It can be easy to go to the theater and see whatever new film is out on the big screen, but now with streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, we have access to more options than before. From Bollywood to BBC, different cultural perspectives on genre and storytelling can help expand your own writing and make it unique. You just need to expand your horizons.
For this article, I will simply focus on a genre of film I know well that spreads across many countries: superhero. In 1903, London had The Scarlet Pimpernel. In 1919 America had pulp-fiction Zorro and then comic strips had The Phantom in 1936. Japan in the 1930s had Ōgon Bat just as America started its Golden Age of Comics.
While the term “Superhero” is trademarked jointly by Marvel and DC Comics, it has spread like wildfire across continents. Here are a few of the shows and films I have seen under the genre umbrella of superhero and how they differ from our American grown men in tights.
This may include spoilers. Read at your own peril.
Chinese: Bleeding Steel
One thing that Chinese cinema always brings their A-game to is the fight choreography and there’s no exception for this film starring Jackie Chan. I was a little confused at the beginning trying to decipher whether this was Science Fiction or Magical Realism, but it’s Cyberpunk with a mix of the two. While it takes place in a not-too-distant future with advanced weaponry and medical science, not much else has quite caught up. At least, it doesn’t seem so. Like Magical Realism, the science seems to be acknowledged by everyone, but not really explained. With this film, that’s okay.
The thrill and action carries the film. While there is a romance side plot, the main plot of following Lin Dong (Jackie Chan) on a mission to protect a young woman with a mechanical heart, takes the forefront. He’s not the only one after her, which adds tension and more fight scenes. Of course, the heartfelt father-daughter reunion is sweet, but this film, like many Chinese films, focuses on the skilled fight choreography.
How does it compare against the current superhero films flooding theaters? It has heart. Most of the Marvel films have major worldwide consequences and evil supervillains. This focus on the story of an ex-Special Agent who wants to keep a potentially dangerous technology out of the wrong hands and protect his daughter. All of this goes on without armies being gathered, supernatural powers being summoned, or magical weapons being wielded. It’s a more personal story of fighting crime and saving lives that slips under the radar.
The first thing you might note about this TV series is that it is an animated kid’s show. There is no harm in watching a children’s film, in fact, I think it’s great for writers! This superhero TV show follows the lives that Ladybug and Chat Noir have in contrast to their secret identities: Marinette and Adrien. It is steeped in romantic drama as well as each episode contains a life lesson which makes them great examples to watch if you have troubles with pacing and threading theme through a story.
If you like suspense, be careful or you might get sucked in real fast! This show masterfully teases the audience by putting our favorite heroes in danger that seems almost impossible to get out of. Of course, the light-hearted theme of this children’s TV show means there is no real danger, but there are some particularly dark concepts that will keep you on the edge of your seat, once again concerned for Paris’ safety.
One of the interesting things to always keep in mind when watching a non-traditional superhero film is how they get their abilities. In this show, they have Kwamis. I won’t go into too much detail, but these are powerful beings that were created as personifications of abstract concepts: Ladybug’s Kwami is Tikki who represents creation while Chat Noir’s Kwami is Plagg who represents destruction. There are other creatures as well. So far the second season has revealed the Fox (illusion), Butterfly (transformation), and Turtle (protection). This has influence from the Chinese zodiac, Japanese lore and Manga-style, and French fairy tales (like the fox’s abilities compared to Reynard the Fox).
With the superpowers tied to creatures created through abstract concepts and utilized by their wielders with jewelry called “Miraculouses”, Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Chat Noir has a unique fairy-tale quality to it that has expanded into a lot of lore and interesting concepts. While it may be a little too light for those who prefer the dark, gritty streets of Gotham, it has become incredibly popular with all ages due to its incredible story-telling, rich world and history, as well as having great characters who lead the show.
As India embraced the superhero genre, the most interesting one I have seen is Ra.One. It involves a father-son relationship that involves a video game the father, Shekhar, creates. When the villain of the game, Ra.One, escapes the video game into the real world to hunt Shekhar’s son, Prateek, who left the game without finishing the fight. To protect her son, Aanusmita brings G.One into the real world just like the antagonist. Since G.One was modeled after Shekhar, he plays a fatherly role with Prateek.
Like most Bollywood films, Ra.One includes dance and musical numbers. They keep the story light and add to the underlying relationship plot lines between the characters. While they are not always a romantic subplot, most Bollywood films, even this superhero film, do have them. If you look deeper, songs like Dildara, are about Aanusmita falling in love with G.One because of his fatherly relationship with her son. Even though all the songs center around Shekhar/G.One and Aanusmita, they revolve around the father-son bond. Similar to Disney songs, they follow the progression of the theme and character development through the film.
However, this is definitely not a Disney movie. With several deaths, these formerly digital characters deal a lot of damage. What’s interesting is the role of mythology in this. While G.One, phonetically “Jeevan”, means “Good One” in Hindi, Ra.One or “Ravan” is the name of a mythological demon king. Mythology is always a great source of inspiration. While it doesn’t seem likely that mythology and video games go together, Ra.One took that risk and I thought it was brilliant. Inspired, perhaps, by the growth in technology and the popularity of virtual reality, this superhero idea may be stretching science and reality, but it’s definitely an interesting superhero concept that doesn’t involve radiation or aliens.
Japanese: One Punch Man
While Japanese manga and anime are full of amazing superhero shows, one that I thought was worth a closer look was One Punch Man. It’s an ongoing webcomic and became an anime show in 2015, but has currently only aired one season. It takes place in an alternate universe where superheroes and villains saturate the world. One superhero, in particular, is Saitama or One Punch Man. His superpower, quite clearly in his name, is that he can defeat villains with one punch. This makes him incredibly powerful. Where is the downside? That’s what the series explores. The emotional and social toll that being unstoppable and therefore, unafraid takes on a person. He seeks out challenges and bigger, more dangerous villains to defeat, but finds killing these creatures with one punch… boring.
Despite the particularly graphic fight scenes, deaths, and occasional body horror, the show is quite humorous. Following Saitama and his struggles to regain some of his humanity is a unique superhero experience. This was his dream, to become a protector and hero. He trained so hard and got so good at it that he finds no pleasure in it being this easy. It almost follows a “be careful what you wish for” scenario. In fact, that is a theme that crops up a lot in the series.
While big monsters may be no match for him, sometimes small things can trip him up like a simple mosquito. In most mainstream superhero stories, they revolve around teamwork and good against evil. This series asks different questions about what makes heroes and villains as well as how living in a world inundated with overpowered beings would be like. These heroes rarely get a break and fighting crazy creatures is part of their lives. Different heroes with different ideas clash. Some fight for justice, others because it’s their job, some for revenge, and, some, like Saitama, for whatever fun he can get out of it.
These different cultural takes on genres bring to light that there is more we can do with all genres, not just the superhero one. A good step is to take a look outside the film that you know. Learn to love subtitles (dub isn’t really the same) and try something new. Don’t stop with just different perspectives of the same genre, don’t be afraid to try new genres and maybe even combine some!
Get out there and watch something new!
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting graduate from Drexel University. She loves all visual writing mediums and has experience in writing plays, comic books, screenplays, TV sitcoms, and video games. World building is her favorite and she obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her spare time, you may find her trying to get over her fear of heights at a rock wall or adopting yet another plant because she can’t afford an actual pet.
Photo Credit: Ra.One