MDST 3559 – Fall, 2021 | Meets TuTh 3:30pm – 4:45pm

Over the past 80 years, the “superhero” has gone from a storytelling genre found in pulpy paper magazines to transmedia narrative “worlds” that serve as the basis for multi-billion-dollar media franchises. In this class, we will interrogate the superhero through a critical media lens, looking at its roots in mythology and comic books, but also their contemporary expansion into cartoons, television series, toys, video games, board games, theme parks, and, of course, the blockbuster film and streaming media franchises of recent years. We will critically evaluate the “superhero” from its roots as a comic book genre for children and wartime G.I.s through its many iterations in kids’ and adult popular media.

A quick note on what this class is not: It is not a course where we attempt to discuss the larger social and cultural “meaning” of the superhero irrespective of the social and industrial cultures that gave rise to it. That is to say, discussions of the cultural significance of these media will be grounded in their material histories. Superheroes will be discussed as a popular genre in media, a significant influence on the shape of contemporary narrative media, and a significant part of multiple corporate media portfolios. Superheroes are not just characters, genres, and tropes, but big business, and so we will root our discussions of them by tracking their history across multiple forms (print, radio, television, games, and film).

Our goal will also be to understand superheroes as thematic loci for media cultures, both production cultures and fan cultures. We will consider topics from the history of how superheroes became dominant in comics to media industries’ use of comics intellectual property to the culture wars around the push for diversity in comics. Our approach will be eclectic, involving multiple media and will be self-consciously interdisciplinary as a consequence. Our focus will not be on understanding “superheroes for superheroes’ sake,” but instead seeing them as the centerpieces of genres and media franchises. As such, we will balance considerations of their creative sources, critical perspectives on the fan cultures that surround them, and their roles as intellectual property in the globalized media of the 21st century.


For this course, we will focus (perhaps inordinately) on Marvel as a preeminent transmedia franchise or perhaps collection of franchises. We will discuss the corporate history of Marvel from their early days as Timely Comics to the rise of the “Marvel Age” of comics in the 1960s through their acquisition by a toy company (Toy Biz) through the mid-2000s rise of Marvel Studios and its recent dominance as a key part of Disney’s intellectual property portfolio. We will read our way across this history, sampling first-hand the evolution of the “superhero” through the decades; as a consequence, students will be required to have access to a Marvel Unlimited account for the duration of the course.

Additionally, we will critically discuss the rise of Marvel Studios, the cinematic interpreters of these characters, and Disney, the corporate behemoth that currently owns Marvel. In considering “superhero media,” we will have a focus on media industries and the corporate logics that have led to this genre’s box office dominance. As with comics, multiple films and television episodes will be made available to students for out-of-class required screenings plus, pending vaccinations and the ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, we will attempt to organize a few optional screenings of current films at a local theater (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home, if possible).


Though we will be reading some comics and watching televisual media as part of the course, our purpose will be to dissect and interrogate this media genre. Popular and scholarly texts will provide the interpretive and intellectual backbone for the course — see below for a series of texts which will be drawn upon (either excerpted or assigned as full texts) for the course. These privilege the franchise(s) which will be the focus for this term — Marvel Comics, Marvel Studios, and the “Marvel Cinematic Universe.”


One final note on the expected activities and assessment: This course is a seminar, with student discussion and active participation in the face-to-face and online components of the course serving as the primary activity. Students who are unprepared or uninterested in seminar discussion should not register for the course. Also, assessment for the course will be in the form of multiple written papers — no examinations will be given, including no Final Exam. Students should be prepared to engage with these media on multiple critical and interpretive levels, and while fan appreciation of these media is fine, it will need to be tempered with critical distance for all students. Finally, we are assuming we’ll be meeting face to face in the fall, but this course will still have a required online component, which will likely take the form of the occasional Zoom call replacement for a class session and the use of a course Discord to foster out-of-class discussion.

If you have any questions about this course, please don’t hesitate to email Dr. Duncan at sean [dot] duncan [at] virginia [dot] edu!