With Batman rejuvenated, Superman on track, and a Legion of Superheroes on the cinematic horizon I thought the time was right for a simple comparison of the ideal American heroes from the two major American pantheons – Captain America and Superman. Who is the best example of an American hero?
Best to get the obvious out of the way first; Cap was born in the U.S., while Superman’s parents hailed from a different planet. Of course, the U.S. is made up of all sorts of ethnic groups and cultures, so someone who looks like a WASP isn’t exactly out of place in this country. Superman is a migrant just like millions of others.
Alright, so the important stuff. Both heroes were born during the Depression Era and have maintained that era’s ideals; neither one has a negative quality. Though they are both capable of excelling at any sport, they are not womanizers nor are they interested in money over ethics. They don’t lie, they don’t badmouth, they don’t complain. They do what they can to help others and don’t think twice about sacrificing themselves.
Really their only significant differences lie in three major areas. The first two, the nature and origins of their superpowers, are closely related. Superman was born with the abilities of superhuman strength, speed, vision, and durability. He can also fly, shoot lasers from his eyes, and exhale gale winds. All this is due to his genetic code being adjusted to the harsher conditions of Krypton’s sun. Captain America was born a wimp. He spent his childhood and much of his youth struggling through his limitations before being given a serum that made him physically the equal to a multiple Olympic champion.
While you have to commend a hero who has the integrity to remain a boy scout while coming to understand he is an alien who possesses the abilities of a classical god, that doesn’t necessarily make him the ideal American. Captain America, with his background, abilities, and all-too-human limitations is. We can relate to him because he started out like us. We can respect that he has to use his wits to defeat evil because he doesn’t always have the brute power to. Yankee ingenuity is the most laudable of American traits.
The third quality is their independence. Captain America is a superior tactician and an excellent leader who accepts the chain of command fully. Whether it is our fear of the powerful or a reassurance in his respect for established authority, that is a comforting aspect of the character. Superman shows respect for leaders and always tries to find the best solutions, but he accepts orders from no one unconditionally. That independent streak is a strongly American quality.
Personally, I find that the underdog who accepts being an underling is the more American hero, but who can argue that Superman is a powerful icon of our society?