As Batman v Superman attempts to barnstorm cinema box offices worldwide, including in China—now the world’s No. 2 movie marketplace—I’ve been watching a different kind of hero movie: Jian Bing Man.
This 2015 Chinese blockbuster isn’t exactly a superhero film. It’s a superhero parody film whose protagonist isn’t a billionaire playboy, but rather a comedian plagued with debt and scandal. To rescue his career, he shoots and stars in a movie about a superhero named for a Chinese street food staple akin to the crepe only just now breaking out on Western shores.
Unlike Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ Superman, Jian Bing Man fights not for “truth, justice, and the American way,” but rather for the hexie shehui, or “harmonious society,” former Chinese President Hu Jintao’s catchphrase for social order.
So is China taking a page from the world of the American comic book and finally making its own superheroes?
Well . . . not exactly.
Jian Bing Man is a fake superhero. He dupes Chinese celebrities into dangerous situations, swooping in to save them at the last minute for the benefit of a hidden camera. He’s hardly the Dark Knight guarding Gotham City. Maybe the guy just needs his own defense contractor and a better suit, but there’s a deeper question worth asking: can China do better than Jian Bing Man? Can Chinese filmmakers create a genuine, homegrown superhero, and not just a comedic parody of one?
Superhero narratives require two elements: action and ideology. Action is what superheroes do: they strive and fight. Ideology is why they do it. While Chinese films have mastered delivering the action the country’s swelling audience loves, they fall far short of knowing how to pull off ideology.
What is superhero ideology? With few exceptions, superheroes have been a predominantly American phenomenon. Their ideology reflects American values and embodies a typically American mindset. Well-known superheroes emerged with the spirit of their times—Superman during the Great Depression, Captain America with World War II, and Iron Man during the Vietnam War. Superheroes often instilled faith in the American system during trying times. And while using heroic figures to promote nationalist causes is not exclusive to the United States, American cinematic superheroes’ methods are unique.
Hollywood superheroes glamorize vigilantism; that’s what makes them distinct from regular heroes. Vigilantism presupposes that justice exists independently, apart from the state: Captain America fights for the idea of America, but not necessarily its sitting government. In order for such on-screen characters to gain traction, moviegoers must accept that individuals are the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong. The appeal of superheroes in American society stems partly from the nation’s celebration of individual rights, and from a culture that holds those who stand alone in the face of “injustice” (including that committed by a central government) in high esteem.
These ideas represent a challenge to contemporary China’s system of party-state governance. Chinese values are not American values, and a source of political legitimacy or power outside the Communist Party can be fundamentally subversive. While watching superheroes defend American cities in the absence of an effective American government might be okay, the same scenario in a Chinese context becomes problematic for officials in Beijing.
Just look at Transformers: Age of Extinction. As a Paramount Pictures co-production financed partly with money from the dedicated movie channel of China Central Television, the 2014 film included purposeful cuts to on-screen authorities declaring “the central government will defend Hong Kong at all costs” in order to co-opt the rescuing Autobots as comrades of the Party. In post-1949 China, the only acceptable “heroes” are those within the system—model soldier Lei Feng from the Cultural Revolution, Olympic athletes such as Liu Xiang, or even the top leaders Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping themselves, with their cults of personality. Even martial artists must toe the line. Genuine, independent heroes from the traditional wuxia canon rarely occur on mainland screens after 1949, existing in isolated snapshots of an imaginary past. Those that get close, such as IpMan, fight “pre-approved” opponents like the Japanese or conniving Westerners. Without an independent streak or contemporary significance, these figures are not true superheroes. Superheroes exist to do what the state cannot do, but if the state can do everything there’s no point to superheroes.
If the problem here is that superheroes currently embody American ideology, why can’t China just plug in its own ideology to make a “superhero with Chinese characteristics”?
If only it were that simple. Yes, the Communist Party does have an ideology, but its specific form varies with whoever is in power—from Hua Guofeng’s confidence-inspiring “two whatevers” in 1977, to Hu Jintao’s reintroduction in 2005 of the Confucian ideal of a “harmonious society,” and culminating with current leader Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream,” rolled out three years ago in 2013. Even then, what is a “harmonious society,” and how exactly is a superhero supposed to defend it or the “Chinese Dream”?
Simply put, nobody really knows what China’s ideology is, or what it means to fight for “truth, justice, and the Chinese Way.” Since the 1990s, phrases such as “harmonious society” have just been convenient veneers painted atop the Party’s real focus: material pragmatism and economic growth. Jian Bing Man embodies this hollowness—our eponymous faux superhero exists only at the whims of celebrity culture run amok and rampant commercialism (diamond rings, Audis, banquets). When he pronounces his dedication to a hexie shehui, it seems as farcical as the rest of the film. Without a genuine ideology, a superhero parody is the best that we can get.
But as China’s economic growth slows and the Party becomes more assertive, ideological debates are coming back into vogue. We see different schools of thought—New Leftists, neo-Confucianists—starting to compete for the nation’s soul. Maybe from all of this we’ll witness the emergence of an ideology coherent enough for a superhero to defend, something that creates a sense of “Chinese-ness” independent of a state.
If China wants a superhero, either the Party will have to embrace an ideology greater than itself, or audiences will have to accept a caped crusader beholden to the central government. Until then, watching superheroes in China will require some suspension of disbelief. The state will continue promoting propaganda films such as Founding of a Party while also letting in more imported Avengers sequels to both meet popular demand and make a ton of cash. (The state-run China Film Group Corp is the sole licensed importer of the 34 international—mostly Hollywood—films approved each year for theatrical release, films that on average far out-gross their hundreds of Chinese counterparts at the box office.)
Until the Party accepts domestic entertainment that carries the subversive if imaginary message of the power of the individual, Chinese moviegoers will have to make do with the imported heroism of the Batman v Supermans of the world or with movies such as Jian Bing Man, accepting that a homegrown parody is all their domestic industry can get away with and cultivating the hope that there really might someday exist a “superhero with Chinese characteristics” out there to save them from life’s big challenges.
This article was first published in ChinaFile as “Will China ever have its own cinematic superhero?“