow.media-services.com/2013/11/14/five-things-you-need-to-know-about-residuals/; “History and Governance,” Motion Picture Industry Pension & Health Plans, last updated December 2015, https://www.mpiphp.org/about_us/theplan.aspx; and “Questions of the Day,” IATSE.net, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage
Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories, and Canada, accessed January 8, 2016, http://iatse.net/questions-day.
55. Steve Hulett, “A Brief History of Union Residuals,” TAG Blog, The Animation Guild Local 839 IATSE, last updated August 20, 2006, http://animationguildblog.blogspot.com/2006/08/brief-history-of-union-residuals.html.
56. Etan Vlessing, “ACTRA Talks Back On, but Digital Divide Gaping,” The Hollywood Reporter, last updated February 3, 2007, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/actra-talks-back-but-digital-129370.
57. John A. Lent, “The Unfunny Tale of Labor and Cartooning in the US and Around the World,” in The Routledge Companion to Labor and Media, ed. Richard Maxwell (New York: Routledge, 2009), 180-81.
58. Lopes, Demanding Respect: The Evolution of the American Comic Book (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2009), 102.
59. “Order 80,” CPA Official Documents, The Coalition Provisional Authority, last updated April 26, 2004, page 1, http://www.iraqcoalition.org/regulations/20040426_
60. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 08-205 (Supreme Ct. of the US, 2010), pages 4, 38, and 40, SupremeCourt.gov, http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-205.pdf.
61. “Order 80,” 1.
62. Quoted in Patrick E. Tyler, “U.S. Says Bank Credits Will Finance Sale of Goods to Iraq,” New York Times, May 27, 2003, A14, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/27/world/after-the-war-rebuilding-us-says-bank-credits-will-finance-sale-of-goods-to-iraq.html.
63. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015), 144.
64. “Order 81,” CPA Official Documents, The Coalition Provisional Authority, last updated April 26, 2004, page 16, http://www.iraqcoalition.org/regulations/20040426_CPAORD_81_
65. Nancy Scola, “Why Iraqi Farmers Might Prefer Death to Paul Bremer’s Order 81,” AlterNet, last updated September 18, 2008, http://www.alternet.org/story/62273/why_iraqi_farmers_might_prefer_
67. Quoted in “Monsanto Critics Denied U.S. Supreme Court Hearing on Seed Patents,” Reuters.com, Reuters, last updated January 13, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-court-monsanto-idUSBREA0C10H20140113.
68. Fans may think of themselves as oppositional or anti-corporate, yet their playful fandom becomes what Dallas Smythe called “off-the-job work time,” unremunerated labor on behalf of shareholders they will never meet. See “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism,” Canadian Joural of Political and Social Theory, vol. 1, no. 3 (1977), 3.
69. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).
70. “Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act,” United States Copyright Office, October 27, 1998, http://www.copyright.gov/legislation/s505.pdf.
71. Janet Wasko, Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2001), 86.
72. Derek Khanna, “The Conservative Case for Taking on the Copyright Lobby,” Business Insider, April 30, 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/time-to-confront-the-copyright-lobby-2014-4.
73. Quoted in Timothy B. Lee, “15 Years Ago, Congress Kept Mickey Mouse out of the Public Domain. Will they Do it Again?” The Washington Post, October 25, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2013/10/25/15-years-ago-congress-kept-mickey-mouse-out-of-the-public-domain-will-they-do-it-again/.
74. Toby Miller, Nitin Govil, John McMurria, and Richard Maxwell, Global Hollywood, (London: British Film Institute, 2001), 116.
75. That is, DC and Marvel superheroes don’t use their powers to make a living by, say, winning athletic contests or mining gold from the Moon. At best, gaining superpowers allows them to start living the mansion of an already-rich team leader, seemingly rent-free (though the movies never provide such details).
Even Marvel’s Avengers, who ostensibly serve the US government, don’t apply to join the group in order to make a living. In Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011), Steve Rogers enlists in the Army before gaining his super-soldier powers, such that his later service extends this military career.
76. In the 1986 graphic novel Watchmen, Alan Moore violates this convention of the superhero genre in the terms of the Prometheus myth: the godlike super-scientist Dr. Manhattan creates technologies that change everyday life, such as rechargeable electric cars used by the Promethean Cab Company. Their slogan, “Bringing Light to the World,” makes clear Moore’s revisionist impulse. Watchmen (New York: DC Comics, 2005), chapter 3, page 22 [not continuously paginated].
77. Miller et al., 127.
78. Peter Drucker, The Practice of Management, 1954 (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 38.
79. Ibid., 37.
79a. Matt Yockey, “Somewhere in Time: Utopia and the Return of Superman,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 61 (2008), 31, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/232121/
80. Dave McNary, “Warner Bros. Wins Superman Case,” Variety, July 8, 2009, http://variety.com/2009/film/markets-festivals/warner-bros-wins-superman-case-1118005806/.
81. “Actor Mackenzie Gray,” YouTubevideo, 12:31, from The Rush broadcast on Shaw TV on June 19, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGasQcUukvM.
83. Joey Katz, “The Rewatch: Man of Steel,” Agnes Farta Weekly, last modified June 17, 2015, http://agnesweekly.weebly.com/blog/the-rewatch-man-of-steel.
84. Vadakin [pseudonym], post no.1658, EyesSkyward.com, June 26, 2013, http://www.eyesskyward.com/forum/showthread.php?1750-Man-of-Steel-COMPLETE-SPOILER-Discussion&p=178829&viewfull=1.
85. The comics’ Doomsday results from a Kryptonian mad scientist’s attempt to create an unkillable super-being. See Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding, Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey, volumes 2 and 3 (1994), DC Comics.
86. David Aaker, Building Strong Brands (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 83-84.
87. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Purloined Letter,” 1844, The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings (New York: Penguin, 1986), 345.
88. David Bordwell, “An Excessively Obvious Cinema,” in The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, by David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Staiger (New York: Columbia UP, 1985), 11.
89. Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1992), 90.
90. These include, for instance, the full-page ads for Hostess snack cakes that once appeared in Marvel comics.
91. Kirk Boyle, “Children of Men and I Am Legend: the Disaster-Capitalism Complex Hits Hollywood,” Jump Cut. 51 (Spring 2009), 2, http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc51.2009/ChildrenMenLegend/text.html.
92. Žižek, 90.