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Superheroes and comic books say more about America today than any literature. Here's why 

Salman Siddiq | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

Superhero comicbook artists are fond of saying that caped and masked creatures are the modern standup of mythology. Superheroes are often based on ancient deities - and sometimes, in the case of some like Thor, lifted directly from mythology.

DC even calls its leading superheroes the pantheon, a throwback to the Greek gods. Shazam is Zeus, the brooding batman is Hades, Aquaman is Poseidon, Flash is Hermes, Cyborg is Hephaestus, Green Lantern is Apollo, Wonder Woman is Athena and Superman is, well, Superman.

But that said, Superman is quite the messiah figure. A baby, sent away in a cradle by living parents to escape a certain death is, if you strip away space and krypton, essentially the story of Moses.

While a lot of this is intentional, more often than not comics 'leak' commentary on the times we live in.

Take Marvel's Civil War for example. The comic book which came out in the late 2000's was a not-so-subtle commentary on what is more important: security or liberty. The fact that this came out in the years immediately following 9/11 does credit to the political involvement of artists in the United States. A similar work in today's India would be quick to be castigated as 'anti-national' and we would have 15 different groups burning its copies.

The upcoming Captain America movie is based on the comic in the broader strokes, with the specifics naturally differing. But apart from being a superhero caper, the movie is also a reflection of how America sees itself.

Most Americans think of themselves as Captain America. An ordinary boy from Brooklyn who drafts into the army to fight the Nazis despite being weak and puny. After volunteering for a super soldier program, though, he turns into a Hitler-punching machine. But the captain's greatest strength is his moral core, that compulsively makes him fight for what is right and to stand up for the weak (and of course, he doesn't stand for foul language).

To most ears that would sound like propaganda and they would be right. Captain America was created in the 1940s as a propaganda tool, just as the United States was entering the Second World War. The very first comic had him punching Hitler straight in the jaw.

But the US today isn't Captain America. Because it does look a lot like Cap's teammate and frenemy in the Avengers line-up, Iron Man.

Iron Man, played with such debonair nonchalance by Robert Downey Jr, is the very embodiment of the US. Brash, confident and arrogant: Iron Man is more American than Capitan America himself.

Iron Man represents the industrial-military complex that plays such a major force in American foreign policy. Even if we concentrate on just the movies (and ignore the rich and varied comic history of the character) it is astonishing how much he embodies what the rest of the world hates and envies in the US at the same time.

He is a major arms dealer: the US is the number one exporter of arms. He unilaterally intervenes in other countries: Iraq. Refuses to share his weapons tech with anyone else except a few close allies: the insistence on nuclear power remaining in a few hands. They even have the same obsessions: weapons and tech.

And both are also most directly responsible for defeating invading space aliens (well in the movies, at least).

Of course, reducing an entire country to superhero analogies might be comical itself but come November, if Donald Trump wins the White House (stranger things have happened) we might need a whole new character to define America.

One that hopefully is more than a racist caricature.

Edited by Payal Puri

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First published: 5 May 2016, 10:50 IST