TCS Daily

America the Incredible

By Douglas Kern - February 3, 2005 12:00 AM

He's a fairly ordinary, middle-class fellow who doesn't act as though he wields near-godlike power. But he's nearly unstoppable, capable of besting any imaginable enemy, and yet he seems perfectly content with his lovely wife, three kids, and a nice house in the suburbs. Or...almost content, anyway. Despite the edicts of self-righteous lawyers, carping media twits, and nitpicking politicians, he patrols the bad alleys of his city, looking for the kind of trouble that only he can stop. Oh, he's been accused of being the source of the trouble; he's been told that he's as much of a menace as his enemies, and he's been socked with colossal bills for all the damage he's inflicted in his super-battles. But he doesn't care. He knows, deep down, that the world contains supervillains that don't go away just because he wants a vacation. He knows the kind of suffering that could ensue without his intervention, and he knows that the local cops are worse than useless against super-powered foes. When his city is in danger, he can't turn away. So when the forces of evil threaten the innocent, he throws caution to the wind and teams up with like-minded friends and family to fight for freedom!

He's Mr. Incredible, the animated star of Pixar's latest box office super-hit, The Incredibles.

He's America.

Superheroes are a uniquely American phenomenon. To be sure, plenty of American immigrants played vital roles in the development of the superhero, as did gifted writers and artists from around the Anglosphere -- but the superhero was born, bred, and raised to manhood in the United States. No other nation has any comparable place for costumed crimefighters of any kind, in any medium. Indeed, outside of the Anglosphere, no country has produced a genuine superhero worth mentioning.

The superhero has displaced the cowboy as America's representative myth. The frontier has been settled for decades, and no one makes Western movies anymore. By contrast, superheroes dominate America's most successful movies, and comic books loom astonishingly large in the cultural mind of ordinary Americans. Most Americans can name ten superheroes, but not ten Apostles; more Generation X-ers can discuss the death of Phoenix than the death of Achilles. The explosive sales of graphic novels, comic book reprints, and superhero movies in the last twenty years can't be entirely attributed to the increased incomes of fat smelly fanboys in ill-fitting T-shirts. Superheroes are hot because they're telling us something about ourselves.

The central dilemma of the superhero story centers on the problems of power. How shall it be used? Who has the right to use it? How does it affect those who use it? And nearly every superheroic story resolves this problem in part through creation of an iconic superhero persona. Superheroism demands the creation of a second self, grounded in the same morality and history as the original self but with brighter colors, greater swagger, and an unstinting sense of self-sacrifice.

The superhero's solution to the problem of power is America's solution, also: we have created a second self. Domestically, we prefer a laissez-faire government that leaves us alone to pursue our own projects. But internationally, we recognize an obligation to confront threats to world peace -- and we detect that we are the only agent with the power and the will to do so. Thus, when evil looms large, America the tolerant and unimposing becomes America, the mighty and relentless. America, the purveyor of soft post-modern values, becomes America, the exporter of surly pre-modern men with rifles. The government that leaves you alone becomes the government that pulverizes you with its super Marine strength and Tomahawk Missile vision. The administration that couldn't find your country on a map yesterday becomes the administration that renames the cities on your map tomorrow. Off go the glasses, on goes the costume, and America becomes a superhero, fighting with astonishing powers in the name of the very ideals that give it the illusion of weakness and indecision.

Do we seek permission to fight for the good? Does Superman? Does Spider-Man? For that matter, does Mr. Incredible?

It's no accident that the four decades that featured the great popularity of superheroes -- the forties, sixties, eighties, and today -- are the four decades in which America flexed its muscles in the international sphere most forcefully. Whenever America exerts itself internationally, it does so with reluctance; the ensuing tension aches for the dramatic catharsis that superhero stories provide.

A powerful strain of isolationism lurks in our national psyche. Since the first days of the United States, wise voices have whispered to us that America is big enough and complex enough to absorb the sum of our energies; that America is strong enough and secure enough to ignore the follies outside of our own borders; that we are too good, or perhaps not good enough, to soil or be soiled by the world. These whispers haunt our struggles. Leave the heathens to their folly. Bring the troops home. Throw away the costume, Peter. Marry Lois, Clark. Get comfortable behind that desk, Mr. Incredible.

But sooner or later, the monsters invade the city, and superheroes remember what they have to be. And we remember what we have to be.

In each generation, the struggle is different. Superman -- a child of the late thirties -- reflects the problem of power as seen through the eyes of a first-generation immigrant. He comes to America from a distant land, an adopted citizen who gains extraordinary powers from the near-magical differences between the stagnation of the old world and the boundless possibilities of the new. For him, power is basically infinite; his struggles inhere in the imagination and determination he must bring to bear in using it -- and in the patience he must exercise in not using his power in his civilian identity. By contrast, Spider-Man -- a child of the sixties -- reflects the struggles of the second-generation American: possessed of strange (but not infinite) powers through the mysteries of science, he must reconcile his enormous responsibilities with his desire to lead a normal, fulfilling, unburdened life. When his responsibilities overwhelm him, he sometimes retreats into despair and selfishness, only to return to the fight with a renewed sense of purpose. Finally, Mr. Incredible -- a post-9/11 suburban American -- is indifferent to the origin of his power and comfortable with the use of it, but bedeviled by the enervating influences of modernism: bureaucracies, lawyers, and relativists who can see only order and disorder, rather than good and evil. Need I draw the comparisons to World War II, Vietnam, and the War on Terror?

Every twenty years or so, we don the mask. The fight isn't always selfless; the superheroes usually fight to save their home cities, often rescuing their own loved ones first. The fight isn't always without casualties, or collateral damage. And sometimes the fight compels us to accept some responsibility for creating our own villains -- as Batman and Mr. Incredible learned, towards the end of their respective movies. But we choose the fight just the same, without anyone's permission, and we do so in the name of what we know to be the good.

Yes, the good. No irony. No sarcasm. Perhaps no humility. But no cowardice. We insist: the good.

To understand America, you have to realize: it's an Incredible place.

The author is a lawyer and frequent TCS contributor. He recently wrote about Moron-Proofing Social Security.


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