I take super heroes and the media surrounding them entirely too seriously. This is why I get so worked up over comics and movies. It doesn’t take much for me to launch into an hours-long tirade over the finer points of caped continuity. However, there is some method to my fanboy madness.
The super powered stories we see played out on movie screens and comic book pages represent our modern mythology. And like the legends of old, these tales reflect the values that our society holds most dear.
Truth. Justice. The American Way.
Truth and justice are fairly universal in the super hero genre. But what exactly is the “American Way?” What are the values that we as Americans hold most dear? There are two characters that come instantly to mind when I hear those words, Superman and Captain America.
For the longest time, I thought of them both as the biggest Boy Scouts in all of comics. They were the clean cut heroes that would defend freedom whenever our nation was in peril and still have time to rescue a cat from a tree. We think of the eras in which both were created as a more innocent time in our nation’s history. But we’re not so innocent anymore.
In reflecting upon the latest films starring these two heroes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Man of Steel, I’ve come to suspect that today’s notion of “The American Way” is far more cynical and darker than it’s ever been.
The First Revenger
What better way to examine modern American values than through the eyes of Steve Rogers, a man out of time. When Captain America first threw his mighty shield, fighting bad guys was straight forward. They were easily identified with their jack boots and Nazi arm bands. All the war department had to do was point Steve in a direction to punch.
Today’s enemies are more difficult to spot. Today’s war on terror pits us against enemies who span border lines, who wear civilian clothes, who attack us in secret. Still, they are punchable. And even though this is a new kind of warfare, bad guys are still bad and good guys are still good.
Or are they?
From his very first mission in Winter Soldier, a seemingly simple rescue mission, Steve learns that even his allies are hiding things from him. It turns out that Natasha has different orders. She’s there not to back him up, but to obtain data from the ship’s computers.
If the people who are ordering him to punch people are hiding things from him, how does he know he’s punching the right people?
Throughout the film, Steve grows to distrust those he once counted as his closest allies.
This feeling of unease, the notion that those who are meant to protect us are doing anything but, the idea that the watchmen need watching, we certainly feel that in today’s America. It doesn’t take a fancy pollster to know that few of us truly trust our leaders. From Snowden’s revelations that the CIA is spying on us to the recent disturbing string of police related deaths, there’s a growing fear that those in power are not to be trusted.
When Captain America — the embodiment of all that was good about America — doubts the morality of those who are meant to protect and serve us, how absolutely fucked are we?
In the end — and I suppose I should have mentioned that there might be spoilers — Steve manages to punch the right bad guys in the face. But my feeling of unease remained. There was no hope in the final punch, only the knowledge that indeed, we can never truly trust those who wield power in our name.
Man of Punching
Where Winter Soldier examines our distrust of absolute power, Man of Steel explores what it’s like to wield absolute power.
The iconic Superman of the Golden Age is the ultimate Boy Scout. Certainly, he punches bad guys. But he also makes time to help gran across a busy intersection and rescue little Timmy’s cat from a tree. Truth. Justice. The American way.
That’s not the Superman we meet in Man of Steel.
In this version, Pa Kent teaches his son that power is something fearful that should be kept hidden at all costs. This is actually a dangerous lesson for Clark to internalize because he withdraws from the world as he grows up. He never learns the now cliched lesson that with great power comes great responsibility. He never learns to wield his power in a responsible manner. So when he’s confronted with an unstoppable force, he explodes.
Clark’s first fight with Faora in Smallville is one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen in a comic book film. Golden Age Clark would have punched Zod into the neighboring corn field far away from any possible collateral damage. This new Clark seemingly cares nothing for collateral damage and runs right in to punch all the things. Fortunately, the damage is somewhat contained. But the scene is a prelude for the horror to come.
The final fight between Superman and Zod is a glorified orgy of destruction. Metropolis is virtually punched into rubble not by the world engine, but by Clark’s fists. This is no protector. This is no Boy Scout. This is absolute power unleashed.
The truly disturbing thing was not Clark’s final sanction against Zod. It was the loud cheers from the audience.
Fear and Punching
Like I said, I read way too much into these things. If we were to measure the America by these two films, we’d see a fearful nation that applauds unbridled power. We’re so scared that the only way to save us is to punch the thing into oblivion.
That’s a bit cynical, even for me. Sure, trust in our government is at an all time low. And certainly, there’s way more fear than I’d like. But we’re all still here, punching the days as best as we can.
And really, I don’t think think Cap or Supes are enough to represent modern American values. For that, we turn to the Guardians.
A New Hope
To me, Guardians of the Galaxy more closely reflects the modern American experiment than Winter Soldier or Man of Steel. Here are a bunch of self-centered assholes who literally crash into each other and are forced to work together to live another day. Basically sounds like everyone’s morning commute.
There’s a tremendous feeling of hope when the end credits roll, something that was sorely missing in both Winter Soldier and Man of Steel.
We don’t all like each other. But we’re in this together. So might as well have some fun while we’re doing it.
That’s the America I see around me.
See? I take this shit way too seriously.
Jamie Noguchi is a Maryland-based artist and creator of Yellow Peril, an Asian American office romance comedy webcomic. He is also a co-founder of Super Art Fight, the greatest live art competition in the known universe.