Superheroes and Racial Shapeshifting: Encountering Sanjay’s Super Team

Curator's Note

Sanjay's Super Team was nominated for best animated short at the 2016 Academy Awards. Director and writer Sanjay Patel, a long-time animator at Pixar, vividly depicts how young Sanjay transforms and imbues the gods and goddesses in his father’s home shrine into heroes that reflect what he sees on TV. The short emphasizes the power of the artist and creative storytelling that emerges out of cross cultural encounters and the generational sharing that results between father and son because of art. Sanjay figuratively and literally creates a personal Super TEAM based on Hindu deities: Hanuman (monkey-god), Kali-Durga, and Vishnu are Sanjay’s imaginative projections of the merchandised TV cartoon team of Mace, Siren, and Blue Flame. The Blue Flame toy faces the Deities in the shrine and names them (in a recorded voice) “Super Team.” The lack of dialogue and alternative sounds outside the bell tones and television voiceovers directs attention to the visual artistry in the film. The film is both memoir and visual expression of Sanjay’s transformation to artist and creator of narrative. Instead of being a passive recipient of TV stories, Sanjay creates an Asian American Super team that inspires and foreshadows his future profession as an animator. Simultaneously, his team is derived from and pays homage to the cultural and religious practices of Sanjay’s father. As a form of Asian American media, the short showcases how American racial and religious diversity inflect the creative production and writing of superheroes that are not only popular but profitable across multiple media platforms. Superhero comic narratives can cross borders by reincarnating established heroes from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds such as Miles Morales’ Spiderman (2011), Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel (2014) and Alexander Cho’s The Hulk (2015). Racial representations of superheroes in a post-Cold War environment, Ramzi Fawaz argues, represent progressive change and importantly, privilege “the cross-cultural encounter” rather than crime-fighting or the assimilation narrative. With the proliferation of old characters with new racialized bodies and storylines, are we seeing a transmedia storytelling branding strategy of the de-politicization or apolitical renderings of difference through universal storylines? Or are the racial makeovers and shapeshifting in comic narratives a new way of thinking about connections and encounters across difference?

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