On Thanksgiving eve, the Danish magazine Kongressen, which covers U.S. politics and culture, contacted me for an interview about superheroes in post-9/11 society. Given her Friday deadline, I had to take a few minutes on Thanksgiving morn to answer a few questions by email.
This was the interview I gave:
What role has the superhero had in developing American culture and what role do they play today?
The superhero, one could argue, goes back to the Bible with figures like Samson and Greek myth with figures like Hercules. The modern definition of a superhero seems to include at least three elements: a dual identity, a costume, and some kind of enhanced power/skill (which does not automatically mean superhuman—for example, an expert but human archer). The superhero in America developed around the time America developed into a superpower—World War II. It was a time when people placed more emphasis on extremes—and on doing good at all costs. Today superheroes seem to serve a slightly less noble purpose, I’d say; in an effort to make them realistic to modern audiences, their stories are often rather grim, and their actions sometimes not as black and white.
Did the development of Superman and Batman in the late 1930s set the bar for superheroes thereafter?
Absolutely. They are the fathers of the entire genre, and polar opposites—one alien and almost limitless in physical power, the other human and at the peak of mental power.
Why are superheroes having personal problems? Like Iron Man getting panic attacks. What’s the deal?
Again, to make them more relatable. A flawless figure is boring. For the first few decades, most superheroes did not have personalities—aside from their powers, they were practically interchangeable. Eventually the creators realized that the audience needed more sophistication just like they expected in novels, and the three-dimensional superhero was born.
What signal does the American superhero send to the rest of the world?
For me, it was always about doing the right thing not for glory or money but simply because it was the right thing. I hope that still holds true for other superhero fans.
Is the global success of superheroes in movies of the past decade a symptom of cultural imperialism? And what values are they representing?
I don’t believe the movies are trying to send a message of imperialism. I think they are simply catering to what young audiences today demand—fast-paced, often extremely violent action. While that may approach how a superhero story would play out in real life, for superhero fans my age (40s) and older, it is too cold. And to some it is surely sending a message that wanton destruction is an acceptable side effect of seeking justice.
Did superheroes play any special role in the healing process after 9/11?
For some, I’m sure. They rose to prominence during another time of trauma, WWII, and I’ve seen arguments that they do offer comfort and hope during any stressful period.
What can superheroes do for us in a time of crises?
Remind us that doing good should be a selfless and daily act.
Why are superheroes so fascinating to so many people?
Wish fulfillment. Many of us wonder what superpower we’d choose if given the chance, and hopefully as many if not more admire those who dedicate their lives to the service to others.
This is what she quoted (translation courtesy of Google):
Since then, superheroes placed in tension between the two characters and superheroes have been a central part of American mythology and culture.
Here is the top story (I think):