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UBC Theses and Dissertations

With great power comes no responsibility : reflexive ideology through spectacle-violence in the superhero films of Marvel Studios Hatch, Kevin


This work critically interrogates the superhero films of Marvel Studios and their textual treatment of, and the ideological function of, violent action spectacle. In Chapter One, I trace a chronology of superhero films and their corresponding treatment of violence, up to the onset of Marvel Studios, and the release of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man in 2008. I argue that Marvel superhero films respond to the genre’s previously tenuous treatment of spectacle-violence in the face of 9/11 and other instances of sociopolitical violence. Instead, Marvel Studios reappropriates action-violence interludes as ‘safe’ sites for audience enjoyment, undiminished by sociopolitical reflection. In doing so, Marvel crafts a brand identity of ‘reflexive wit,’ further integrating comedy into action sequences, and foregrounding provocative, yet superficial, sociopolitical commentary. In doing so, the Marvel films discourage audience preoccupation with the politics or ethical ramifications of spectacle violence. The films court the sense that, through such reflexivity, no further reflection is necessary, allowing audiences to unrepentantly enjoy the action violence. In Chapter Two, I explore the narrative techniques employed in Marvel films to foster viewer connection with their superheroes. I argue that the Marvel films draw upon a blend of comic book textual references, mythic intertexts, and pathos and humour, to court a dichotomy of ‘mythic accessibility,’ coding their heroes as sympathetic, valorized, sanctioned, ‘acceptable’ agents of violence. As such, Marvel utilizes violent action spectacle to mediate dominant cultural ideologies. In Chapter Three, I discuss the resonance of this support for the heroic protagonist, arguing the Marvel films thematically perpetuate textual ideologies of deference and unquestioned subservience. Such ideological resonance extends not only to exceptional superheroes, but to the political superstructures they are affiliated with, which are, by proxy, equally valorized (namely, the United States military and NSA, by means of surrogate entity, ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’). Ultimately, I argue that the Marvel films purportedly privilege an active audience, but subliminally endorse a passive, unreflective one. This allows for textual amplification not only in regards to the scope and intensity of spectacle violence and action combat, but the political intertexts ideologically mediated through said action sequences, rebranded as unreflective ‘fun.’

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