Course description

This course examines the complex ways in which Hollywood has responded to, and reflected on, the social, cultural, and political need for superheroes. The concept of the superhero functions as a structuring idea in American self-understanding and cultural iconography. Originally the stuff of comic books, the superhero has now become associated with the Hollywood blockbuster, a genre in its own right. And yet, much-deserved scholarly and academic interest has only recently caught up with this popular phenomenon in American cinema and television. How might we make sense of blockbuster superheroes? Are they agents of change, or upholders of the status quo? Are they virtuous or flawed? Are they patriots of the nation, or rather vigilantes distrusting government authority? Are they promoters of the common good, or rather prime exemplars of American individualism? Do they save us from our enemies, or from ourselves? Are they motivated by utopian dreams of a better world, or by collective fears and anxieties? Is the supervillain a foreign entity, an Other antithetical to US values, or a repressed, undesired trait in the American self? And to what extent are race, gender, religion, and ethnicity factors in the development of superhero cinema? What is the relationship between superheroes and real-life heroes? And, above all, what is the place of heroes in American history? At a time when superhero cinema has established itself as a staple of Hollywood blockbuster productions, reaching ever-broader audiences and becoming part of the popular cultural lexicon, the mission of this course is threefold. First, we examine the iconography of the superhero as a timeless mainstay of American mythology. Second, we investigate specific ways in which superhero cinema has mirrored, and intervened in, American political, social, and cultural history, especially when certain ideals, dreams and liberties have become tenuous—whether it is fascism, the Holocaust, the cold war, totalitarian governments, 9/11 terrorism, warrantless wiretapping, conspiracy, international espionage, police brutality, suspicious data collection, or fake news. Third, we probe to what extent the Hollywood superhero—a barometer of domestic social history and a fundamental part of Americana—is actually a product of foreign influence, in surprising, and sometimes even problematic, ways. We examine films and television shows ranging from Superman: The Movie (1978), X-Men (2000), Unbreakable (2000), Spider-Man (2002), V For Vendetta (2005), Iron Man (2008), The Dark Knight (2008), Watchmen (2009) Captain America (2011), X-Men: First Class (2011), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Wonder Woman (2017), Black Panther (2018),ˇThe Umbrella Academy (2020),ˇThe Boys (2910), andˇShang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021). For complete and current details about this Harvard Extension course, see the description in the DCE Course Search.


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