Super-hero publishers have been trying to find a wider market in recent years, and some efforts (and a lot of talk) have been focused on recapturing a younger readership. Kids were the industry’s first big audience, but ever since the late 1960s and early ’70s, when comics became a staple of the college crowd, the youthfulness of those buying comics has been fading. Many argue that the genre is propped up today by a plethora of Peter Pans in their 30s, refusing to ever grow up. But it seems that execs of the companies that own the best-known super-hero characters on the planet see potential in markets other than playgrounds and grammar schools.
They’re eyeing the Middle East.
Mind you, we’re not talking about comics, really, but rather super-hero properties in theme parks. But a recent article from The Associated Press boasts some interesting quotes from Warner Bros. and Marvel executives about the appeal of their characters in the Persian Gulf.
Entertainment companies are scrambling to delve into a burgeoning theme-park market in the United Arab Emirates, and DC and Marvel characters are among the icons viewed as what will draw in Middle Eastern tourist dollars. Marvel Entertainment is one of several media companies that have inked licensing deals, but players in this development drama recognize there are different sensibilities at play. Marvel doesn’t plan to incorporate Captain America into its plans, opting instead to play up such characters as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, because they don’t bring with them comparable “political baggage.” Marvel chairman David Maisel told AP:
“One of the things that’s nice about our characters is they’re either about individuals helping people or they’re about teams of people of different types, like mutants, that band together and solve problems … If anything, that’s a good message for today’s world with all the different cultures.”
It’s a warm, fuzzy sentiment, but I’m struck by a possible omission from the “House of Ideas.” Perhaps it’s telling that the article makes no mention of Iron Man — the “star” of the inaugural picture this in 2008 summer blockbuster movie season — in regards to Marvel’s theme-park plans. While ol’ Shellhead isn’t decked out in red, white and blue like Cap, the movie does depict him as a wealthy, even greedy American arms dealer (at first), and one of the villains of the movie is a Middle Eastern terrorist. Perhaps Marvel’s not anticipating big box-office bank for Tony Stark.
Warner Bros., owner of DC Comics, is working to set up a theme park in the UAE. From the Associated Press story:
“Kevin Tsujihara, president of Warner Bros. home entertainment group, is convinced that Superman, Batman and other DC Comics characters licensed by Warner will be readily accepted by those who visit the park from the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia.
“Even the bare-shouldered Wonder Woman shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows ‘unless we depicted her as a Muslim woman,’ said Tsujihara, who is spearheading the Warner theme park in Abu Dhabi. Even so, ‘we probably wouldn’t have her running around in costume around the park,’ he said.”
Um, ya think?
Wonder Woman’s bare shoulders and legs aren’t the only elements in her design that could cause problems in a Middle Eastern setting. Her costume is comparable to that of Captain America. The double-W design on her breastplate is patterned after an eagle, and she’s got white stars adorning the field of blue that makes up her shorts.
Now, Superman isn’t covered in stars and/or stripes, but there are few pop-culture icons more closely associated with America than the Man of Steel. Everyone knows what he stands for: truth, justice and the American way. Furthermore, Warner Bros., with its new Middle Eastern venture, would have to carefully consider how to refer to its super-heroes as a group. I doubt they’d remain the Justice League of America.
Perhaps one approach these owners of the super-hero factories ought to consider is cultural adaptation. Instead of a Wonder Woman showing a lot of skin, a new design in keeping with the cultural setting might do better. After all, a strong female role model (even a fictional one) walking around half naked is a conflicted concept in any culture, right?
The theme-park moguls needn’t stop there. How about an Arab Batman? A manhunter from Mars who’s embraced Islam? Or Professor X as an imam instead of the head of a private school? We’ve seen alternative interpretations of these familiar characters to make them more relevant in different geological and cultural settings. We’ve seen super-hero adventures in manga. Marvel even publisher an Indian incarnation of Spider-Man not so long ago.
Of course, the AP piece points out a dichotomous fascination with U.S. pop culture in the piece that would probably preclude such changes. Middle Eastern culture expert and academic Michael Izady puts it succinctly:
“On the one hand, they hate America. On the other hand they love America to the bone.”