The U.S. isn’t through with superheroes. Not by a long shot. We've been in a kind of late superhero renaissance ever since 1999 when the first X-Men movie came out. And now, after dozens of movies in the genre have been released, there's one more:the new trailer for Iron Man 3 is out..
Why is it that American audiences are so fond of those costumed vigilantes that they keep paying to see them over and over again? To get to the bottom of that, we need to take a gander at the history of superheroes itself, and how it intertwines with the larger history of the country.
It all started with one man and a tragedy — the creation story of superheros.
It is the night of June 2, 1932 in Cleveland, Ohio. Mitchell Siegel, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, is working in his haberdashery when he's surprised by a man who invades the store intending to steal his goods. For some reason that will remain forever a mystery, Siegel is murdered by the robber, who then flees the scene, never to be found.
Siegel is survived by his wife and six children: Minerva, Roslyn, Harry, Leo, Isabel and Jerry, the youngest, who is 17 and inclined towards art and pulp fiction.
Whatever grief befalls teenage Jerry Siegel from the brutal and sudden death of his father is kept private for the duration of his life, as he never touches on the subject in public. What we do know is this: a few weeks after the tragedy Jerry Siegel, along with his friend Joe Shuster, stard setting in motion a powerful engine that will soon enough change the world. They create a character called Superman.
Superman is the first-ever bona fide superhero. Unlike other vigilantes of the time, like The Shadow and Doc Savage, he uses colorful spandex attire reminiscent of carnival wrestlers of the day and his colors are the red and blue of the American flag. He fights for truth, justice, and the American way. In many ways, Superman is an embodiment of America itself: in a land of immigrants, he is the immigrant par excellence, having come not from a different country, but from a different planet altogether. But, taking after the pioneers from the colonial days and their successors to come over from the old world, he doesn’t isolate himself from his adopted society. Instead, he decides to merge with it and do his best to help and improve it using the knowledge and values of his old homeland: Krypton.
But America is also the land of rebels and revolutionaries. The contempt for self-appointed authority in the U.S. dates back to its old days as a colony, fighting the English rule, all the way through the Minutemen and the Bald Knobbers and goes on strong to this day, being perhaps the country that most values individuals over the state in the entire world, with a constitution that emphasizes the need to restrain government rather than expanding upon its already vast powers. So Superman, at least in his old days, was also a rebel of sorts. He felt that the best way he could help society was to use his superhuman abilities to fight crime, but not in any of the state-sponsored law enforcement agencies that had let the murderer of Mitchell Siegel run free. He fought crime by himself, anonymously, independent from the state and any ulterior interests it may try to impose upon him.
Superheroes are really a masthead for American individualism. They uphold the law but don’t wear uniforms. Not in the sense that uniforms are understood today. Their uniforms may do justice to the name by being all unique in form, each one of them exacerbating the singular characteristics of each hero, and highlighting the singularity of all human beings by default.
One American value that superheroes didn’t fully embody during their first decades of popularity though, was that of entrepreneurship. Sure, Batman was rich, but he was an heir who didn’t care much for his fortune when he wasn’t using it for his crime fighting purposes and the nature of his investments, if there were any, were vague at best.
In 1963, Stan Lee, a man who was spearheading a new superhero revolution and having enormous success with the newly founded Marvel Comics, noticed that issue and decided to tackle it head on by creating the Iron Man.
At that point, Stan Lee had already broken several grounds with his ensemble of Marvel Comics characters. First, he created the first super-powered family, The Fantastic Four. Then, he created the first neurotic superhero, Spider Man, and the first dysfunctional superhero group, the X-Men. Those characteristics of his creations gave his comics a major non-conformist streak and thus they were a huge hit with the new hippie movement being bred at that time.
Being a rebel at heart though, Stan Lee didn’t conform to his newly acquired captive audience and decided to break with them by forcing them to love a new character that went against all they stood for.
Taking inspiration from the notorious Howard Hughes, Iron Man's character was to be a heavy weapons industrialist, a genius capitalist, an inventor who didn’t apologize for his fortune and instead basked in his achievements. His powers wouldn’t come from cosmic rays or nuclear accidents. They would be purely based on technology and science. And, despite all that, he would still be tragic, suffering from a heart condition that forever threatened his life.
Thus was born Tony Stark, the Iron Man, a hero that represented American values more than any other in the past. And, despite all the philosophical schism with the 60’s zeitgeist, he was hugely popular.
His popularity lasted for decades, but it wasn’t until the 2000’s that Iron Man came to be a household name amongst average Americans. That’s when Marvel Comics debuted its own movie studio with the eponymous film about the armored hero. It was an absolute box-office and critical hit, and took the superhero film genre to new heights with its polished approach to character and plot.
It was not until the sequel, though, that Iron Man really embodied all that he stood for from the start of his run.
This went over the head of many in the audience, but Iron Man 2 had a heavy influence from the works of none other than Ayn Rand, the epitomizer of American capitalism in the early 20th century.
Rand was, like Superman, an immigrant, who fled her home country of Russia fearing persecution from the soviet KGB, as not only she was a staunch anti-communist but also, like Siegel and Shuster, Jewish, one of the ethnicities most targeted by Stalin’s rule. And, in the U.S., she developed the political philosophy that would serve as counterbalance to all the progressive movement. Her seminal work was Atlas Shrugged, and many aspects of it can be seen in Iron Man 2.
In that movie, the government is insistent on seizing from Tony Stark the technology upon which his powered suit of armor is based, contending that it should be put to use by the “public” rather than private interests. As a true American entrepreneur, and knowing what the government could do with such might, Tony Stark refuses, in a scene heavily reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s book, when Dagny Taggart, the protagonist, is being coerced by state heads to hand over the recipe of her revolutionary metal alloy. Iron Man 2, in various ways, then goes on to exalt American individualism and capitalism by showing not only the ineptitude of governments before the ingenious nature of private enterprise, but also the tendency of the state to initiate wars of aggression that are of no benefit to anyone but a few parasites in the political realm and their cronies.
Iron Man 2 was a heavy allegory for “The American Way," and an even bigger hit at the box office than its predecessor, despite being released within the context of Hollywood, one of the major breeding grounds for neo-liberalism in the country and two years after the biggest financial collapse in recent American history.
The golden plated hero, therefore, had proven again that, no matter the political climate or cultural tendencies of the day, Americans in their heart of hearts have always been drawn to what Iron Man, and, in a way, all superheroes stand for: rebellion, individualism, entrepreneurship, innovation and justice.
Hopefully, those values will still be popular for the generations to come.