Practicing Superhuman Law: Creative License, Industrial Identity, and Spider-Man’s Homecoming

In The Superhero Symbol: Media, Culture, and Politics, edited by Liam Burke, Ian Gordon, and Angela Ndalianis. Published by Rutgers University Press, 2019.

Book Description

“As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol… as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting”. In the 2005 reboot of the Batman film franchise, Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne articulates how the figure of the superhero can serve as a transcendent icon.

It is hard to imagine a time when superheroes have been more pervasive in our culture. Today, superheroes are intellectual property jealously guarded by media conglomerates, icons co-opted by grassroots groups as a four-color rebuttal to social inequities, masks people wear to more confidently walk convention floors and city streets, and bulletproof banners that embody regional and national identities. From activism to cosplay, this collection unmasks the symbolic function of superheroes.

Bringing together superhero scholars from a range of disciplines, alongside key industry figures such as Harley Quinn co-creator Paul Dini, The Superhero Symbol provides fresh perspectives on how characters like Captain America, Iron Man, and Wonder Woman have engaged with media, culture, and politics, to become the “everlasting” symbols to which a young Bruce Wayne once aspired. 

The Superhero Symbol: Media, Culture, and Politics, 2019.

Chapter 6: “Practicing Superhuman Law: Creative License, Industrial Identity, and Spider-Man’s Homecoming” – Tara Lomax

The industrial conditions concerning ownership and licensing of intellectual property (IP) are central to the development of creative content in contemporary media franchising. Similarly, the licensing relationships between comic book publishers and Hollywood studios have a dynamic impact on the creative development and industrial identity of superhero properties. For example, in the late 1990s Marvel Comics regained its economic stability following bankruptcy by licensing high- profile superhero properties like Spider- Man and the X- Men to Hollywood studios. This licensing strategy saw Marvel forfeit creative control of a number of its characters. At the foundation of Marvel Studios’ organizational identity as a movie production company, conceived to self-produce its remaining superhero properties, is a compelling dynamic between creativity, business, and law. As president of Marvel Entertainment Alan Fine explains, in setting up Marvel Studios “we wanted to control the destinies of our own characters. We wanted to decide when, how, and in which ways we would bring them to filmed- entertainment.” Therefore, Marvel Studios is founded as an industrial intervention into the conventional structures of ownership and licensing relations between Hollywood and the American comic book industry.

She-Hulk #2 (2004)

In examining the nature and function of superhero properties within the context of media franchising, this chapter demonstrates that superhero franchises constitute both a proprietary function and a creative mode of expression. The interplay of these impulses is fundamental to understanding media franchising as a dominant mode of production in contemporary screen media; as such, this chapter considers the concept of creative license as a process through which a superhero property’s industrial identity is also negotiated and shaped. This chapter draws on the concept of ‘superhuman law’ introduced in the Marvel Comics series She-Hulk (Dan Slott 2004-05) to explore the relationship between creativity and licensing in superhero franchising. Using the Marvel-Sony co-production Spider-Man: Homecoming as a case study, this chapter argues that owned and licensed IP superhero franchises are shaped by a complex negotiation of industrial conditions and creative expression across multiple media and serialized iterations.

She-Hulk #2 (2004)
Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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