Making Sense of Superhero Films

The following is the bulk of the presentation I will be giving this Friday, October 11th, at the Midwest Popular Culture Association conference in St. Louis.  For all of you (which is the majority of the world) who cannot be there to hear the presentation, I give you what it is all about — my first full study testing my minutia reception studies method.

“Making sense of the American superhero film:

Critical engagement and cinematic entanglement”

Today I am presenting the first full fledged study to utilize a method I have been developing to measure a film spectator’s engagement with a film on a moment-by-moment basis.  I call it the “minutia reception method”, and I hope that when applied it can help us understand how people make sense of a film – what they draw on to interpret the film, what they focus on in the film, and what is their overall impression of the film.  I employed this method as part of a larger study; this part focuses on how people engaged with American superhero films.  The analysis I am presenting here seeks to understand how their making sense of these films involved becoming entangled in it whilst simultaneously or alternatively being critical of it – and how the one does not preclude the other from occurring.

Since David Bordwell and other film scholars began addressing how to apply cognitive theories to understand the film spectator’s reception of the text, a number of empiricists have taken up their theories to understand how and why people respond to films. In a nutshell, this approach sees the application of principles from cognitive psychology to outline the specific meaning-making strategies film spectators employ in order to comprehend and interpret film.  The approach assumes that the meaning of the film must be constructed by the spectator, who uses cues provided by the text.  Here the spectator is an active agent, using textual cues that can range from narrative elements to visual and auditory components.  Such theoretical approaches focusing on the importance of the spectator in the meaning-making of the film are a welcome appreciation for active engagement.  However, these cognitive approaches have largely been utilized to inform film criticism rather than film reception studies: to understand, as Martin Barker put it, “the conditions of comprehension” rather than the actual acts of comprehension.

Since the rise of these approaches, there has been a scarcity of empirical studies to understand the dynamic interplay of structure and agency except via recall methods.  As noted by Janet Staiger, with these approaches, the “implied “ reader of film theory becomes the “competent” reader, who is able to properly respond to the textual cues; what remains unaddressed are the variety of factors brought into the engagement by the spectator that may account for the response and reception.  The sociohistorical context and lived experiences, aka evaluative criteria, disappear as the film spectator is presumed to be able to make sense of the text using what the text provides for this purpose.  In addition, the typical approach focuses on the spectators’ recollection of what happened in the film and how they responded to it after having watched the entire film.  While this method can be useful in determining what key moments had the most impact on the spectator, it is limited in not fully capturing the complexity of the spectator’s reception, as the spectator can forget questions, hypotheses, surprises, understandings and emotions over time. Thus, the problem is the failure to empirically test this approach with actual audience research that understands both what the text and the spectator bring to the viewing.  The question then becomes, if the cognitive/affective approach is coupled with evaluative criteria, then how can we best go about empirically testing this theoretical approach?  My method for answering this question is to focus on a different level of analysis than post facto recall.  If texts are constructed with specific cues that would direct the spectator’s meaning-making, then these reactions would be best measured as they occurred, moment-by-moment.

Such a minutia reception analysis sees each moment of reaction to a specific cue become a unit of analysis.  Focusing on this level of analysis allows for comparisons: within the text, moment-by-moment; to the overall reception of the text; and between individuals, or even the same individual over time.  This unit of analysis would also allow for understanding how the cued reaction relates to the spectator’s evaluative criteria to understand what led them to react to the cue.  Thus, I believe this level of analysis would help us to understand “what” people are reacting to, “how” they are reacting to it, and even “why” they are doing so.  This essay utilizes a method for studying spectators’ reception as it occurs.  Spectators were asked to record their responses to a film as soon as the response happened using a worksheet to record the film’s timecode, what happened at that time, and their response.  Giving spectators control over the film’s playback allowed them to demonstrate their active reception of the film and resulted in an array of reactions as they sought to make sense of what was happening in the film, how it would happen, and even why it was happening.  Using this methodical approach, we are able to generate a cognitive map of spectators’ sense-making strategies when they engage with a film.  Such mapping can illustrate the spectator’s cinematic entanglement and critical engagement with the text.

Cinematic entanglement can be defined as the sense of being caught up, transported into and present within the text.  There is a sense that the viewer is entangled in the diegesis of the film by being concerned over what happened, what is happening and what will happen.  Cinematic entanglement is concerned with the time of the film, of the diegesis’ past, present, and potential future.  Critical engagement can be defined as a sense of being thrown out this entanglement due to the recognition of problems with the film, such as recognizing the construction or artifice of the film through specific types of questions, conclusions, and overall judgments.  Critical engagement is concerned with the space that is the text, bringing critical reflection within the text, of the text, and of the text viewing experience. These types of reactions are perhaps very applicable to understanding how people make sense of superhero films, given the fantasy nature of the film and the requirement to suspend disbelief to deal with their lack of conforming to reality.  Superhero films can require higher suspension of disbelief due to the unrealistic and sometimes absurd nature of the characters, stories, and special effects, thus, there may be great potential to be critical and thus disentangle oneself from experience.

Worksheet
An example of the minutia reception worksheet.

Data comes from a study produced for the Virtual World Research Group at Roskilde University in Denmark. Fourteen people in Denmark, a mix of students and professionals, volunteered to be participants in the research project.  The participants were seven men and seven women who ranged from 15 to 58 years old.  A library of 15 DVDs of recent superhero films was supplied.  Participants were asked to select a movie they had not seen.  While they watched the film, participants were asked to pause every time they had a response or reaction to the film: at each time, they were asked to record the film’s timecode, give a brief description of what happened in the film and what the reaction entailed, and to rate the reaction for level of intensity.

Movies Selected

Of the 14 cases, two participants watched The Dark Knight, two participants watched Elektra, and two watched Spider-Man.  Beyond those participants, the remaining movies watched were X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man 3, Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, X2: X-Men United, Iron Man, and Catwoman.  Thus there was a range of movies that were rated by critics as good or bad movies and movies that did well or poorly at the box office.  Looking at the movies watched, we would expect those that were poorly received by critics and the box office to be more problematic viewing situations: that is, people may be less likely to become entangled in the cinematic experience due to their critical engagement with the text.

For the analysis presented here, the participants’ reactions served as the basis for emergent grounded codes that reflected how they were reacting to the various cues that caused them to pause the films.  Across these reactions, eight categories emerged for how they were responding.  These categories reflect a range of cognitive and affective sense-making actions: how they were interpretively interacting with the text, by challenging it, predicting it, and even criticizing it.  Question deals with confusion, wonder about what has/is/will happen in the diegesis.  Gaps is concerned with confusions, wonders about the construction of the diegesis.  Guesses are about the theories we have about what will happen in the diegesis.  Conclusions are the ideas about what has happened within the diegesis.  Disbelief deals with the problems with what has happened within the diegesis.  Surprise comes from unexpected happenings within the diegesis.  Emotions can be negative or positive reactions to happenings within the diegesis.  Judgment is about the statements on seeing the construction of the diegesis.  Question, Guess, Conclusion, Surprise and Emotion all reflect cinematic entanglement, as these reactions were all concerned with what was happening, what happened, and what could happen.  Gaps, Disbelief and Judgment all reflect a critical engagement, as those reactions show the person wondering about or making some type of conclusion about the artifice of what was happening.

Codes

In considering the “good” versus “bad” movies, the only discernible patterns from the frequency analysis appear to be the number of times the participants discussed having emotional reactions in the “good” movies, such as The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk.  Rather than the movies being “good” or “bad” indicating interesting results, frequency analyses that compare participants suggest an important line of future research focus: when participants watch the same movie, the same text can trigger different responses, and thus overall different engagings, even as reaction to the same cues.  Thus, in watching two movies, such as Flemming and Sofie in watching Elektra, Flemming could report more questions than Sofie about what was happening in the narrative while they both indicated having conclusions, but on different aspects of the narrative.  This result indicates the importance of individual evaluative criteria as they interact with the text, which indicates future research needs to focus on making such comparisons to understand such evaluative criteria.

Reactions

As mentioned previously, these eight categories of codes could be combined as representing the two types of reactions.  The frequency analysis of these two types indicates that along with the high amount of reported cinematic entanglement, there was a significant amount of reported critical engagement with the film’s narrative, thematic, aesthetic and historical-material layers.  However, as with the frequency analysis of the codes, there does not seem to be an indication of a major difference in the reaction to the “good” and “bad” movies.  Only two “bad” movies indicated more critical engagement than cinematic entanglement, and it was not a large discrepancy between those two types of reactions.  Nor did being a “good” movie preclude the participants from having critical engagement, as every single participant reported some type during their viewings.

Mapping Elektra

Sofie’s responses to Elektra demonstrate how cinematic entanglement does not preclude the presence of critical engagement, and vice versa. Her disbelieving and judging aspects of the film did not prevent looking forward with guesses and questions, as both happened throughout the viewing experience.  Indeed, at times, these reactions occurred concurrently, as her recorded reaction about 30 minutes in said “I was right! (conclusion) This movie is so easy to predict! (judgment)”  She had made a correct conclusion about what was going to happen, but that also led her to criticize the narrative for being predictable.  Overall, watching a “bad” movie, as it was poorly received by critics and audiences alike, did not mean that Sofie’s focus was only on criticizing the film.

Mapping Iron Man

As a second illustration, Eva watched a so-called “good” movie, Iron Man.  While she recorded many reactions that would be indicative of cinematic entanglement, she did have moments were she was interpretively outside of this entanglement by judging aspects of the film or how the film related to the real world.  For example, a scene between the characters Yinsen and Stark led her to consider what they were saying to the real world: “Wonders why so many people in real life also assume lack of family equals no life.”  What happened in the film triggered a thought that perhaps was related to her concerns of her own life.  But only a few minutes later she was recording a series of emotional reactions, as the film drew her back into its diegesis.

Ratio Chart

The participants were asked to rate their viewing experience on a 1-7 scale, where 1 was not entertaining and 7 was very entertaining.  These ratings we can consider to be their overall reception of the film, which we can compare to their minutia reception recorded responses.  By subtracting the number of critical engagement reactions from their cinematic entanglement reactions, we generate a difference ratio that allows us to see these types of reactions relationships to one another.  This difference ratio can then be related to their entertainment rating to see if an overabundance of one type of reaction is related to the participants’ overall reaction.  There seems to be some pattern, in that the smaller the difference ratio, the less entertaining the film was rated, and vice versa for a larger difference ratio.  For example, Jakob had so much critical engagement that the difference ratio was negative, and he rated Spider-Man 3 as rather unentertaining.  Meanwhile, Mette had a strong positive difference ratio, and indicated finding The Dark Knight very entertaining.  This pattern did not include everyone: for example, Flemming also had a strong positive difference ratio, but found Elektra even less entertaining than Jakob found Spider-Man 3.  Indeed, the overwhelming presence of cinematic entanglement may be an indication of why this film genre has become so popular as of late: as long as the film is able to get us to believe in the ride no matter how weird it gets, then we may be less inclined to see the artifice of it.

The occurrence of the critical engagement concurrently or alternatively with the cinematic entanglement indicates that being critical of the film did not completely detract the spectator from their entertainment with the film. These reactions can flow into one another, and as the spectator continues to engage with the film, she can be pulled back in if she becomes disentangled or he can be pushed out if he criticizes something.  Unless the spectator stops the engagement, then the text’s rhetorical and aesthetic structure could prompt the desire to continue the engaging – or it could be that seeing something wrong with those structures, or how those structures relate to real life, could prompt the desire to stop the engaging.  However, the amount and type of the critical engagement could derail a spectator’s cinematic entanglement, and such critical engagement may be due to the film, the spectator, or the interaction that is their situation of spectatorship.  The recording of both across the films in this study – superhero films of the past decade considered to be “good” and “bad” — indicates that what the spectator sees as good or bad depends on their interaction with the film: how they make sense of the textual features using their evaluative criteria.  This is nothing groundbreaking – it is not surprising that people differ in their interpretation of a text — but the method perhaps helps us to better understand this process, and allows for us to compare people’s viewing of the same film and understand what leads to divergent or convergent moment-by-moment and overall reception.

3 responses to “Making Sense of Superhero Films”

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