Ray’s Thematic Paradigm Revisited: Nontraditional Superhero Films

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Author: Bryan Ghingold

THEMATIC PARADIGM REVISITED- Robert Ray’s Thematic Paradigm can be applied to pretty much every film within the superhero genre, and certainly many films outside of the superhero genre. The two films we watched in the second half of the semester that I chose to apply Ray’s thematic paradigm to are Unbreakable and Sky High.


Without a doubt, the superheroes represented in Disney’s Sky High are aligned with the values of the official hero. Perhaps the most telling sign of this is the main character’s parents, The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston); a married couple who are regarded as the world’s best superheroes. They frequently receive phone calls from the mayor on their red glowing cell phone, which is a throwback to the 1960s Batman television series. In that series, Batman (who is traditionally regarded as an outlaw hero, according to Ray’s Thematic Paradigm) is depicted as an official hero, working with the police, and sometimes the President of the United States. In Sky High, the Stronghold family lives in the suburbs. It is hinted that they live near a major metropolitan city, when early in the film The Commander and Jetstream defeat a giant evil robot wreaking havoc in the city. One of the central conflicts of the film is Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) falling in love with the right girl. If he or his parents were outlaw heroes, he wouldn’t be struggling to “get the girl.” It is also important to note that the Strongholds’ public façade is that of real estate agents, and on top of being the world’s best superheroes, they are the city’s best real estate agents. Not only do they take their fake careers seriously, but their careers of choice are respectable, middle class, official. Lastly, the final piece of evidence that the characters in Sky High are official heroes, when the villains are defeated at the end of the film, they aren’t killed, they aren’t imprisoned in The Commander’s “Secret Sanctum,” they are put in detention. Granted, it is a superhero detention which neutralizes superpowers, but it is a very official and “law abiding” form of punishment. A common analogy middle and high school students make is that detention is like the school’s prison.


While the heroes in Sky High embodied the official hero’s values, the case of David Dunn (Bruce Willis) in M. Night Shayamalan’s Unbreakable is much trickier. Shyamalan, who was well versed in the conventions of the superhero genre, gave Dunn a unique type of character depth. David Dunn the person was a very official individual. He has a wife and child, a very official, mediocre job working at a sports stadium. He was a high school football star. He believes very firmly in the distinct line between right and wrong, etc. However, David Dunn the superhero, the “unbreakable man” is very much an outlaw hero. He rises from obscurity to right the injustice of mankind, and then returns to obscurity, he fights and kills in the name of justice. David Dunn the hero is a loner, he keeps secrets from his wife and son, has marital trouble because his nature is to be a natural man, unattached and uncivilized by the law of the land. Shyamalan set up these two conflicting values to show us how Dunn reconciles the man with the hero. In the end, he chooses to live by the official values. He tries to work out his issues with his wife, he reports his super-villain to the police rather than fight him or kill him, he uses sound reasoning and judgment to reconcile the problems he faced earlier in the film, to presumably become comfortable in society.




VERISIMILITUDE- Verisimilitude is defined as “the realism of a film, judged by the standard of realism it sets for itself.” That is to say, a floating high school that teaches kids how to be superheroes is fine, if that is established as acceptable in the world of that particular film. If we were to see “Sky High” in Superman Returns, we might think that is a little awkward, even though the film is about an alien super-man who has a son with a journalist from planet earth. The key thing to remember about generic verisimilitude is that it is judging the realism of the fantasy against the world it has created for itself. By that string of logic, almost any film can be considered to have a high degree of verisimilitude. However, it has become a trend recently to move away from generic verisimilitude into what is called cultural, or popular verisimilitude. That is, judging the realism of a film against our own world, not the world the film has created. Two films which work hard to achieve cultural verisimilitude are Batman Begins and Unbreakable.


Batman Begins appears to work very hard to achieve cultural verisimilitude. The film is over two hours long, and the entire film is the origin story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman. The filmmakers were so thorough in the realism by our standards that during a montage of Wayne’s transformation to Batman, they showed a gag where the cowls he ordered from Singapore had a defect, and had to be reordered. The villain, Ra’s Al Ghul is an immortal man in the comic books, unable to be killed. In order to maintain verisimilitude, this immortality would be impossible. To get around that snag while still remaining true to the character, the filmmakers introduced a plot twist in the form of a Red Herring. We were led to believe that Ra’s Al Ghul was one person, when in fact he was someone else. When the Red Herring Ra’s is killed, but then we hear that the character is still alive, and ultimately learn it was a different character all along, it rationalizes the impossibility of an immortal character in a text strong in verisimilitude. However, though the film strove to achieve culturally verisimilitude, we still have to grant it some generic verisimilitude. As Max mentioned in class, when people dress up in costumes and try to uphold justice in real life, they are arrested with ease and are fined and sent to jail. The notion of a costumed hero in our real world is so absurd, that the very nature of Batman being a man in a costume is unreal, and therefore achieves generic verisimilitude. In the world that Batman Begins creates for itself, it is perfectly normal. But if we left the theater and saw a man in a batsuit, we would be perturbed.


Unbreakable on the other hand doesn’t try to retell a well-known superhero story in our real world. It is the story of a “real” man, presumably from our real world, and what would happen if he became a superhero. From this perspective, there is very little generic verisimilitude in Unbreakable. The film does away with costumes; Bruce Willis’ only identity protection is a poncho and the fact that he does his rescuing at night in the rain. The condition his super-villain, Elijah Prince (Samuel L. Jackson) suffers from is a real disease, and the way he is warped to become the villain is very “verisimilitudic;” due to his condition, he sits inside and reads comic books his whole life, outcast and made fun of by his peers. Shayamalan’s goal with the film was to tell a superhero story from cultural verisimilitude reasoning.




TONE- The television series Heroes (or at least the episode I watched) seems to use tone and style very deliberately. In the episode “Homecoming,” there is a very heavy focus on colors. The scenes that take place in India are more yellow, focusing on warm colors. The scenes in New York with Peter and the destroyed painting are heavily blue, made to look cold and dead, perhaps depressing. Sylar is always encased in shadow, which is not directly related to color, but it fulfills the tone of the serial, where the villain is unknown or unseen. The episode itself didn’t focus on the superpowers of the superheroes. Rather, it focused on the personal dramas and conflicts; the Indian student wanted to get the list of names and reconcile his past with his (adoptive?) father. Claire wanted to get to know her new friend, and go to homecoming, but her stepfather wouldn’t allow it. Peter wanted to save her, even if it meant his own death, and he had a time limit. Hiro and his friend were supposed to meet Peter, but Hiro went back in time to save a murder victim. Little Micah Sanders wanted his mother, even though she was crazy and has split personalities. Micah’s mother wants to kill Micah’s father, and has his location, thanks to a phone call from Micah. The tone is very “edge of the seat” gripping “who will live what will happen who will die,” much like a serial, which is the medium for the story Heroes is out to tell.


While Heroes used color and serial-genre to tell its story through tone, Kamen Rider: The First takes a very different approach. Kamen Rider: The First uses computer graphics (CG) to set the tone. As we discussed in class, Kamen Rider: The First doesn’t use CG the same way American action and superhero movies use it. The Japanese film performed all dangerous stunts and feats of action live, and reserved CG for [melo]dramatic effect: extreme close ups of water crystals or snow flakes, petals from a cherry blossom tree dancing in the night, or shards of glass, romantically bouncing off the pavement after a 40 story fall. This plays with the conventions of the superhero genre, which is pretty light on the melodrama and much heavier on the spectacle. The melodramatic tone of the film in and of itself is a way in which the tone plays with conventions. In Kamen Rider, there weren’t that many humongous explosions, and those that were, were live pyrotechnic special effects.




CONCLUSION- The films we watched this semester that I liked the most were Batman Begins, for it’s culturally verisimilitudic telling of the Batman origin, Unbreakable for its treatment of the superhero phenomenon in a culturally verisimilitudic world. I love the 1960s Batman TV series, but the movie is a bit of a chore to sit through sometimes. I think the best explanation for why I love it would have to be nostalgia. This course surpassed my expectation of what a superhero film is and does. I knew some of the conventions, and I could recognize a superhero story, but I didn’t know terms like “verisimilitude,” “consumption,” “iterative scheme,” etc. Perhaps the most important thing I learned this semester was Robert Ray’s Thematic Paradigm. Previously, I had never paid exclusive attention to which side of the law a superhero sat on. I never realized there was an actual structured schema for the two types of hero. As far as the transformations the superhero genre has taken, I think it is like Steve Neale says when he discusses “generic regimes;” genre is always evolving and changing. If we can consider a film like Hulk and an episode of a show like Dexter to be a part of the superhero genre, that just speaks to the genre’s growth and popularity. I know a critique of this course was not included in the prompt for this question, but I absolutely loved this course, and it would be a disservice to film studies students and comic nerds (and wannabe comic nerds) if this course was never taught again.






Images taken from the internet used without permission for illustrative effect and not for profit


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