Study of the superhero

Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman may have finally met their match — in academia.

About 40 people, including faculty, graduate students and audience members convened Friday and Saturday in Room 208 of the Whitney Humanities Center to participate in the Yale Film Studies Program’s inaugural graduate conference, “The Politics of Superheroes: Renegotiating the Superhero in Post 9/11 Hollywood Cinema.”

Sergio Dias Branco presents “Super Style: Superheroes and Genre Play.”
Grant Smith
Sergio Dias Branco presents “Super Style: Superheroes and Genre Play.”

“These superheroes have moved to the here and now,” said Jeremi Szaniawski GRD ’10, a Ph.D. student in film and Slavic studies who organized and co-chaired the symposium with Victor Fan GRD ’10. “When you see a movie like Transformers or Iron Man, you have to wonder who finances these films — the U.S. military?”

Indeed, many presenters drew parallels between the fictional arena of the superhero and contemporary events, such as the wars in the Middle East, terrorist hostage videos, the surveillance policy of George W. Bush ’68 and the 2001 anthrax attacks.

In the conference’s keynote lecture “Look! Up on the Screen! The Poetics of the Superhero Film,” Stanford associate professor Scott Bukatman examined the thematic elements of the genre’s predecessors, including the fluidity and kaleidoscopic colors of the musical film and the self-reliant action heroes of such movies as Dirty Harry and the James Bond franchise.

Bukatman then shifted to the present, identifying three primary causes for the recent bumper crop of superhero movies: the growing public and academic acceptance of the comic book as a respectable literary medium; exponential gains in digital technology in the new decade; and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that fostered the subconscious desire to “heal the city.”

A series of panels throughout the conference featured papers by graduate students such as “Super Style: Heroes and Television Aesthetics” and “Eternal Homecoming: Cold War Nostalgia and the Crisis of the Family Body in The Incredibles.”

The conference’s participants alternated between academic debate and fanaticism for its topic. Presenters received comic book memorabilia in their registration packets and were introduced by their superhero preferences during the panels. The roundtable discussion at the end of the conference about the superhero’s relationship to race, gender, capitalism and technology also featured a spirited debate on the merits of The Dark Knight, recalling the Joker’s catchphrase from the film: “Why so serious?”

“I walked out of the theatre saying, ‘That was a total mess, but I really enjoyed the chase scenes and Heath Ledger,’ ” Marianna Martin, a graduate student in cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago, said of her reaction to the movie.

Though Bukatman called “The Dark Knight” “overexplicit in its thematization,” a show of hands observed at the beginning of the symposium revealed that most attendees disagreed with his negative assessment of the film.

Clark Xue ’12 enjoyed the presentations he attended but said he wished the conference had been better publicized to undergraduates.

“I learned so much from the event,” he said. “My only regret is that there weren’t more of my peers in the audience.”

(Xue is a staff reporter for the News.)

Ronald Gregg, a senior lecturer and programming director in the Film Studies Department who was involved in the conference’s planning stages, said the event was well-organized and ultimately successful.

“I went as an observer, but I became increasingly pulled into the conversation,” he said. “I found the roundtable at the end particularly stimulating and gratifying — it was one of those rare moments at a conference when I didn’t want the conversation to end.”

Though they have not yet selected a date or topic for the next symposium, the organizers said they hope the event will become a yearly tradition.

Comments

  • Y'12

    Interesting article…