From Buckskin to Spandex

Is there anything more characteristically American than the superhero? This may sound like a very strange question. After all, to the extent American exceptionalism is still embraced as a real phenomenon, conversations on the subject tend toward far more serious fare. Debates over checks and balances, the boisterous creativity of our relatively free-market economy, the extent to which our culture remains influenced by religious faith even as other Western cultures have become largely secularized—good or bad qualities, depending on your view, but certainly exceptional.

Weighty matters, to be sure. When it comes to the actual lived experience of the modern world, however, few other American exports can match the scope and influence of its superhero culture. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the biggest movie franchise in the global history of film, while separate series based on Spider-Man, the X-Men, and DC Comics characters can also be found in the top 10. Spanning dozens of popular television shows, animation, games, toys, novels, and the comic books themselves, superhero fiction has reached more people in more parts of the world than nearly any other genre. You can find Batman masks for sale from Baton Rouge to Batam, Indonesia. Wherever young and not-so-young people wear T-shirts, a high percentage of them sport the likes of Superman’s stylized S logo, the Flash’s lightning bolt, and Captain America’s shield.

To acknowledge the modern craze for superheroes is not necessarily to celebrate it. After all, the concept of American exceptionalism was never properly construed as unalloyed praise. When Alexis de Tocqueville famously used the term in his Democracy in America, for example, he was describing Americans as “exceptionally” neglectful of science, literature, and the arts because of their “exclusively commercial habits.” They could afford to be so neglectful without lapsing into barbarity, he argued, only because of “the proximity of Europe” as a source of civilization from which lowly Americans could borrow.

Now, say detractors of the superhero genre, that cultural flow has clearly reversed its direction—from the U.S. to the rest of the world, with America’s mindless comic-book culture overpowering and ultimately destroying any higher-brow fare in its way. Superhero films draw special scorn. “They are “f—— boring as s—,” film director Ridley Scott told Deadline late last year. “Their scripts are not any f—— good.” The Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu once described comic book movies as “poison,” as “cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and sh– that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human.” Jodie Foster offered a similar take in 2017: “Studios making bad content in order to appeal to the masses and shareholders is like fracking: you get the best return right now but you wreck the earth. It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population and then ultimately the rest of the world.”

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