Nerd Factor: Heroes’ Resurgence

Dr. Mike Robinson, LC Communication Studies Professor~

In popular culture, our heroes often grant us a license to do things in real life that we otherwise could not or should not do.

Back in 1941,  there was perhaps no greater act of wish fulfilment than the cover of “Captain America” #1. On it, the brand new, red, white and blue superhero pops Adolf Hitler square in the jaw. There was more than a bit of optimism and hope in that solid right haymaker. Published months before our nation entered World War II, the cover was a call to action.

Captain America’s creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, would go on to become legends in the superhero business. Back then though, they were just a couple of hard working creators tossing out ideas in the first big boom of the genre. Still, there was something more than just commerce in this creation.

As two young Jewish men, Simon and Kirby were particularly attentive to the menace of the Nazi regime. Standing against it was a bold political statement.

In a Washington Post editorial from Feb. 26 of this year, Simon’s granddaughter Megan Margulies wrote about how the duo was threatened by Nazi sympathizers in America. Fiorello La Guardia, the New York City mayor, called to pledge protection for these young men.

As America entered the war, many superheroes found themselves in the business of battling the Axis forces in general and Nazis in particular. Wonder Woman, in her patriotic garb, dove right into the fight. Captain Marvel and his protégé Captain Marvel Jr. battled the sinister Captain Nazi. Back on the homefront, Batman and Robin slapped around Nazi agents in Gotham. Even Namor the Submariner, who was originally presented as a threat to surface world civilization in 1939, became a true good guy when he was convinced that the Nazis were the greater menace.

After the war ended, other genres supplanted the superhero’s popularity. When the brightly colored crimefighters returned in the 1960s, the Nazi menace was still a recurrent threat. Many of Captain America’s foes, such as the Red Skull and Baron Zemo, had survived the war and were secretly plotting against freedom. The Fantastic Four discovered that even Hitler still existed in a cloned body, using his Hate Ray to poison American minds as the Hate Monger.

These ideas are classic examples of the wild sci-fi premises that make superhero tales so great. However, the theme was clear:  he Nazi menace could return at any moment.

As the superhero genre now enjoys another boom time in film, many of our heroes are prominent. Yet there has been a strange reluctance to punch Nazis.

In “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) the Red Skull is part of Hydra, presented as an extreme movement within the Reich. In this summer’s “Wonder Woman” movie, the Amazon’s origins have been pushed back to World War I.  She fights Germans, not Nazis.

These are great movies, and I have always suspected that these shifts are in part a way to avoid the risk of licensing products with the Swastika on them. But we lose something when these maneuvers happen.

The recent events and resurgences of hate crimes have reminded us that poisonous hatred has not gone away. It would be childish to think that superheroes alone are capable of fixing this. But we need our heroes back on the front lines, punching Nazis for us.

Maybe just say In 1941, I don’t think back is needed and then take away the comma.