Assembling an Entry Point: Notes on Navigating the Superhero Genre

Unlike the Marvel television products discussed in our roundtable, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has incorporated other planets and dimensions into its storytelling
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion on “Marvel Entertainment and the Urban Spaces of Superhero Authenticity.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In Erica’s second column, she asked whether Marvel is “going to start using other cities, or other spatial configurations, to embody, authenticate, and code its characters?” As she and Laura point out, Marvel’s actually been doing this for quite some time—Captain America and Iron Man are two particular figures whose mobility seems tied to the increasingly complicated flow of geopolitics; for instance, in Iron Man (2008), Tony Stark’s ability to fly to the Middle East on a whim allows him to arbitrate conflicts the U.S. government seems unwilling to resolve. Erica also pointed to Star Lord’s adventures in Guardians of Galaxy, and Thor’s home of Asgard, as sites that complicate the New York-based focus of the materials Laura, Matt, Lorrie, and I chose to discuss in our first round of posts. Even though the majority of our posts emphasized television productions, Marvel’s recent forays into TV have been unmoored from New York, as well. Marvel’s Agents of Shield rarely spends any time in the urban center. It has not only sprawled globally, but gone to other planets, dimensions, and outer space across its four seasons. In many senses, it is a much more “expansive” show than anything on Netflix, drawing in elements of mythology and making pointed efforts to develop plotlines that spiral out from or connect to the Marvel Cinematic Universe films.

Erica usefully notes that the vast intricacies of Marvel’s intermedial universe look very little like a city. They are not gridded in a way that is necessarily easy to decipher, though they have something of a road map—not only the red-and-white company banner, but also the iconography of suits, armor, and bodily figures that identifies the product as “part of” Marvel’s universe (the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo, for instance, shows up repeatedly across film, television, comics, and games properties and can be read as a unifier of sorts). They are rather, to borrow her words, “more like the global megacities whose de-centralized, polynucleotide skeletons dominate the current era (and if we were to x-ray New York today, we’d find its borders untraceable within the global flows of capital that define it).”

These comments make me think of the late, great Doreen Massey’s cultural geography in For Space (2005), where she describes and analyzes the flows of people, goods, and ideas into and out of London as part of an ongoing process whereby meaning, value, and identity are just some of the many variables that space helps to define and articulate. Space is an unfinished product, and part of the challenge of spatial analysis becomes deciphering how the movement of these flows—material or otherwise—are part of cultural meaning-making.1 Doreen Massey, For Space (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2005).

When it comes to analyzing superheroes in general, and Marvel in particular, the task is almost always one of selecting the object (as it so often is). If we are to talk about Captain America, how do we do it? Scholars such as Jason Dittmer have adventurously charted the hero’s depictions nationalism across many decades, for instance, offering a sort of genealogy of the character’s political development, among other features.2 Jason Dittmer, Captain America and the nationalist superhero: metaphors, narratives, and geopolitics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013). If we are to talk about Spider-man’s industrial development in Hollywood from a Fox property to a Marvel in-house franchise, how much does one need to dwell on related properties like X-men that have also been licensed to and retained by Fox?

The point underlying these questions is that the superhero genre is multiplying. Derek Johnson’s work on media franchising remains key for thinking about the logics of multiplicity that increasingly define industrial production.3 Derek Johnson, Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (New York: New York University Press, 2013). In order to understand this multiplication, it may be best to begin at a locus point and move outward. Let’s take my own original post as an example of this: The decision to isolate one episode of Daredevil was a choice with a number of different reasons: it would be hard to talk about every episode in a short article, it was the first of the Marvel-Netflix collaborations, pilot episodes are often cited and discussed as “gateways” that set up a show’s tone and thematics, etc. Broadening the analysis would entail not only taking both seasons of Daredevil into greater account, but marrying my own analysis to, for instance, Matt’s analysis on Luke Cage, and finding space to bring Jesssica Jones more fully into the equation.

But that would only solve part of the problem—it wouldn’t account for the ABC shows, as Lorrie does with her look at Agent Carter on ABC, and it would say nothing of the many animated programs that have been produced centering around the Marvel characters from the 1990s through to today. Another way to say this would be to simply say: the study of a genre so vast requires an entry point. Hilary E. Kahn makes much the same point in her Introduction to her and Saskia Sassan’s anthology Framing the Global, which in part argues the only way to understand the messy interconnections of global relationships is to begin with a trace, an entry point, and follow it through accordingly. “Like electronic web portals, entry points consolidate diverse and far-reaching ideas, people, and resources. Like entries to a citadel, they allow scholars and readers to explore halls, chambers, and secret passageways that together give structure to objects of inquiry.”4 Hilary E. Kahn and Saskia Sassen, Framing the Global: Entry Points for Research (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).

This roundtable, in other words, has functioned as something of an entry point into questions of urban experience and authenticity in Marvel’s productions. As Erica’s second post makes clear, however, this is an entryway that provokes a daunting stream of questions. I will end by reasserting a claim I made in my original post: that the task of analyzing the web of intricacies framing and propelling the superhero genre requires a bit of detective work. Finding “the way in” to the case requires chasing leads, making leaps, and looking for connections between evidence—between the tattered, bullet-ridden hoodie Matt analyzed in his post on Luke Cage, and the lavish Malibu home Tony Stark occupies in Iron Man 3. In a very real sense, the only thing that seems to connect these two figures is the Marvel banner that precedes them—politically, culturally, aesthetically, they feel barely concerned with one another. By each of us offering our own “entry point” into these questions of urban authenticity, I believe we are making clear the necessity of thinking about genre and industry analysis as an inherently patchwork, collaborative process, where each voice raises questions on which others can build and respond.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Doreen Massey, For Space (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2005).
2. Jason Dittmer, Captain America and the nationalist superhero: metaphors, narratives, and geopolitics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013).
3. Derek Johnson, Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (New York: New York University Press, 2013).
4. Hilary E. Kahn and Saskia Sassen, Framing the Global: Entry Points for Research (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).

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