Superhero Blockbusters: Seriality, Politics of Engagement, and the Spirit of 21st-Century Popular Culture
Dissertation in Culture
First supervisor: Prof. Frank Kelleter
Second supervisor:Prof. Dr. Ruth Mayer
Third supervisor: Prof. Dr. Martin Lüthe
My dissertation examines the enduring popularity of contemporary superhero blockbuster cinema and argues that the commercial success of films such as X-Men, Marvel’s The Avengers, and Wonder Woman is rooted in aesthetic practices that are specific to films of the genre. More precisely, the dissertation suggests that recent superhero movies share a common politics of audience engagement—i.e. a specific combination of film-aesthetic, narrative, and thematic means and strategies that, in conjunction with historically specific medial and cultural conditions, endow films of the genre with a remarkable potential to mobilize economically productive audience discourses and practices that exist within the cultural environment of Hollywood blockbuster films. Ultimately, the dissertation suggests that the popularity of contemporary superhero blockbuster cinema is at least in part based on storytelling strategies that invite and encourage a long-term engagement with expanding serial storyworlds, on a strategic courting of online fan publics, and on a purposeful positioning with the discourses of a broader media public.
From this perspective, the thesis examines three central components of superhero blockbuster cinema’s politics of audience engagement: the genre’s hyper-referential style of storytelling (which indexes a plethora of closely related narrative and paratextual materials), the practices of fan management that try to insert releases into the discourses of online fandom and which are at work both within films and the marketing materials that promote them, and the cinematic populism of superhero blockbusters (which limits films’ ability to meaningfully engage with political subject matters, but invites allegorical readings by professional critics). Building on recent research on popular serial forms, existing scholarship on superhero narratives, and a re-evaluation of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s theory of the culture industry, the dissertation furthermore argues that the political significance of commercial entertainments not only manifests itself on the level of their ideological contents, but also in their status as objects of everyday recreational consumption practices. In addition, the thesis offers a critical engagement with media scholar Henry Jenkins’ work on digital-era “participatory culture” to argue that processes of digitization and the rise of the Internet effect a transition from a consumption- to an engagement-centric paradigm of commercial entertainment. Under the latter, the profitability of cultural commodities is increasingly dependent on their visibility within online discourses about popular culture—and, as a result, contemporary cultural commodities have developed sophisticated means to intensify audience’s consumption practices and generate attention within a digital media public. To conceptualize the implications of these shifts, the dissertation adopts Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello’s notion of a New Spirit of Capitalism and suggests that recent superhero blockbuster cinema is informed by a practical ideology that seeks to maximize audience activity on all levels. More precisely, this thesis suggests that the genre’s politics of audience engagement are informed by a spirit of 21st-century popular culture that justifies attempts to capitalize on the cultural productivity of (professional and non-professional) consumers.
To make this case, the thesis considers the evolution of the hyper-referential style since 1978’s Superman (the first entry of the genre), examines the practices of fan management at work in the 2016 films Deadpool and Suicide Squad, and discusses the cinematic populism of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Captain America: Civil War (2016), and V for Vendetta (2006) in greater detail.