Much of the discussion about superhero blockbusters revolves around questions of comic book fidelity, transmedia adaptation, and global marketing. But as this video spoof of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) by the comedy group The Key of Awesome indicates, questions of authorship are equally important for understanding the cultural productivity of the comic book superhero. This spoof is titled “The Dark Knight Is Confused” and has received more than 10 million clicks on YouTube since 2009. It represents a particularly powerful practice of constructing alternative authorship: the parodic re-writing of an ongoing popular series.
“The Dark Knight Is Confused” embodies the migration of comic book controversies from the printed page (letter column, fanzine) to the digital universe of the Internet and, more generally, the increasing serialization of popular entertainment in today’s transmedia environment (the seventh Batman movie since 1989 is scheduled for next summer; The Key of Awesome produces spoofs serially). Its existence foregrounds (at least) two crucial questions: Who can authoritatively enter the fictional universe of specific superheroes and tell stories involving these iconic characters? And how can alternative forms of authorship and alternative versions of a popular series authorize themselves?
The Key of Awesome spoof illustrates that anybody with sufficient knowledge of the source texts, adequate writing and acting skills, and the necessary technological means can enter Batman’s fictional universe and offer an alternative version of well-known stories to the broader public. In that sense, popular series and the (parodic) re-writings they spawn are neither exclusively created by the official producers and copyright holders nor exclusively constructed by the audiences that engage with them in multiple ways. Rather, we are dealing with an interactive dynamic according to which popular authorship becomes heterogeneous, polysemous, and dispersed. Moreover, the spoof offers itself as a legitimate alternative to Nolan’s movie (itself a re-writing of a popular source) by deflating the blockbuster’s bombastic aesthetic and advocating the kind of “operational aesthetic” that Jason Mittell finds at the core of narratively complex television. By self-reflexively restaging Batman, Alfred, and the Joker in the role of “amateur narratologists” (Jason’s term) who rewatch the movie on DVD, nitpick its narrative flaws, and sort through the director’s commentary, the spoof utilizes plot inconsistencies and flawed characterization as the launching pad for the implementation of a popular, professionally produced yet not officially sanctioned authorial voice.