Why Do Americans Love Superheroes So Much?
On the last day of planet Earth's existence, people will think about Superman, blue tights and all.
Everything is changing and everything is dying. Every idea, every living thing, every culture, every language, every thought is in a continuous, non-stop march towards an inevitable change and an inevitable death.
Nothing gold can stay, but nothing bad can stay either. We just continue to grow, reshape and die as long as the Earth keeps spinning and, it too, eventually dies.
Depressing, I know.
But, it is through this process that we begin to create myths to keep something about us immortal and what better way to do that than through superheroes? Deep within the history of 20th century pop-culture, America has always had a fascination with our caped crusaders. Even if you do not call yourself a "comic book fan," the influence of superheroes on our culture is undeniable. Just their names alone (Superman, Batman, Spiderman and Captain America to name a few) bring with them an instant image of who they are and what they stand for.
Despite the ever-changing status we find ourselves in, superheroes are the exception to the rule. They are static, developmentally arrested, and selfless, and we love it.
When I was young, I got into comic books in a big way, specifically my man Captain America. I don't remember the initial reason why, but in the obsessive mind of kid (or adult); there is always one that strikes a chord.
Each month I would anxiously wait for the newest issue of Captain America to hit my mailbox and I would try as hard as I could to savor ever moment of the comic. Fast-forward years later and I have just wrapped up Ed Brubaker's monumental "Death of Captain America" and "Captain America: Reborn" story arch. While reading through the last few pages of the comic I noticed something: The Captain America narrative has never changed.
Sure, there were some slightly different nuances here and there, but for the most part, he was the same man. I knew who he was, I knew he was going to win at the end of the day and I knew he wasn't going to be dead forever. That's not how comics work. In comics the hero never changes. He is predictable, unchanging and static in time. There is no aging, no permanent dying, they are never losing for long and all comics end with the showdown of good verses evil and good will eventually, even if it takes some time, win. The superhero is someone we deeply trust.
The superhero narratives are the modern American mythology.
All cultures that have been around the block before have them, ancient characters like Odysseus or Beowulf that embark on their grand journeys, there and, inevitably, back again overcoming adversity on the way.
America, being the young and developing culture that it is, has turned to superheroes (largely of the Marvel and DC universes) as our continuing epics. The heroes don't change, they don't age, they always stand for the same things and even with slight deviations, they remain on a path ultimately towards selflessness and good.
There is comfort in the static even if society tells us otherwise.
With a continually changing landscape of events and morals, the comic book epics are a way to speak beyond generations and space. Someone who read Spiderman 40 years ago and a kid reading Spiderman today would both know the same hero. They would both know the same origin, they would know what he stands for and they both know that, no matter what, he will win; even if it takes a few issues.
With constant change comes a need to see some things stay completely the same.
An article that ran in Vanity Fair, points to America's embrace of the superhero culture as a need to complete our own incompleteness as a culture. To see a superhero succeed despite any hardships they have overcome brings closure. The different archetypes we see in our heroes all complete our incomplete stories in a rewarding and satisfying way and we can count on them to do so.
Robin Roseberg goes further in his article for Smithsonian Magazine to write that we are obsessed with the origin story of superheroes above all else. The origin stories show ways to emulate the hero. It is essentially a blueprint with near universal approval.
Even when Batman wire-tapped phones to catch the Joker, we were all rooting for him (maybe). The newest Superman reboot coming out this summer, Nolan's Batman trilogy, and the variations on the Hulk all point out a deep desire to see triumph come from adversity in a two-hour time frame. The origin story shows heroes born out of trauma, destiny or chance rising to a place of immortality.
In the predictability of our superheroes we find a stability and comfort that will keep them forever relevant. Whether one admits it or not, superheroes create a necessary American mythology that we all look to when everything seems to be spinning out of control.
At the end of the day, they always win.