There is a moment near the end of the gigantic, globe-spanning blockbuster movie Avengers: Endgame that sums up what I love about that most American of creations — the modern superhero movie. One of the principal heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America (of course), lies seemingly defeated at the feet of Thanos, the mightiest villain of them all. His vibranium shield is shattered. The other Avengers are scattered and defeated. The fate of the world hangs by a thread. All hope is gone.
But don’t tell Captain America. He staggers to his feet, tightens the strap on the remains of his shield, and prepares for his last, doomed stand. It’s the Alamo. It’s Wake Island. Or is it?
Suddenly, he hears a voice in his ear — “Captain, do you read?” Captain America pauses. “On your left.” Portals open all around him, armies pour forth, and long-lost superheroes emerge. In an instant, “Cap” goes from doomed man to leader of a mighty army, and what follows is perhaps the biggest, baddest battle ever splashed on the silver screen.
It’s all there, every element that’s made the superhero movie America’s mightiest cultural export. You have the earnest, courageous hero — who’s not afraid to laugh. He is always fighting against tyranny. There’s the sense that, despite all his power, he’s still the underdog. And then, when the climactic fights finally kick off, they’re so huge and over-the-top that they can come only from a nation that just does everything a little bit extra.
Oh, and don’t forget the international impact. Ever since America slipped the bonds of its isolationism, it has been the dominant nation on earth, and now — as is fitting — its favorite form of cinematic entertainment is the dominant entertainment on the planet. The global box office doesn’t lie. The top movies of all time are almost exclusively American and disproportionately feature men and women in outlandish costumes wielding freakish powers.
American values and American power? What’s not to love? How about let’s throw in a dash of good ole American enthusiasm. I saw Avengers: Endgame on opening weekend in a packed theater in suburban Nashville. The atmosphere was best compared to that of March Madness or college-football Saturday. The crowd responded to every inspiring development. We laughed together, a few folks cried together, and then — during the climactic moment mentioned above — we almost blew the roof off the theater with our cheers.
There are critics who decry the dominance of superhero movies, warning that the cinematic experience is too “comic-book-ified.” But American art forms always get that flak. We’re just too simple. We don’t appreciate the “finer things.” Well, real Americans respond that a great joke, a big battle, and a loud soundtrack are the finer things. And, by golly, while the elites might not like it, regular folks round the world can’t get enough.
Superhero movies are the McDonald’s of American arts. And everyone loves McDonald’s. Long may they reign.
This article appears as “Superhero Movies” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.