Staunton, March 4 – A new Russian blockbuster movie, “The Defenders,” explicitly revives the Soviet-style friendship of the peoples by having its four main heroes represent the titular nationalities of four former republics, putting the Russian “bear” in charge, and committing all of them to the defense of Moscow against alien enemies.
The four heroes are Arsus – “bear man” (Russia), Khan – “wind man” (Kazakhstan), Ler – “earth man” (Armenia), and Kseniya – “water woman” (Ukraine). The film’s producer, Gevond Andreasyan, said: “our heroes are based on nationalities: we operate on the principle that our strength is greatest when we are together and when we defend one another.”
He said that he and others working on the film had “consulted with representatives of the nationalities involved so that no one would be offended –and especially not the Russians because this is a Russian movie” (nazaccent.ru/content/23272-supergeroi-blokbastera-zashitniki-imeyut-etnicheskie-harakteristiki.html).
Set during the times of the Cold War, the film tells the story of “’Patriot,’ a secret organization” consisting of superheroes from various republics of the USSR. “In order to defend Moscow from enemies, a major of the Russian army revives the commando of super-people who for a long time were forced to hide their super-abilities,” Nazaccent reports.
While the film has proven extremely popular and profitable in Russia – it more than made back its production costs in the first four days it appeared in theaters – not everyone was thrilled. The Lithuanian government banned the film because of what it described as its aggressive messages.
In a commentary for the Regnum news agency, cultural observer Aleksey Yusev traces the history of Soviet and Russian superheroes, a history very different from that genre in the West. Soviet ideology, he says, opposed the idea of super heroes: no one needed superpowers because those led by the CPSU could achieve miracles (regnum.ru/news/cultura/2242376.html).
Moreover, unlike in the US where superheroes arose in comic strips, in the USSR, there was an unwritten rule against such things and no tradition of such stories, something that only began to change at the end of Soviet times. But even after 1991, domestic analogues to Western superheroes didn’t immediately appear.
There were many reasons for that, Yuryev says, including the absence of infrastructure and tradition of drawing comic figures and “the absence of an ideological platform for forming the psychology of new Russian superheroes,” something he says continued until the annexation of Crimea.
(The Russian commentator doesn’t say, but a similar problem arose in the West with the disappearance of the Soviet threat. Many stories that relied on USSR as the embodiment of evil to be fought now had to find someone else whose numbers were small enough not to cause commercial problems. Thus, the “Mighty Ducks” franchise made Iceland the evil enemy.)
In trying to develop a Russian tradition of superhero comics, Russian writers often borrowed shamelessly. Thus, in a 2003 serial, Superman is said to have arisen in Stalin’s Russia and fought on his side in the war against the West, a crude borrowing that fell flat with almost all readers.
The first Russian superhero film was the 2009 production, “Black Lightning,” but its hero not only didn’t have any superpowers but relied on Soviet equipment and motifs, again an indication that Russian writers couldn’t find a new way forward. And efforts by Western companies like Universal to come up with Russian themes worked no better.
“These crude borrowings,” Yuryev says, “testify to the fact that their authors weren’t trying to create something original … [although] one can note that in the content of the Bubble comics,” there was one step forward: they stopped returning to the Soviet past and put their stories in the present.
The new film, “The Defenders,” represents a kind of synthesis, the commentator continues, drawing on Soviet ideas but set in the present, “which has become necessary for contemporary Russia in its struggle with a powerful enemy” of today and not of the distant past. And he praises it for its clearly expressed “ethnic component.”
For the superhero project to come into its own in Russia, Yuryev concludes, one of two things will be necessary: “a stable state ideology or, at a minimum, a common enemy.” Until those things obtain, Russian society isn’t going to unite and agree to any common heroes, let alone super ones.