Authorizing Alternative Authorships: The Popular Serialities of Superhero Blockbuster Spoofs

Curator's Note

Much of the discussion about superhero blockbusters revolves around questions of comic book fidelity, transmedia adaptation, and global marketing. But as this video spoof of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) by the comedy group The Key of Awesome indicates, questions of authorship are equally important for understanding the cultural productivity of the comic book superhero. This spoof is titled “The Dark Knight Is Confused” and has received more than 10 million clicks on YouTube since 2009. It represents a particularly powerful practice of constructing alternative authorship: the parodic re-writing of an ongoing popular series.

The Dark Knight Is Confused” embodies the migration of comic book controversies from the printed page (letter column, fanzine) to the digital universe of the Internet and, more generally, the increasing serialization of popular entertainment in today’s transmedia environment (the seventh Batman movie since 1989 is scheduled for next summer; The Key of Awesome produces spoofs serially). Its existence foregrounds (at least) two crucial questions: Who can authoritatively enter the fictional universe of specific superheroes and tell stories involving these iconic characters? And how can alternative forms of authorship and alternative versions of a popular series authorize themselves?

The Key of Awesome spoof illustrates that anybody with sufficient knowledge of the source texts, adequate writing and acting skills, and the necessary technological means can enter Batman’s fictional universe and offer an alternative version of well-known stories to the broader public. In that sense, popular series and the (parodic) re-writings they spawn are neither exclusively created by the official producers and copyright holders nor exclusively constructed by the audiences that engage with them in multiple ways. Rather, we are dealing with an interactive dynamic according to which popular authorship becomes heterogeneous, polysemous, and dispersed. Moreover, the spoof offers itself as a legitimate alternative to Nolan’s movie (itself a re-writing of a popular source) by deflating the blockbuster’s bombastic aesthetic and advocating the kind of “operational aesthetic” that Jason Mittell finds at the core of narratively complex television. By self-reflexively restaging Batman, Alfred, and the Joker in the role of “amateur narratologists” (Jason’s term) who rewatch the movie on DVD, nitpick its narrative flaws, and sort through the director’s commentary, the spoof utilizes plot inconsistencies and flawed characterization as the launching pad for the implementation of a popular, professionally produced yet not officially sanctioned authorial voice.

Comments

Shane Denson's picture

Discontinuity Continued

Thanks, Daniel, for this great post. I think the questions you’re asking about authorization practices and the proliferation of non-authorized/non-official versions of popular serial figures are getting at something essential about popular seriality itself—at processes that have no doubt exploded with the advent of the Internet but that are already going on much earlier. And I think you’re absolutely right that this kind of phenomenon cannot be reduced to something about the (playful or subversive) appropriation of popular texts by their readers or users, but that parodic play (and irony) is anchored in the texts and figures themselves and emerges in the interactions that take place between texts, media, technologies, and users. Just as one example, take the dialogue at the end of this clip:

Joker: "Did I ever tell you how I got these scars?" Batman: "Yes. Several versions" 

While this connects up with discussions among fans about comic-book continuity and websites unmasking the countless continuity mistakes in Nolan’s film, it also gives expression to a self-reflexive tendency anchored in the canonical texts themselves (and is thus not just about what we do with them). Compare Joker’s statement in Killing Joke, which we might say "authorizes" the proliferation of unauthorized versions, in that it recognizes the inherent instability of plurimedial figures:

"If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha ha ha!"

Thanks again for this excellent (and entertaining) post to round out the week!

Daniel Stein's picture

Disfigured By a Spork!

Thanks, Shane, for your insightfult comments, to which I absolutely agree. It’s significant that the Batman in the Key of Awesome spoof answers "several versions" instead of "several times," which emphasizes not just the repetitive nature of serial narration but also its productive outcome: the proliferating versions and variations of origin stories, catch phrases, and character traits, all of which keep stories interesting and readers engaged over extended periods of time. In the MAD parody of The Dark Knight movie, "The Dork Knight," the Joker actually gives several versions of his origin story within a single episode, one of the funnier ones being "I was disfigured by a dangerously defective spork!"

It’s also instructive that the quote from Moore & Bolland’s The Killing Joke comes from a revisionary one-shot graphic novel of the 1980s, the period in which self-reflexive awareness becomes a primary strategy for retcons and reboots.

Frank Kelleter's picture

What is continued in a serial parody?

Thanks, Daniel, great clip&great post to go with it. I’m trying to connect this to Ruth’s question, earlier on (regarding her&Shane’s Batman post), about parody&irony as potentially destructive forms of serial re-writing/continuation. Batman seems to be spectacularly resistant to this. (For reasons pointed out by you&Shane above.) So, in terms of seriality, what is actually continued in a parody? What makes a serial parody different from a mere (parodic) comment (appropriation)? Some thoughts about this: Batman’s "narratologist" incarnation in this clip seems to be directed, not at any overall series of earlier or future Batman stories, but at one particular (media-distinctive) version. This is also an issue of canon-building, is it not? I’m wondering to what extent Batman’s seriality (i.e. the multi-authored, time-spanning dynamics of popular stories continuing themselves in ever new competing  versions & always engaged in generating impossible coherence), I’m wondering to what extent the seriality of Batman is dependent on serial iconicity more than on serial narrative? I mean, obviously, the construction/illusion of an ongoing plot, so much easier to produce&uphold in the rhythms of a television series, is impossible to maintain for the type of figures that Ruth&Shane talked about. As far as seriality goes, then, do we see "amateur iconologists" in this clip more than amateur "narratologists"?   

Jason Mittell's picture

Parody of series vs. iteration

Nice post to round out the week! I do think there is a different between the parody of an iteration (like this) and a parody of the entire series. This video highlights the love/hate that goes into any critical fan production, as clearly the creators watched the film enough to nitpick it, which is often a mode of loving critique (see the Nitpickers guide to Star Trek as a more serious & less playful example of this type of fan engagement). And looking closely at the iteration expresses the sense that they care enough to comment.

A parody of the entire series seems potentially more critical, or at least dismissive, as it aims to mock the core. My favorite Batman example is this comic, which reduces the entire character to a ridiculous catchphrase. There may still be some love there, but it becomes harder to take the "dark knight" seriously after this mockery.

Daniel Stein's picture

Narratological Amateur Iconologists?

Thanks, Frank and Jason, for your perceptive commentary. I think you are right to point out that there is an important difference between a parody of a whole series and the parody of one specific iteration of a serial figure. I would, however, argue that there is no easy way to disentangle these two types of parodic investments. The Key of Awesome parody includes references beyond the Nolan film: Miss Dolan being hotter in Batman Begins, where she was played by another actress; the Dark Knight as a blockbuster that’s better than the Schumacher films; Batman’s retort to the joker’s offer to tell his origin story (the quote posted by Shane above: "several versions" relates to serial continuity, character backlog). We are dealing with a parody that spoofs one particluar film but also positions itself within a series of Batman films. So there’s definitely canon-building going on, but it’s canon-building that also canonizes specific practices of reception (self-reflexive, ironic, participatory, creative, critical). This is becoming more and more common; especially with the commercial success of superhero blockbuster movies, the serial comic book origins of specific characters and storylines move further and further into the background, constituting a general frame of reference with which audiences can be only vaguely familiar and still enjoy the films. Maybe that’s an explanation for the work of "amateur iconologists," but I also think that the very premise and language of the Key of Awesome parody are narratological ("plot points"/"watch it again with the commentary"). In other words, Batman’s seriality does depend on the figure’s iconicity, but its iterations across countless serial narratives and plurimedial transpositions may also function as repeated motivations for proliferating parodies. Several of the elements spoofed in the clip above also appear in other parodies of the movie, and some of them are clearly influenced by the MAD parody of the movie. So maybe it’s these different types of serialities that are more significant culturally than parodies that are too closely welded to the serial comic book texts? After all, even the wonderful strip linked in Jason’s comment above is so reductive in its mocking of the Batman series that is extremely funny but does not really continue the story in any significant way (Batman’s obsession with his parents’ murder has been mocked in revisionary comics since the 1980s).

Frank Kelleter's picture

What Is Popular Seriality?

Makes perfect sense. In fact, I’m not even sure if there can be such a thing as parodying an entire series if its seriality transcends the level of plot. I would say even Jason’s example addresses a particular set of versions within the proliferating series of Batman characters, namely those in which the hero’s origin story is foregrounded (or present at all). In this regard, I think the clenched teeth give it away: this particular parodic narrative is "versioning" (your term, Daniel) & continues the many post-Frank-Miller-installments.

That’s what I was trying to express regarding "narratology" in the spoof: The narratological discussions going on here refer to one version/"iteration" only (which need not&in this case does not consist of only one text but a set of films). At this level, they really work like affective fan-dissections of one conventionally "serialized" narrative ("serialized" here in its more reductive, industry-derived understanding of longer arcs&plot continuity). But if I understand correctly, you’re saying that such spoofs are more than that; that they’re actually continuing (differentiating, propelling forwards, mobilizing) Batman’s ongoing serial proliferations. I completely&whole-heartedly agree … but of course this perspective raises all sorts of follow-up questions … and seriality week is over now … good thing it goes on here: popularseriality.uni-goettingen.de

 

Ruth Mayer's picture

Resilience to parody

This is great material and food for thought. I find all of it very convincing, and would just like to add a footnote on the aspect of a figure’s resistance or resilience to parody - or, in other words, its staying power in the cultural field. Batman is amazingly long-lived, and this certainly has to do with the particular instances of serialization affecting this figure. Batman was fortunate enough to be invested with a certain depth and with new attributes and ‘edges’ at decisive moments in its career which then provoked rewritings, and continuations, and spoofs such as the one Daniel is working with. All of this has been said, and I would agree that the longevity or survival of a figure depends to the same extent on its narrative potential and its iconic ‘formating’. But I also think that Batman survived because he is modeled on, well, a bat. And not - like Tarzan - on an African ape, thus always signaling an embarrassing proximity to images of Africanity and animality (which from a certain point on had to be anxiously avoided or denied or revoked).  The same goes for Fu Manchu, a figure which just cannot be imagined without a yellow peril context (even if in later versions such as the Hands of Shang-Chi-comics he’s routinely equipped with a ‘good’ Asian American counterpart (or son)). The more fantastic a serial figure is, in other words, the better are its chances to live on. Yet to focus on figures like Fu Manchu or Tarzan allows to tease out certain interesting alignments or cross-fertilizations between popular culture and politics; or between narrative seriality and what Jean-Paul Sartre called the "serial reason" of the ideological knowledge of colonialism and racism, or what  Benedict Anderson addressed as the "logic of the series" which for him motivates the global dissemination of political ideas. This, however, would probably be the material for a theme week in its own right. And I think we did pretty well with this one, for the time being. Thanks to all of you for being part of this!

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