Dittmer J, 2011, "American exceptionalism, visual effects, and the post-9/11 cinematic superhero boom" Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29(1) 114 – 130
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American exceptionalism, visual effects, and the post-9/11 cinematic superhero boom
Received 17 April 2009; in revised form 2 February 2010; published online 2 November 2010
Abstract. This paper argues that popular geopolitics needs to pay attention to the full range of the cultural economy in its analyses of popular culture artifacts. Previous work has been overfocused on the text without enough attention to production and audiencing, and as a result analyses often assume an ideological motivation to questions of genre and meaning. This paper uses as a case study the post-9/11 boom of the superhero genre in Hollywood cinema, tracing it through the circuits of cultural economy. Particular attention is paid to the claim that superheroism resonates with the post-9/11 foreign policy of the United States and that this has enabled the genre to flourish at the box office. Academic and critical readings of Hellboy (2004), Superman Returns (2006), Iron Man (2008), and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) indicate these resonances with various strands of American exceptionalism, but production-focused analysis indicates that technological innovation in visual effects as well as industry economics have driven the American film industry into the current superhero cul-de-sac. Audience research indicates both viewers’ critical awareness of the politics embedded in the films under consideration and also the centrality of visual effects to their appreciation. Rather than concluding that the recent flurry of superhero films is rooted in either American exceptionalism or visual effects, this paper concludes with the potential linkage of those topics through nonrepresentational theory and calls for methodological innovation that might assess this type of possibility.
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