My Score to Settle with the American Superhero
I currently teach a course at The Frisch School called The Jewish-American Novel. Considered in its totality, the most salient theme in the curriculum is the central role of anxiety in the cultural life of the American Jew. We carry with us an excess of inherited trauma, and our collective behavior is informed by it in ways that we seldom subject to critical scrutiny. Few of my contemporaries know the gnaw of hunger, and none of us know directly the horror of Holocaust or pogrom; and yet, many subconsciously project our special brand of jouissance — that excess of nervous energy compounded over untold generations — onto the banal drama of the quotidian. We infuse our comfortable American lives with comical levels of paranoia and other such mishigas; Or, in the vein of the immortal Woody Allen, we cast our eyes up to the heavens, and, absent a band of marauding Cossacks or sneering SS, cast all our nervous energy onto a cosmos that appears cold and indifferent to our drama.
Among the tribes of the earth, the Jew has an entrenched and nearly unrivaled sense of the depths of human frailty. Equally refined, in turn, is his appreciation of art as balm, consolation, and edification in a world marked by chaos. Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer embodies this awareness masterfully in Annie Hall (1977) when, unable to save his relationship with Annie or even understand why he perpetually sabotages it, he writes a play in which all aspects of the couple’s ills are discernible and possible to resolve. Alvy is the god of the universe of his own art, where identities are stable, destinies unambiguous, and lives infused with meaning and coherence.
What does any of this have to do with the theme of this issue of Animo Quarterly, ‘Heroes and Superheroes?’ I feel a special appreciation for the guiding principle of our current installment: we can look to the world of art for comfort and edification in a world that is scary, incoherent, and perhaps unknowable. Ever the American Jew, I believe in this tenet with emphatic conviction. The more difficult question, raised implicitly by the superhero angle, is where in the world of art do we look for these things? What can the familiar superheroes of the American silver screen offer us as we do battle with COVID and white supremacy, the twin evils of our time?
For as long as I have been an adult, I have found the American cultural fixation with superheroes bothersome. As Seth Frantzman points out in his thoughtful opinion piece in the New York Post, the agonizingly formulaic construction of the 21st century superhero genre in American cinema speaks to an uninspired nation that has no interest in cultivating the cultural substance it possessed in the bygone days of artistic giants like Orson Welles. It speaks to a society (or, at least, massive swaths of a society) disinterested in the complex nuances of the human mind, the soul, and the journey. It speaks to a childish impulse to view the world in impossible binaries: good/evil, light/ dark, hero/ villain. At the time of this writing, we are but a few weeks past the storming of the U.S. Capitol by a riotous right wing mob, many of whom were convinced that they were protecting the demigod Donald Trump from a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. Do we really need to feed the frightening levels of tribalism and anti-intellectualism in American life today by reinforcing a reductive, binary sense of life and society through our national artistic output?
Also problematic in my view is the genre’s appeal to some of the darkest elements of the Protestant ethos, which has always roiled at the core of American life. According to the prescription of this ethos, it is the responsibility of the individual to transcend the ills of his own heart and of society at large; every man is responsible for his own salvation, and only an exceptional few are destined to rise to the awesomeness of that responsibility. The rest of us are spectators— helpless, passive, deserving of whatever hardship or grayness life will inevitably bestow upon us. If you fail to dazzle the judges on American Idol or Master Chef, you are called upon to obediently return to the amorphous mob of spectators. Fifteen dollars an hour, sky-high deductibles, and don’t you complain because you had your chance to make it. We can’t all be Kelly Clarkson and we can’t all be Wolverine. It is a dangerous genre because it subliminally de-emphasizes the value of collective action, and the rich inner life that courses through each human life, even in those of us who can’t bring the ruckus in front of JLo and Howard Stern.
David Winkler holds a PhD in World Literature (Italian) from Indiana University, an MA in Italian from Middlebury College, and a BS in Business Administration from Ithaca College. His research examines the shape, trajectory, ethics, and aesthetics of collective Holocaust memory, with a particular emphasis on the Italian context. He currently serves on the English and Foreign Language faculties at The Frisch School and has previously held faculty positions at the University of Delaware, Middlebury College, and Indiana University. Dr. Winkler's work has been published in peer-reviewed journals and his interdisciplinary profile has enabled him to teach coursework across multiple departments and curricula. He has been invited to present his research at several venues beyond the academy, including the Delaware Contemporary Museum and the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester.