‘We’re all living in America/America, ist wunderbar’ croons the lead vocalist of the cult-favourite German industrial rock act Rammstein in their early noughties chart hit, ‘Amerika’. A slice of light satire pointing at the absurd ubiquity of American popular culture, and its tendency to leak its way through every national pore around the world, it’s a song that hits home for many of us.
Rammstein’s 2004 dig at America’s imperialism-via-commercial commodities (‘Coca Cola’ and ‘Wonderbra’ are name-dropped like telling carpet-bombs) still carries the air of a truism to it – it’s hard to deny that we consume a large chunk of American products every day, be it actual physical consumables (like, indeed, Coke) as well as the more flighty variants of the same, like books, comic books, films and television series.
Social media has led many to change their view on this idea. Imagine Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency without his Twitter account. Social media’s reconfiguration of how we process what’s around us has created a new paradigm chipping away at the hegemony of America. We need to always keep in mind how these international platforms (Facebook, Twitter…) that opened up a world of infinite possibilities for 24/7 interconnectedness can in fact locate their origins in America itself.
Another paradox to sink our teeth into is the phenomenon of the superhero blockbuster at cinemas. Trickling onto our big screens from the late 90s in a scattered selection of minor movies (Blade) and scattershot franchises (Spider-Man, X-Men) before the revolution after Marvel Comics got their own studio and set the tone with their inaugural feature (the Robert Downey Jr-starring Iron Man from 2008), all the while said revolution might just have given us a few films that could stand the test of time (The Dark Knight, Logan).
The one thing this varied and multicoloured canvas of films has in common is the source material it draws from. Indeed, while the genre of the comic book/comic strip/graphic novel cannot really be traced to a set national origin without going down dizzying rabbit holes of debates and research, the origins of the superhero comic – at least the kind of superhero comic that has really taken root these days – is a decidedly American affair: “As American as jazz”, a large chunk of Stateside comic book creators and apologists might say.
But with the efforts to create linked-up story worlds, these franchises have become more invested in their internal logic rather than any messaging about their American-ness. This, despite there being characters called ‘Captain America’ around, and despite at least one of the films in this erstwhile canon being inspired by the fallout of the post-9/11 world (that would be The Dark Knight).
Because not only do these franchises require themselves to be propped up by sizeable budgets that can only be justified if the films’ reach is well and truly global in a way that hasn’t been the case until now… they also have to do this over and over again, across a spectrum of interconnected movies whose narrative, pace and overall formula has to operate under a strict editorial policy.
So while these blockbusters do in fact emerge from America to begin with, they rely on international support networks to keep them going.
But that is not to say that their stories have lost all traces of their American roots. In the most of the Marvel franchise blockbusters, Captain America: Civil War (2016), the entire action is determined by an ideological point of conflict between the titular hero (Chris Evans) and his supposed colleague – Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr) – after the two disagree on whether superheroes should be registered with the government in order to be made responsible for any kind of collateral damage that may arise during their epic melees.
It comes across as a stripped down and mythologised version of the battle between ‘big’ and ‘small’ government with, in turn, its more specific cousin – the dichotomy between a libertarian mindset and a more socialist one.
But because it’s superheroes who are delivering the message home – flattened, primary-coloured representations of our hopes and anxieties – we can allow ourselves to feel like they are speaking from an Olympian height, where national boundaries dissolve, allowing us to imagine that they are talking to us – just us.
And this is perhaps the most powerful example of, in fact, American soft power at work.
© 2017 – VIDA Magazine – Teodor Relijc