Beau Everett
6 min readNov 22, 2020

--

Captain America, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, made his first appearance in March 1941 and is an enduring symbol of American ideals in popular culture.

American Exceptionalism and America’s Superheroes

The notion that America is different from other nations as a result of its origin, its history, and its culture predates the Civil War but is pervasive in our political discourse and popular culture. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his sharp critique of America, Democracy in America (1840), is credited with the first notable observation of an American exceptionalism.[1] He concluded, “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no other democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”[2]

In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln offered his own interpretation of America’s exceptionalism. Invoking the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln suggests that America is inextricably connected with freedom and equality and that, in the battles ahead, America’s mission is to ensure “that these dead shall not have died in vain” in their efforts to give America “a new birth of freedom” and “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”[3] Lincoln’s message was that the living can honor the war dead not with a speech, but by continuing to fight for the principles for which these heroes gave their lives. His conception of America’s exceptionalism is one that comes with a solemn responsibility to live up to its ideals.

Other observers have made similar remarks about America being different. But it wasn’t until 1929 when the actual phrase “American exceptionalism” was used by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in his answer to a faction of American communists who argued that America was unique and made it an ‘exception’ to certain elements of Marxist theory.[4]

After the 1930s, the phrase fell out of use until the 1970s, when Reagan introduced his vision of America as a shining city on a hill.[5] Also drawing upon the Declaration of Independence, Reagan’s formidable expression of American exceptionalism underscored American’s unalienable rights. But rather than focusing on the need to defend these rights, at the first Conservative Political Action Conference (“CPAC”) in 1974, Reagan emphasized that “You are born with these rights, they are yours by the grace of God, and no government on earth can take them from you.” And by extension, America’s role in the world was its providence. He proclaimed, “We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so.”[6][7] As a counterpoint to Jimmy Carter’s description of the country’s malaise, Reagan’s potent optimism not only appealed to America’s mood at the time, but also endured as a powerful cudgel in the American culture wars.

These ideas of what makes America itself — or what defines Americanism — include concepts of liberty, equality before the law, individual responsibility, republicanism, representative democracy, religious freedom, and free market economics.[8] As the phrase has been weaponized by the political right, however, its meaning and use have been sharpened for partisan purposes, rooted in patriotism, Christian faith, and the infallibility of the Founding Fathers.[9] Beginning with Reagan, Republicans have turned Lincoln’s words into an evangelical call on the righteous to protect America’s interests — or to fight perceived enemies of American freedom — around the world as opposed to a rejoinder to Americans to preserve and fight for the just application of its democratic freedoms at home.

This remains a central conflict in the struggle over the idea of American exceptionalism. Americans may unite around the idea that America has a special obligation as a uniquely wealthy and powerful nation to champion its core values around the world, but many bristle at the claim that the United States is divinely ordained as innately special or superior to other nations. The values expressed in the former view might be used to draw upon Americans’ compassion and morality; while those in the latter might be used to excuse and justify self-interested, unethical, and even immoral conduct at home and abroad.

If America is exceptional, so what? Is this exceptionalism a license or a responsibility? A license to do whatever it wants? A license for unilateral action? Or a responsibility to use its power to be better?

In popular culture, these questions are at the core of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the “MCU”), drawing analogies between superheroes and superpowers — America, in particular. Throughout the films, the Avengers question the limits of power and the obligations that come with being exceptional. The villains — various fascist, corporatist, or totalitarian menaces — pose one existential threat after another to Americanism and American values in a world where American soft power is in decline. Our heroes are optimistic and idealistic yet riddled with self-doubt.

The Peter Parker principle is at the moral foundation of the MCU and its heroes — with great power comes great responsibility. The origins of the phrase pre-date its use in Spider-Man and appear to date to the French National Convention of 1793,[10] but Voltaire, Winston Churchill, and both Presidents Roosevelt are also credited with its use. And pre-dating all of these references is this Biblical verse, Luke 12:48, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”[11] Comic book writer Greg Pak deemed the motto “one of the greatest single moral injunctions in all of American pop culture.”[12]

In a 1982 television interview, co-creator of Captain America and of the Avengers, Jack Kirby described the appeal of comic book heroes as representing a “transcendent feeling” that “we can do better, we want to do better.”[13] While Americanism, American values, and American optimism ultimately prevail, the MCU gives us the opportunity, and even obliges viewers, to reconsider those values in the context of our current socio-political climate. If it ever existed, what does American exceptionalism mean today?

If the MCU were just some fringe comic book world, this would be an interesting question. But almost one in three Americans saw Avengers: Endgame its opening weekend; [14] the film has grossed $854M in the United States[15] and more than $2.8B worldwide.[16] This franchise is wildly successful. Its success would seem to suggest something about the broad appeal of its central thesis as well as its final conclusion.

In the end, these heroes and this story are arguing that self-sacrifice is necessary for the greater good. Our prosperity has not been divinely granted — nor is it guaranteed. As Lincoln declared, we have an obligation to fight for these values so that they live on, so that those who have fought for them won’t have done so in vain.

Just as the MCU has brought one chapter to a close and forced its fans to think about what comes next, the same is true in present-day America. What’s next? Where are we going? What will we do with the exceptional legacy that we’ve inherited? And do we understand that we need to fight to preserve it for future generations?

[1] “Foreword: on American Exceptionalism; Symposium on Treaties, Enforcement, and U.S. Sovereignty”, Stanford Law Review, May 1, 2003, p. 1,479

[2] de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America (1840), part 2, p. 36

[3] https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/gettysburg-address

[4] Pease, Donald E. Editors: Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. “Exceptionalism”, pp. 108–12, in “Keywords for American Cultural Studies. NYU Press, 2007

[5] Zurcher, Anthony, “The unlikely story behind the phrase ‘American exceptionalism’”, BBC News, Washington, September 13, 2013

[6] Vanatter, Scott L., Reagan at the first CPAC, “We Will Be A City Upon A Hill”, Frontiers of Freedom, March 12, 2013

[7] Van Engen, Abram, How America Became “A City Upon a Hill”: The rise and fall of Perry Miller, HUMANITIES, Winter 2020, Volume 41, Number 1

[8] Lipset, Seymour Martin, The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective, New York: Basic Books, 1963

[9] Zurcher, Anthony, “The unlikely story behind the phrase ‘American exceptionalism’”, BBC News, Washington, September 13, 2013

[10] Nationale (Paris), Convention (2 April 1793). “Collection générale des décrets rendus par la Convention Nationale”. chez Baudouin — via Google Books

[11] Seland, Darryl, “With great power comes great responsibility,” Quality Magazine, April 16, 2018

[12] Rosenberg, Alyssa, “Opinion | Thank you, Stan Lee, for She-Hulk, a superhero who is beautiful when she’s angry,” Washington Post, November 12, 2018

[13] “Jack Kirby Interviewed by Catherine Mann on Entertainment Tonight,” YouTube, Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center Channel, October 28, 1982

[14] Powers, Nicholas, Truthout, “‘Avengers: Endgame’ Is a Liberal War Cry,” May 14, 2019

[15] McClintock, Pamela, “Box Office: ‘Avengers: Endgame’ Passes ‘Avatar’ to Become №1 Film of All Time,” The Hollywood Reporter, July 20, 2019

[16] Avengers: Endgame at Box Office Mojo, IMDb, November 2, 2019

--

--

Beau Everett

Imagining a better world, while trying to make sense of the one we’ve got.