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Harley Quinn: Enabler/Innoculator

Today was an interesting one. I attended the Media and Comms organised Cinema and Screen Studies Research Seminar (first for 2019) after a late start and some unit prep. Tara Lomax and Dr Liam Burke presented two papers in progress (in the case of Dr. Burke a possible book).

Cruising Stardom in Media Franchising: Tom Cruise as Franchise Brand from Mission: Impossible (1996) to The Mummy (2017)

Abstract by Tara Lomax

Tom Cruise has surpassed the designation of movie actor: the name constitutes a mythos characterised by the hybridity of genre, spectacle, celebrity persona, and industrial branding with a significance akin to some of Hollywood’s most profitable franchise properties. Indeed, in an era of Hollywood production dominated by franchises built on rich story-world properties, the impact of Cruise’s stardom on the critical and commercial regard for the ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise is worth critical attention.

As media business reporter Frank Pallotta describes, ‘Mission: Impossible’ is a “rare blockbuster franchise sold on a star, not a brand” (2018). Conversely, however, Cruise’s stardom failed to support the launch of Universal Studios’ ‘Dark Universe’ franchise with the critical and commercial failure of The Mummy (2017), which died before it even really began.

Therefore, these two franchises exemplify different functions of the relationship between ‘Tom Cruise as brand’ and the franchise mode of production and incites questions about how (or even if) stardom is compatible with the tenets of franchise production. 

This presentation focuses on Tom Cruise as a case study for examining the variable role of stardom in media franchising. In this context, stardom and media franchising are theoretically incongruous: stardom is, as has been seminally defined, a polysemy of often contradictory signs and meanings; by contrast, media franchising is most successfully enabled by narrative continuity, development strategy, and branding consistency. Nonetheless, the notion of Tom Cruise as a franchise brand complicates this dynamic and suggests that there is more to examine in the relationship between stardom and franchising in contemporary Hollywood.

In addition to analyzing Cruise’s significance in the highly successful ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise and the now defunct ‘Dark Universe’ franchise, this chapter will also consider Cruise’s industrial role as producer and studio executive. Tara Lomax

Reading: Johnson, Derek. “A Knight of the Realm vs. the Master of Magnetism: Sexuality, Stardom, and Character Branding.” Popular Communication 6, no. 4 (2008): 214-230.

Franchising vs star power

Tara’s presentation focused on tensions between movie studio franchising (focus on the branding of a storyworld and characters) and the powerful producer/actor as vehicle. The victim in this case: Universal Studios’ failed Dark Universe. It was an interesting perspective on how sometimes star power works, and sometimes it gets in the way, particularly when taking into account the sway Tom Cruise.

The reading examined the “twinkly eyed” Sir Ian McKellen and his success in franchise film making, notably as Gandalf and Magneto. At least there McKellen had something to offer by way of a silent wink as real life spokesperson for the marginalised. In the case of The Mummy and the Dark Universe we’ll never (likely) see. The brilliant potential Cosmology of a franchise was overshadowed by the monumental associations and input of Mr Cruise- a trademark unto himself.

Harley Quinn and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Comic Book Culture. Dr. Liam Burke

Abstract by Dr Liam Burke

Anti-hero Harley Quinn was first introduced as the Joker’s “henchwench” in Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. Through fan enthusiasm, and the eventual exploitation of WarnerMedia, Harley has become a cross-platform star appearing in comics, television series, theme park rides, videogames, and movies. Later this year the fan favourite will headline an animated series on the streaming service DC Universe, while in early 2020 Australian actress Margot Robbie will pick back up Harley’s oversized mallet for feature film Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Although the stereotype of comic book culture as a community populated by maladjusted fanboys persists, recent research points to demographic changes, shifting reading practices, and a general levelling of longstanding community hierarchies (Orme; Scott; Lamerichs). Drawing on audience research carried out at Melbourne-based comic book conventions and stores, as well as interviews with key writers and artists including co-creator Paul Dini, this presentation argues that the transmedia domination of Harley Quinn is not merely reflective of a changing comic book culture, but was active in that process.

Applying Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, the presentation will consider how Harley Quinn’s playful destruction of boundaries found her becoming a vehicle for enthusiasts seeking access to a rigid comic book community. Fans and creators alike relied on the anarchic character to colourfully smash boundaries between comic book fans and comic book readers; indie and mainstream comics; source material and adaptation; and even cosplay and day wear.

The paper will also consider how WarnerMedia’s recognition of the character’s popularity found them attempting to corral fan activities by positioning Harley at the vanguard of various initiatives to widen comic book fandom, move superhero content across multiple media channels, and narrow the gaps between creators and fans, with varying degrees of success.

Reading: Scott, Suzanne. “Fangirls in Refrigerators: The Politics of (in)Visibility in Comic Book Culture.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 13, 2012, doi:10.3983/twc.2013.0460.

Transmedia Harley

Harley Quinn is a complex study in character development. Born in the 1990s Batman Animated series, she has gone on to Transmedia multiplicity in film, comics, and games. She is intertextual and dialogic- Sidonie Smith (2001, 39) cites Russian theorist M. M. Bakhtin in arguing that identity exists as a constructed state, dialogical in nature; that is, the identity one assumes is dependent on the social exchange taking place. Where is this made more explicit than within the world of cosplaying?

Dialogic Identity

Indeed, Burke foregrounds Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque and dialogism as tools for getting under Quinn’s skin. The character/symbol seems to provide a ‘way in’ for new fans of comics, by way of her fluidity. Fluidity of gender, of sexuality, of status. Is she criminal, villain, or pest? Is she genius or lunatic? Her guise is also fluid, further fortifying her appeal to those wishing to become her.

Harley Quinn allows cosplayers to be carefree, childlike, a trickster. Beyond understanding, unconfined to traditional ideals, just a quick costume and character change away. Assume a dialogic transformation into one Harley Quinn. Pick any iteration you please. Now go express your unlimited self. Who wouldn’t want to take part?

The Mask in personal expression

Today’s thoughts were ironically in sync with my reality, as I made an effort to concisely voice my thoughts, within an intellectually intimidating space. Dr. Steven Conway had very eloquently and with much pose spoken on the parameters of the Carnivalesque and how it served to create a ‘walled garden’ for people to play in. An element of play- in this case Harley Quinn- is appropriated by dominant ideological and cultural forces, and controlled in the guise of ‘the opposition.’ A trickster indeed.

As a text, Quinn both stands in opposition to the norms of comic culture, while embracing newcomers who serve to effectively ‘feed the machine’. The character provides a limited and prescribed revolt against dominant norms, allows people to blow some steam, while inoculating against further action, and to the machine itself. Heady stuff to process and then comment on in such circumstances.

Gracious thanks to the Cinema Studies team for the continual high quality of research presented and to all present for a lively and critical debate.