Superheroes: protecting the american dream

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Superheroes: Protecting the American Dream
An analysis on Captain America and the superhero genre

Pablo A. Noguero

Since philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the übermensch was –quite wrongly– absorbed by popular culture and adapted to comic books, superheroes, the mighty defenders of peace and justice endowed with unique powers that place them beyond the power of the law and aboveeveryone else in society, have found a place in US contemporary fiction to form their own genre.
Starting in the 1930s with the creation and first appearance of Superman, the superhero genre has been a very remarkable product of American popular culture, still maintaining its fame in our days thanks to the films, cartoons and the different types of merchandising that keep alive the spirit ofthe original superhero comic books, a form of literature that, according to Reynolds, is still considered by high culture as “a marginalized channel of communication (…) suitable only for children and the semi-literate.” (Reynolds 1992: 7), presumably due to its predominance of action and violence over dialogue and argumental complexity.
Nevertheless, as a genuine product from the US, thesuperhero genre has been given importance from a cultural perspective, since it contains several elements of contemporary American culture and ideology that are relevant enough to be analyzed. Such is the purpose of the present essay, in which the most important characteristics of the superhero comic will be analyzed in order to discuss their American background and ideology that lie within,together with a brief analysis of Captain America, the most emblematic figure of US patriotism ever conceived since the creation of Uncle Sam.

Superhero comics are invariably centered on the life and adventures of their main characters, once common US citizens –mainly young men– that, by a chance of destiny, find themselves endowed with extraordinary powers or abilities that clearly mark themout from the rest of their society. Furthermore, according to Reynolds, a superhero is commonly separated from his parents at an early age and “reaches maturity without having a regular relationship with his parents” (Reynolds 1992: 16) Superman is known for having abandoned his planet of origin while being a child, and Steve Rogers lost both of his parents before he became Captain America. Thisidea of a superhero as an independent individual who had to overcome the loss of his own family and reach maturity all alone before getting his powers reflects the American idea of the self-made man, whose life is shaped by his experiences and his struggle to succeed in life all by himself.
If there is one aspect that might call the attention of the reader of superhero comic books, that isclearly the protagonist’s superpowers, amazing abilities that elevate them as “earthbound gods” (Reynolds 1992: 16), like in Superman’s case, whose ability to fly or superhuman strength, even though god-like powers are not necessarily what define a superhero, since Captain America “lacks superhuman powers (…). Instead, he is as fast, strong and athletic as a human being can possibly be” (Forget2007: 5).
Like the famous Spider-man quote says, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility”, the superhero is expected not just to have supernatural powers, but to use them to ‘do good’ and stop the evil plans of the villains that threat the population. In a universe where the differences between good and evil are especially marked and easy to recognize –villains areexplicitly depicted as such, with all sorts of typical clichés such as ugly features, maniacal laugh and mischievous way of speaking– heroes fight villains for the sake of justice, which is a very American feature. Defending liberty against tyranny, and justice above all, superheroes know in depth and follow civil laws, but at the same time their own sense of justice may override them if laws seem...
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