Superheroes For Super Hire: Fandom, Ownership & Knowing When To Pass It On

A Special Feature by Carl Wilson

Are We In A Crisis Event?

You know that bit in every Batman film where Bruce Wayne goes inwardly moody and retires, before inevitably emerging from his cavernous chrysalis like a fabulous, black peacock?

It’s basically one of your classic Crisis events, and while anyone interested in the future of superheroes might not yet have realised it, we are currently living through that moment…

Back in May, the US telecoms company AT&T announced plans to spin off the media division of Time Warner to Discovery, Inc. This means Discovery (a network of factual television networks), jointly owns WarnerMedia with AT&T, but with Discovery in overall control.  

It’s part of a market realignment, as streaming companies scrabble to buy traditional Hollywood studios for their content and intellectual properties to boost their own digital portfolios, and while it might make it a golden age for silver sofa surfers, it’s about more than TV and film – part of the WarnerMedia division includes at least 30 “brands”, inclusive of Warner Bros., (itself in turn comprised of several subsidiaries).

These sub-divisions cover various media producers, such as DC Comics. IGN’s Julia Alexander reported that only “part of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (WBIE) will be sold off, but not all”, but we don’t yet know which studios will make the super leap.   One can see this as a natural corporate reaction to Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox in March 2019. It is also reflected in Amazon’s announcement – made just days after the AT&T buyout – that they have bought MGM Holdings (which includes MGM Studios output, but not anything pre-1986 as that actually belongs to WarnerMedia).

So What’s The Drama, Guy Gardner?

Well, one of the benefits of a ‘vertically integrated mass media corporation’ is supposed to be synergy. WBIE lists 11 different games studios, and they make several DC Comics video games, including the Arkham, Injustice, and LEGO series.

These are games that have generated billions of dollars and have helped shape the wider DC Comics universe – in simple terms, a really big deal.

Think about the same way that Batman (1966-68) the television series, then Tim Burton’s Batman movies (1989 & 1982), and Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) all created different iterations of “Batmania” when they were released, to then feed back into the same multiverses and swirling discourses… some of which you may enjoy, and others you’d prefer to let drown in a Lazarus Pit.

While I brace myself to hear what will be happening to forthcoming games like Gotham Knights and Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, and then survey the skies for the next bat-signals emitted from these game studios, the fracturing of Warner owned properties, while laden with implications for the cultural products I enjoy, is largely just business usual.

Like Riddler’s spinning death-trap, the wheel keeps turning until next time (same bat-channel). In fact, there are already rumours circulating that Disney, who owns DC Comics-competitors Marvel, are interested in acquiring any of the game studios that don’t make the transition to WarnerMedia. However, while the sale of Time Warner assets is industry-shaping and a joint journey into the Phantom Zone of the unknown, right now it’s one that has me also thinking more keenly about what we consider to be control and ownership over media products.

In a piece for The New York Times, John Logan, co-writer on the James Bond movies Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015), recently opined that “Bond isn’t just another franchise, not a Marvel or a DC; it is a family business that has been carefully nurtured and shepherded through the changing times by the Broccoli/Wilson family [….] That’s why we don’t have a mammoth Bond Cinematic Universe, with endless anemic variations of 007 sprouting up on TV or streaming or in spinoff movies.”

Of course, Logan seems to be oblivious to, or in plausible deniability of, the influence of Marvel’s Kevin Feige, just as he doesn’t seem to be much aware of the countless Bond videogames, Junior Bond books, parodies, aftershaves, and so on. Yet, that idea of ownership by a party that did not make the source material (in this example, Ian Fleming), but still claims to know how best to control the property on behalf of everyone else, is still pretty much the same side of Two-Face’s coin; the difference being, as Logan touches upon, that there’s additional issues that stem from sharing brands across multiple media types and ancillary narrative spaces, or more precisely, in appealing to different target audiences, the brands will invariably fail to please everyone.

Which Brings Me To ‘Fans’…

It feels like in the past month alone I’m reading critiques of every possible thing for every possible reason. The new Marvel Studios film The Eternals (2022), is currently being called out based on the colour saturation of the trailer alone. Some vocal folks on social media find that the muted colours are doing a disservice to the vibrant original artwork by creator Jack Kirby. Yet, as Neil Gaiman, who himself worked on a short series of The Eternals in 2006 offers…

This idea of passing culture on is worth considering, with a collective responsibility to create works that are fuelled by past material (the ideas, the concepts, the design), but make them anew for ourselves and others in this moment. The only real expectation is that there is some consistency in the New Thing, based on a cultural continuation or a reaction to the Old Thing, which we can then all interpret in good faith.

So, while the colour scheme might strike some as unexpected, it’s worth looking at the adapted piece as a whole before dismissing it out of hand. Maybe there’s a reason that the shades are reminiscent of a Snyder DC movie; maybe it contrasts thematically with the already vibrant Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Guardians of the Galaxy movies (2014 & 2017), and if the next Marvel Universe phase is going further into space, it could be that there’s a need for a more grounded pantheon of supergods, before the tether to a unified diegetic reality is cut completely.

After all, in the same week, Gaiman upheld this stance – of looking at the whole picture before you complain – in relation to the casting announcement for his forthcoming Netflix adaptation of his The Sandman comic series: “I give zero fucks about people who don’t understand/haven’t read Sandman whining about a non-binary Desire or that Death isn’t white enough. Watch the show, make up your minds.

In video games circles, the same conversations (and/or whining), occur on a daily basis. Just this morning I was reading about “fan” reactions to a reveal event for Horizon Forbidden West, the forthcoming sequel to a game in which the lead protagonist, Aloy, has a coming-of-age narrative of self-discovery played out in a post-apocalyptic world populated by metal dinosaurs.

A common refrain was that “fans” should have been allowed to design this new version of Aloy as she now looks too masculine and not feminine enough for their tastes (spoiler alert: she just looks a little older, without makeup, and like most red-heads that have been in the sun for a bit). A parody image of the character in a full Hollywood-style makeover somehow became a rallying point for those that keenly felt let down by the ground-breaking technology that actually does a phenomenal job of making Aloy look more realistic. The first game, Horizon Zero Dawn (2017) won at the Writers Guild of America Awards, the British Academy Games Awards, and even an Ivor Novello Award, but somehow this direction towards the kind of technical excellence people buy new computers for is paradoxically also too much for the gamers that still want titillating Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. (1966) levels of female representation. 

It could be that the direction of the new game just isn’t for these ravenous “real fans” or self-ascribed “true gamers”. It could be that the themes that the game is trying to consider are outside the interest or comfort zone of these same folks, who take issue with attempts to further the representation of women in media, but will happily enjoy playing as gruff, old man Kratos in God of War (2018). I’m sure that at least one person will complain that it’s all too political, as if such a term could ever be separated from cultural products and our consumption of them.     

And it’s not like this craven rabble are without options; civilisation is at a point where there’s not only a VR live-action porn-parody of Aloy, but someone has used Deepfake technology to put the video game face of Aloy onto the adult actress. Maybe this is all representative of the wider problem here; not the pornography itself, which is actually demonstrative of some pockets of fandom actually finding a way to create and enjoy their alternative masturbatory fantasies, but that some people demand whatever subjective fantasy of reality they have locked away in their minds, and anything less than that projected in mainstream media is unsatisfactory and, therefore, wrong. Keeping the phrasing diplomatic: this is all solipsistic self-abuse on multiple levels. To be clear, this isn’t the same type of fandom behaviour that was vocal in getting the Snyder-cut of Justice League brought to release (though many undoubtedly also confused their personal desires with the concept of ownership). At least the Snyder fans were attempting to resurrect a version of film that they believe had become altered beyond recognition. Aloy was never designed to be Hollywood glamorous, she just aged.

Uncharted Expectations

In the same week as the sexy Mad Maxine foolishness, I was also seeing two specific criticisms on Twitter of a character in the forthcoming Uncharted movie, based on the hit action-adventure video game series (2007-). In the games, the protagonist has a father-like figure called Sully, played in the upcoming movie by Mark Wahlberg.

A surprising amount of vocal outrage has been based on an image of the character without a moustache, one of his defining visual aspects. Critics could not understand why Sully did not have such a trademark feature; it was considered an outrage that the adaptation was not being faithful to the source material. The other comments were based on an image that Mark Wahlberg shared on social media, where he was sporting Sully’s facial fur. Except, now it was an outrage because he looked silly and the character should be played by someone else.

This facial hair discourse in a way comes back to superheroes, given the debacle that surrounded Superman’s digitally-altered face in Justice League due to Henry Cavill’s scheduling conflict with Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018), but at least that was indicative of wider issues in the production of the movie; here, it’s people lodging a complaint about something they feel they have ownership of, again before the product is even released and fully understood. Expectations are a tricky thing to navigate when it comes to properties that fans have nostalgia for or a sense of possession over. Often, as we see above, it becomes a focus on the build of a character.

Are You The Gatekeeper?

I’ve seen as many articles commenting on the new haircut of actress Sasha Calle, speculating on how this affects her role as Supergirl in the forthcoming The Flash movie, as I have for the culturally significant introduction of Yara Flor in comics, as the new Wonder Woman from Brazil. Of course, there is room for all of these conversations – and there always should be an outlet for a plurality of voices and concerns – but as fandom is increasingly diverting the processes that get an item brought to market (see:  Sonic the Hedgehog [2020], and previously on Late Reviewer, here), not only is this a critical dialogue for creators and fans to have, I believe it is one that increasingly needs to be made in good faith.

When factions on all sides claim to be nurturing and shepherding, they can also gatekeep without consideration or, let’s be honest, care and understanding of the wider changes within society.

It’s one thing to ask for new things to remain authentic, a nebulous concept in and of itself, but it’s another thing entirely to then fail to attempt to understand why other people might not share that same view and to then dismiss it.          

As WarnerMedia finds its strides and will likely come to a point where there are not making the type of superhero games I would wish to play, perhaps I will reflect more on how superheroes can be passed on for others to enjoy, and the role that I play in that perpetual revolution.

Maybe my crisis is the origin story for those that come next.

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