Those Americans who have traveled widely and well, instead of merely spent the odd week in Paris fretting about whether they look cool enough to hang with the locals, understand a critical point about America’s place in the world. Even when a Republican is president, foreigners don’t hate us. Overseas, people are somewhere between respectful of and awed by us. Our presence is electric, not toxic. Even the 1940s cliché about the supposed British attitude toward Yanks — “oversexed, overpaid, and over here” — betrays awe. How could Americans have so much sexual energy? How did they get so preposterously wealthy? Why couldn’t they leave Britain to its soggy self instead of rubbing its collective nose in all of this?
Polls designed to reassure American progressives, in times of Republican presidencies, that “our image is suffering irreparable harm overseas” are really just measuring opinions about our national leadership, not our American nature. That essence doesn’t fluctuate with U.S. presidential results. It remains consistently impressive worldwide: Others admire our swagger, our friendliness, our purchasing power. During a period of what American liberals imagined must have been a difficult time for an American to be in France, I spent a lot of time in that country in the years following 9/11 and during the Iraq War and never experienced even the slightest hint of anti-American sentiment. If you want bitter animosity toward America, head for an American college campus, not France. For all of the Left’s yelping back home about anti-French propaganda and those fabled “freedom fries,” what gravely concerned the French was not Washington’s diplomatic problems with Paris but the steep drop-off in tourism after 9/11. The French love America because we come and spend our dollars there. America’s post-9/11 funk was their funk. When America sneezes, the world catches cold. The world is rooting for us.
Which brings me to The Avengers: Endgame, the world’s new favorite movie. It’s about to break the record for worldwide box-office gross (in nominal dollars, at least). The traits of the superhero all-star team are unmistakably American: Iron Man embodies America’s tech dynamism and Silicon Valley arrogance, Doctor Strange is the emblem of our amazing medical advances, and Black Panther personifies America’s long, fraught history of race animosity turned proud multiculturalism. When Tony Stark has some rude thoughts about Captain America’s derriere, Scott Lang corrects him: “As far as I’m concerned, that’s America’s ass.” Just so. Captain America has America’s ass. He’s also got America’s heart and his brawn, his impossible boy-scout goodness. What other country could give the world an equivalent to Captain America? Captain Ecuador? Captain Russia? Captain Azerbaijan? To a certain extent, James Bond is Captain England, but that example highlights the differences, doesn’t it? 007 is not a crusading knight. He is a cynic, not a choirboy. Bond is to Captain America what Humphrey Bogart is to James Stewart.
The Hulk, meanwhile, bears comparison to American foreign policy: Emotions can get the better of him. He doesn’t always think things through. When the Hulk does a lot of damage, though, it’s in the service of doing what’s right. He is a bit sloppy but he is also benevolent. You want him to be on your side, not to go away. The world would be less safe without him.
The motley nature of the team channels the spirit of e pluribus unum. Nick Fury’s gang are ethnically diverse, an assortment drawn from every corner of the galaxy. The way the Avengers embody American openness to outsiders mirrors the American story, just as the might of the Avengers within the film equates with the cultural hegemony of the country that made it. Thanks to filmed entertainment, American dominates world culture in much the same way its military might reigned supreme in 1945.
Consider the two biggest movies in France and China this year: Serial (Bad) Weddings 2 and The Wandering Earth, respectively. They’re barely known outside their homelands. Every country has its culture, but American culture is world culture. Hollywood’s blockbuster movies and television series showcase characters the world knows and loves. We awe the world with our intertwined technological sophistication, capitalist dynamism, marketing ability, and sunny charisma. Few other countries could afford a $300 million extravaganza, and few other countries have movie stars as appealing as Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Pratt.
After some nonsense about seeking U.N. permission slips for everything they do in Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers reverted to being the world’s leaders, a force for good on this planet and in the universe. Citizens of the world don’t actually want to see the Avengers bottled up by regulations. They want them to be as they are in Endgame, to show all the ingenuity and confident dynamism associated with Americans. Their love of the Avengers is a reminder that, no matter how much people may badmouth us in other countries, just about everyone secretly loves America.