How America's Superheroes Fare in Korea

      August 25, 2008 10:03

      "The Dark Knight," the sixth in the Batman series which hit U.S. theaters July 18, rewrote box office history. It grossed US$155 million in the first weekend of its release, the highest opening figure in U.S. box office history. In just three days, the film retrieved most of its production cost of $180 million.

      The film opened in Korea on Aug. 6, and has since remained at the top of the local box office. Koreans in 2008 are quite familiar with the term "superhero," even those who are not enthusiastic moviegoers. The Chosun Ilbo has tallied the top 10 superhero films. The fighters who save people or the world have always been screen favorites, but how did their reception differ in Korea and the U.S.? And have tastes changed?

      ◆ Korean vs. American Hero

      Success, of course, depends on the individual film's quality. It's also worth noting that the tradition of U.S. comic strips led by DC Comics and Marvel Comics has only in recent days started to appeal to Korean tastes. The list of the top 10 superhero blockbusters of each country offers a range of conclusions about the characteristics of Korean and U.S. popular culture.

      The most evident difference is the affection for the spider and bat characters. While Spider-Man was beloved in both countries, Batman was mostly cherished by Americans. Two Batman films are in the top 10 U.S. list, but only one in Korea -- latecomer "Batman Begins," which ranked 10th and was watched by less than 1 million nationwide. But now, newcomers Iron Man and Hancock were more popular in Korea.

      ◆ The Lure of Darkness

      Spider-Man and Superman are bright heroes of justice and duty, while Batman is a brooding caped crusader, an antihero who has lurked in darkness ever since his parents were killed when he was a boy. Batman is lonely, destined to miss out on universal acclaim. Film critic Lee Sang-yong says, "Unlike U.S. audiences, who have long been used to antiheroes from Westerns and film noir, Korea’s more traditional viewers have preferred screen heroes who defeat evil and triumphantly solve all the problems." But since 2000, that has changed.

      ◆ The New Generation

      Realism and romantic candor were the two keywords defining Korean pop culture up until the 1990s. But realism sharply lost its appeal in 21st-century Korean society, where the life patterns of the older and younger generations sharply diverge. Fantastic and flawed heroes are more popular than plain Mr. Right.

      It's interesting that the flamboyant capitalist Iron Man was more loved in Korea, and the drunk, homeless Hancock ranked fourth on the Korean list but was not among the top 10 in the U.S. Some see in the change a shift from humanism to post-humanism.

      Cultural critic and Inha University professor Kim Dong-shik says, "The change shows that the generation who is open to notions of biological variants and cyborgs and who can merrily enjoy fantasy films is now a force to be reckoned with."

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