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The 21st Century Superhero edited by Richard J. Gray II and Betty Kaklamanidou

01/04/2012. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The 21st Century Superhero edited in the USA - or Buy The 21st Century Superhero edited in the UK

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pub: McFarland. 204 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: GBP34.95 (UK), $ (US). ISBN: 978-0-7864-6345-9.

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The title ‘The 21st Century Superhero’ is a lot shorter than the sub-title ‘Essays On Gender, Genre And Globalisation In Film’ but the latter explains the nature of this book, even if I’m not entirely sure if the century has any bearing on these essays. Saying that, I wish some of these people knew something about the comicbook roots of these films and realise that they weren’t made from raw cloth. If anything, they would have discovered that Marvel did more for the advancement of female characters than DC. One only had to see a left alone Sue Storm take on Dr. Doom in an early issue and beat him because he under-estimated her abilities, even if she did brag that Reed Richards taught her martial arts.

When it comes to gender, which is essentially female, I became increasingly puzzled why when sex entered the equation, writers see it as woman become submissive. I mean, would they be happy if the woman was a dominatrix and got the bondage gear out? Even the more ‘adult’ comicbooks don’t always go quite that far. Well, a few perhaps but those were the exceptions and I doubt if these writers would have known about those. Of all the examples of super-hero films, I was surprised that they didn’t consider ‘My Super Ex-Girl-Friend’ which clearly had a domineering super-heroine in the lead. Granted it was done for comic (sic) effect but it also made a serious point of power abuse. It’s problematic with books like these to fall into the trap of only choosing examples that support what they want to say rather than look at the films that don’t or even compare to SF films which you would expect to see the same problems.

Vincent M. Gaine’s ‘Gene And Super-Heroism’ examination of Batman and his changing role in Gotham City is insightful on the events of the second film of recent years. A vigilante’s role is always going to become problematic as they tend to appear when there is trouble that can’t be controlled and when police authority reasserts itself becomes more of a nuisance because they work outside of the law themselves. Batman might well help the police but it’s a gray area of help because his own actions are outside of the law and who, other than his conscience, is he answerable to?

One of my favourite lines comes from the footnotes where actor Michael Caine defines Superman as America sees itself and as Batman as the rest of the world sees the USA. It’s a shame this wasn’t explored as the super-hero is really the American icon and its effect on the rest of the world, especially in the light of super-hero films out there is a means to spread their culture. A missing opportunity for a later book in this series methinks.

‘The Watchmen’ is always a favourite subject in these books and I guess its iconic stance is why it’s given so much debate material. As interesting as Phillip Davis’ chapter, ‘The Watchmen, Neo-Noir And Pastiche’, is it still falls into the trap of interpretation rather than what its original creators had intended ie to show the darker side of super-heroes and what governs their actions. That is the whole point of the underlying graffiti ‘Who watches the Watchmen’ after all. Director Zack Snider actually kept to that premise, even though he tampered with the ending (it wasn’t ‘worms’ but tentacles of an ‘alien life-form’ in the graphic novel had Davies checked) to turn Dr. Manhattan into the supposed aggressor. In many respects, to me, the failure of the film to be as grabbing on a modern day audience is that many film watchers hadn’t read the graphic novel nor were prepared for a more cynical look at what super-hero vigilantism can do when it gets older and out of hand.

The examination of ‘Smallville’ in the self-named chapter by Shahriar Fouladi and the adolescent Superman getting to grips with his powers and moving from monstrous to controlled is a good observation. Fouladi even compares this to Marvel’s X-Men who have similar problems. I always tended to see the original X-Men team as being a group with Superman’s main abilities split between them. Obviously, they are a bit more than that because Superman is neither agile like the Beast or has telekinesis like Marvel Girl but you get the idea. If anything, Clark Kent’s mastery of his abilities is done rather too quickly and it’s a shame that Fouladi doesn’t examine his reluctancy to fly, especially when other Kryptonians arrive can.

I should point out that there are ten essay chapters here and I’ve only made comment on four of them. The other six I tend to agree with, mostly because it covers recognised ground that we are all familiar with but the points I made above make for more interesting reading. It does make me wonder if any of the material in this book will change with the next batch of super-hero films coming out this year. In the meantime, see what these people have to say.

GF Willmetts

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