Superman was the first superhero to introduce Americans to a new role for their government. Unlike the grandiose spectacle of the hero’s cinematic iterations, Superman’s first appearance in 1938 showed him involved in social issues. In the debut issue of Action Comics, he saved a woman from death row who had been wrongly accused, prevented a domestic abuser from further harming his wife and stopped a gangster from blackmailing a senator.
Delivering justice, protecting family and stopping corruption, Superman represented the newly expanded New Deal state. Superman vowed to use his powers only to advance the greater good and fight pervasive social ills. He had an infallible moral compass and an unquenchable desire to make the world a safer and fairer place.
At a time when President Franklin D. Roosevelt made claims of leadership and executive power, Superman mirrored the benefits for American society, embodying the palpable determination of an administration calling for “action, and action now.” Admonishing the selfishness of the Roaring ’20s, the Roosevelt administration swiftly enacted laws and executive orders aimed at protecting those most vulnerable in society, such as the Social Security Act and the formation of the U.S. Housing Authority.
In the pages of the comics, Superman did the same. Stories like “The Blakely Mine Disaster” and “Superman in the Slums” highlighted issues surrounding the right of the worker to a safe working environment and the need for adequate housing.
If Superman helped readers adjust to the sweeping social reforms, Captain America prepared them for war. Making his first appearance for Marvel in 1940, this indefatigable patriot represented “the American ideal — individual freedom, individual responsibility, moral sensitivity, integrity, and a willingness to fight for right,” an editor wrote in one issue.
His costume and his iconic round shield were emblazoned with the stars and stripes of his home country. Captain Marvel battled Nazis and any other villain who dared threaten the unquestionable divinity of a free world. Planting the seeds of U.S. interventionism, the superhero simultaneously embodied and protected the fusion of American identity and foreign policy.
On comic pages, Superman and Captain America championed American self-confidence at a time of international uncertainty. The Writers’ War Board understood this well. During World War II, the U.S. Office of War Information used comic books as propaganda to encourage brave and admirable depictions of America’s identity.
These characters sold a particular version of the war and its aims: celebrating diversity, domestic cooperation between labor and business and an international role for the United States abroad. Contrasted against the evils of fascism, America became the antithesis to a gruesome ideology espoused by Nazi Germany and its contempt for freedom, individuality and human rights.
And it worked. The overt patriotism of Captain America and Superman contributed to the confidence, morale and pocketbook of the Allied Powers. Their moral certainty stood in stark contrast to the chaos and anarchy ravaging the European continent, and it helped Americans adjust to a new internationalism that the war ushered in.
The United States again finds itself at a turning point. By casting its gaze back to these influential stories from a time of great uncertainty, the nation has an opportunity to adjust its faltering course, reevaluate its core principles and strive anew for the virtuous and heroic identity it has long sought to champion.
Benjamin Moore is a master’s graduate of international relations from Dublin City University, working on the intersection of pop culture and politics, European history and U.S. foreign policy. He wrote this for The Washington Post.