Hollywood has often lauded the United States as the cradle of extraordinary superheroes and the saviour of the world. Yet when an actual crisis hits home, it has shown a less than heroic side of the nation and its people – which would disappoint the country's founding fathers.
American actor and comedian Denis Leary once said, "crisis doesn't create character, it reveals it". When the virus started spreading rapidly across the United States, the world expected the leader of the most powerful nation on earth to deal with it in a swift and precise fashion. Instead, in just mere months, the country has become the new epicentre. It has more than 1.5 million infections and about 93,000 fatalities.
President Donald Trump trifles the severity of the pandemic, blames others for his mishandling of the situation and diverts responsibility by politicising and racialising the coronavirus. Citizens' attitude has been shocking to say the least. Californians storm out to protest against lockdown on beaches, a Family Dollar security guard in Michigan was shot dead after telling a customer she needed to wear a facemask, and armed anti-lockdown protesters in Michigan tried to enter the state capitol.
The reality of how Americans are dealing with a disaster is starkly different to how they do it behind the silver screen because they are selfless, valiant heroes who confront any disaster with true grit.
In the past few years, comic book movies have dominated cinemas across the world. In 2019, Avengers: Endgame exceeded Avatar's record as the highest-grossing film of all time, fetching a whopping $2.79 billion. But why does Hollywood keep churning out these movies? Perhaps it is to accentuate the American exceptionalism and way of life.
The origins of the American psyche stem from its revolution (1775 – 1783). Political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset dubbed it "the first new nation". The country values vigilantism, individualism, self-empowerment, and justice before law. In Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in 1863, he mentioned the Land of Stars and Stripes as an exceptional nation and Americans have a special mission to change the world. Thomas Jefferson visualised United States to be the bulwark of human rights and liberty, while emphasising the ideal American as virtuous and altruistic.
This inflated sense of importance manifests very noticeably in films. Superhero plots are methodical, but they offer audiences feel-good moments of the good guys pulverising the baddies in breath-taking fighting techniques that transcend logic.
The on-screen superheroes are typically American vigilantes who disregard conventional boundaries to rescue the weak and needy. They are misunderstood yet charismatic outcasts like the obnoxious Deadpool, with superhuman abilities, strengths and intelligence which are obtained naturally or by some accident. Some are modest like Spiderman while some relish in the glory like Iron Man. Ordinary people are often portrayed as passive and they wait for some fearless knight to save them.
Americans have had a long love affair with superheroes. For example, the sale of Captain America comic books soared when the United States joined the Second World War because the protagonist reflects the exemplary lionhearted American.
Captain America, whose real name is Steve Rogers, joins the army because he is shocked by the Nazis' atrocities. However, he does not meet the physical tests of the military and he agrees to undergo an experiment which gives him superhuman strength.
The characteristics of American crusaders also reflect popular political discourse. After the Vietnam War, Americans felt they suffered a humiliating defeat so in post-1975 films, they focused on re-masculinising the demoralised American spirit. As former president Ronald Reagan said, they needed to "Make America Great Again". In 1982, Rambo: First Blood hit the cinemas and entertained audiences with a highly skilled war veteran who challenges corrupt authority. In the second instalment, Rambo is dispatched to Vietnam to rescue American POWs and he single-handedly fights the Soviet and Vietnamese army.
In Independence Day, aliens attack earth and the United States government are the only ones who stand a chance against the galactic foes. In Blood Diamond, the selfless and noble American journalist Maddy Bowen, portrayed by Jennifer Connelly, exposes the illegal diamond trade in Sierra Leone.
But films are, at the end of the day, entertainment. Perhaps American citizens now realise there are no caped paladins to rescue them from a crisis or the incompetency of their government. The real heroes are just ordinary folks who don't have dazzling superpowers. They are doctors and nurses working tirelessly to save lives and other people carrying out acts of kindness to assist those who are really struggling.
Instead, we see armed demonstrators aggressively confront nurses who are trying to encourage people to stay home. At the time of crisis, everyone is vulnerable but if you look hard, you can find strength within yourself to tackle hardships with a lofty spirit.