The Myth of the American Superhero

The Myth of the American Superhero

The Myth of the American Superhero

The Myth of the American Superhero


From the Superman of comic books to Hollywood's big-screen action stars, Americans have long enjoyed a love affair with the superhero. In this engaging volume John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett explore the historical and spiritual roots of the superhero myth and its deleterious effect on Americas democratic vision.

Arguing that the superhero is the antidemocratic counterpart of the classical monomyth described by Joseph Campbell, the authors show that the American version of the monomyth derives from tales of redemption. In settings where institutions and elected leaders always fail, the American monomyth offers heroes who combine elements of the selfless servant with the lone, zealous crusader who destroys evil. Taking the law into their own hands, these unelected figures assume total power to rid the community of its enemies, thus comprising a distinctively American form of pop fascism.

Drawing widely from books, films, TV programs, video games, and places of superhero worship on the World Wide Web, the authors trace the development of the American superhero during the twentieth century and expose the mythic patterns behind the most successful elements of pop culture. Lawrence and Jewett challenge readers to reconsider the relationship of this myth to traditional religious and social values, and they show how, ultimately, these antidemocratic narratives gain the spiritual loyalties of their audiences, in the process inviting them to join in crusades against evil.

Finally, the authors pose this provocative question: Can we take a holiday from democracy in our lives of fantasy and entertainment while preserving our commitment to democratic institutions and waysof life?


As the United States approached the year 2000, waves of anxiety and hope crested. The technologically informed had worries that decades of shortsighted computer programming would allow the Y2K bug to deliver lethal bites, inflicting random damage on our economy and essential services. Citizens had few hopes that government would provide wise policies, suspecting instead that its own aged, behemoth systems would themselves collapse. Believers who viewed the calendar through a millennial lens thought that the Rapture might finally be at hand. Titles such as Revelations 2000: Your Guide to Biblical Prophecy for the New Millennium and Spiritual Survival During the Y2K Crisis appeared in bookstores alongside Pat Robertson's End of the Age and Paul Meyer's The Third Millennium The popular Rapture-based fantasies, launched in 1995 by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days, dominated the religious best-seller lists and brought forth a series of successors, such as Tribulation Force: The Continuing Drama of Those Left Behind By mid-2001, the number of Left Behind end-time products sold — including millennial materials for children — reached 39 million. There seemed to be widespread solace in the idea that we were not writing — could not write — the script of our national destiny and that a divine hand would wipe clean the social slate, saving a righteous few who would no longer bear historical responsibility.

At this moment of despair came a stylish film that combined the themes of computer dystopia and messianic deliverance — in effect, a Rapture away from America's computer-designed hell. The Matrix, released in mid-1999, gives us a vision of our planet as redesigned to serve the tyranny of machines directed by . . .

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