This question was asked in the GEH1067 module, iteration AY17/18 Sem 2 under Dr Ian Gordon.
What is more important for superhero characters: their status as icons, or their status as commodities?
The question asked suggests that there is a binary, that superheroes have to be seen either as icons or as commodities. Much of the discussion and scholarship suggests, complete with examples, that they can never be one without the other. Having taken all that into account, I would argue that superheroes will be icons only in certain contexts and time periods but they will be commodities all the time. Furthermore, their statuses as icons in a particular time allows those who make them commodities to use them. For this essay I define icons as persons worthy of veneration and characters as persons in plays, novels or films.
To begin with, Bart Beaty discusses the need for ‘audience strategies’. This suggests that audiences are connected to the characters and to each other through their shared love for the characters. They view these characters as icons, declare their adoration for these icons and through their participation in these profit-making ventures, allow for these characters to be commodified for them. Examples include the creation of the cinematic universe (Beaty 319, 321) where audiences find affinities with characters through narratives like the Iron Man, and Thor origin stories as well as develop an understanding of characters’ interpersonal relationships. These stories as Beaty also suggests, have ‘easter eggs’ (322) which audiences pick up on and this helps them to connect movies together in the cinematic universe. This creation of characters as icons to the audience aids in the icons’ commodification as ‘audiences can join at any time’ and can ‘grow easily’ (Beaty 320), meaning that box office profits as well as accompanying merchandize sales would increase for the producers accordingly.
Secondly, this argument would help to explain the natural transition of superheroes from comic book medium to television and eventually to film. The creation of the cinematic universe could be even argued to have its roots in transmedial storytelling that began in the 1920s with cross-industrial collaborations (Freeman 220). Superman’s narrative was argued by Matthew Freeman to be intentionally created to be too large to stay in one medium that other mediums had to be co-opted in to assist in the production and broadcasting of it (Beaty 217). The end goal was that the profits accrued would not accrue only to one company but to many. Therefore, the creation of the ‘iconic’ narrative of Superman was eventually for the purposes of it being a commodity that was so large its outreach could be expanded immensely for consequent exponential profits.
To add on to that, some may argue that Superman is indeed iconic but I would rather posit that he was a product, a literal commodity of his time, similar to Captain America and other characters. The argument is also further emphasised when one sees that the demand of audience for characters is determined by contextual and historical problems. Superman was popular during the war because he was an icon of what America was fighting for (Freeman 220, 221-226). But he as an icon, together with the medium he was portrayed on, declined because they were only commodities. Once the war was over, the commodity of comic books as motivation was less necessary and neither was the war-time superhero. How iconic he was depended very much on whether he was useful as a commodity in that particular time. Similarly, Captain America was created at a time when the enemy fought was an ideological one, Communism. This fight was graphically portrayed in the Captain America vs Hydra clashes where the stereotypical propagators of this ideology, the ‘Russians’ were always depicted as the villains. This helped increase the popularity of the character as an icon, a bastion of democracy in contrast to Communist symbols and thereby increase demand for the movie. It also being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America functions as an icon with his own backstory as well as a character in the grander scheme of Marvel’s profit-making world.
In conclusion, the transition from comic book to television as well as the creation of a narrative world of the cinematic universes where characters were crafted and built as icons allowed audiences to gain affinities and connections with these icons and this affinity was very much based on the contexts of the time. Having audience fixed on these iconic characters allowed for the capitalist propagation of these icons as commodities. Finally, their popularity was not determined by how iconic they were but more so how much good were they as products of their time.
Bart Beaty (2016) Superhero fan service: Audience strategies in the contemporary interlinked Hollywood blockbuster, The Information Society, 32:5, 318-325, DOI:10.1080/01972243.2016.1212616
Matthew Freeman (2014) Up, Up and Across: Superman, the Second World War and the Historical Development of Transmedia Storytelling, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 35:2, 215-239, DOI: 10.1080/01439685.2014.941564
Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith, eds. Icons of the American Comic Book: From Captain America to Wonder Woman. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood, 2013. Select chapters.