How does the idea of Manifest Destiny influence the concept of superhero comics and movies in America?

4760 words (19 pages) Essay in Film Studies

08/02/20 Film Studies Reference this

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Introduction

 Manifest Destiny, a phrase coined in 1845, expressed the philosophy that led 19th-century U.S. territorial expansion. Its advocates believed that the “United States was destined by God to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent”. (History.com) Historian Frederick Merk says that this concept was born out of “a sense of mission to redeem the Old World by high example… generated by the potentialities of a new earth for building a new heaven”. (Merk) Although it is a historical concept, the spiritual heritage of Manifest Destiny is kept in the modern days as one of the fundamental American ideas. Superhero comics and movies, for example, present the same sense of mission of one savior making the world a better place. Cooperating with other American ideas at the same time, the idea of Manifest Destiny influenced the concept of superhero comics and movies in America to a degree.

Historic Meaning of Manifest Destiny

 Manifest Destiny shown in superhero comics is a relatively modern concept. However, it is important to understand what Manifest Destiny is in history and why it is one of the fundamental American ideas keeping its influence until now. “Manifest Destiny was the driving force responsible for changing the face of American history. It was the philosophy that created a nation”. (From Revolution To Reconstruction and Beyond)

Although the name was given in 1845, the philosophy behind Manifest Destiny existed early in American History. President Thomas Jefferson spearheaded westward expansion, shown when the United States purchased Louisiana from France in 1803. To help the country gain more freedom in dealing with foreign powers on the continent and to consolidate the power of the young republic, Jefferson implemented his foreign policy to expand U.S. territory westward. The policies, particularly regarding U.S. expansion in the modern Gulf Coast region, persisted through two more presidencies. (History, Art &Archives)

Voices to reannex Texas increased after Mexico won its independence from Spain and passed a law suspending U.S. immigration into Texas in 1830. In 1836, after Texas won its own independence, the new leaders sought to join the United States. John Tyler, who won the presidency in 1840, was determined to proceed with the annexation despite the resistance of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. An agreement concluded in April 1844 made Texas eligible for admission as a U.S. territory, and possibly later as one or more states. (History.com)

By the time Texas was admitted to the Union as a state in December 1845, the idea that the United States will inevitably expand all the way to the Pacific Ocean had been generally accepted by people from different regions, classes, and political persuasions. The claim for Oregon territory, the Adams-Onís Treaty, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, expansion to Florida, and other components together form the process of U.S. continental expansion in history. “The idea of Manifest Destiny is as old as America itself. The philosophy sailed with Christopher Columbus across the Atlantic. It resided in the spirits of the Jamestown colonist and it landed at Plymouth Rock with the Pilgrims. It also traveled with the fire and brimstone preachers during the Great Awakening and built the first national road.” (From Revolution To Reconstruction and Beyond)

Essential Ideas

 The concept of Superhero and Manifest Destiny seem very different from the surface, but their essential ideas share lots of similarities. The characteristics of Manifest Destiny were not formed in a night but gradually developed in the history illustrated above. Historian Albert K. Weinberg first codified the elements of American Manifest Destiny in his 1935 book. While others have debated and reinterpreted those elements, they remain a good foundation for explaining the idea.

 Weinberg’s theory included three main elements: Security, Virtuous Government, and Divine Ordination. The first generations of Americans saw their unique position on the eastern edge of a new continent as an opportunity to create a nation without the Balkanization of European countries. In this way, the United States would have fewer borders issues and be able to conduct a cohesive foreign policy, which means Security. Inspired by writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and others, Americans created a form of government very different from European monarchies – “one based on the will of the governed, not the government” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). The Constitution was deemed as the ultimately virtuous expression of enlightened governmental thought. Finally, Americans believed that God, by geographically separating the U.S. from Europe, had given them the chance to create the ultimate government described above. Thus it stood to reason that God also wanted them to spread that government to unenlightened people, “building a new heaven” (Fedrick Merk). That applied to, for example, Native Americans in history.

 The three elements of Manifest Destiny transformed into superhero comics and movies, and the same three elements- Security, Virtue, and Sense of Mission- are now explained in a different way. Superheroes, a type of heroic fictional character with supernatural or superhuman powers, are usually dedicated to fighting the evil of their universe and protecting the public. The reason for their existence is to maintain people’s Security. Even if the United States nowadays doesn’t need to worry about what it used to anymore, the solidarity and patriotism of protecting the nation remain unchanged. Superheroes also show and represent virtue, as they unquestionably “make this world a better place”. Courage, bravery, strength, and strong moral codes are some of the fundamental traits of American superheroes. Although people who are saved by superheroes don’t necessarily request them to do so, no one will question their noble motive and beneficial results of their action. The image of a voluntary, selfless, and powerful savior who takes a region under his or her great protection resembles American Progress by John Gast. The Sense of Mission, or the Divine Ordination, is thusly revealed in superhero comics and films. Because superheroes are virtuous, they are destined to spread their justice and will only be appreciated and praised by doing so. 

Fragments of Manifest Destiny in Superhero Comics and Movies

 Classic plots in superhero comics and movies resemble the process of Manifest Destiny in various aspects. Regarding the essential similarities between superhero works and Manifest Destiny, stock plots are also ironically similar.

 Superhero generally needs a supervillain to fight against. Batman has Joker, Thor has Loki, Green Lantern has Sinestro, and Captain America has Red Skull. Righteousness and morality need its opposite to emphasize itself, just like Manifest Destiny needs to describe the ignorance and horrible living conditions of its objects to justify itself.

The supervillain usually has a thematic connection to the superhero. Luthor in Superman, for example, convinces himself that he is “just” a man using his knowledge and ingenuity to stand up against a powerful alien invader of Earth. As everyone else sees him for the opportunistic xenophobe causing trouble for one of the greatest things ever to happen to Earth, the comics discuss what true justice is from “people’s” point of view. Manifest Destiny, rooted from the pride of democracy against colonization and monarchy, also shows a thematic connection between the past of colonized America and the new American ideas. It is a term created by the people but not the government.

Superheroes often have people they respect and look up to. Spiderman respects Iron Man and Doctor Strange admires Ancient one. Manifest Destiny also shows the mode of learning from a strong and virtuous leader, with the assumption that it will be solely beneficial for the learners.

 

Inherited Controversy

Recognized as one of the fundamental American ideas, however, Manifest Destiny has always been criticized and opposed by generations of Americans. The controversy about Manifest Destiny is intriguing similar to that in and about superhero comics and movies.

 The phrase “Manifest Destiny” first appeared in editorials (written by the same person) published in the July-August 1845 issue of the Democratic Review and a July 1845 article in the New York Morning News. The writer criticized the opposition that still lingered against the annexation of Texas, urging national unity on behalf of “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” (John O’Sullivan)

 In an 1837 letter to Henry Clay, however, William E. Channing presented a popular opinion of people against Manifest Destiny.

“We are a restless people, prone to encroachment, impatient of the ordinary laws of progress… We boast of our rapid growth, forgetting that, throughout nature, noble growths are slow….. It is full time that we should lay on ourselves serious, resolute restraint. Possessed of a domain, vast enough for the growth of ages, it is time for us to stop in the career of acquisition and conquest.” (Blum 275)

 

 Some people believed that it is justified and destined to apply principles to others if they deemed it to be beneficial for all, while others don’t. This controversy is inherited by superhero comics and movies in America and presented as the battle between superheroes and supervillains. A supervillain is the antithesis of a superhero. As the villain applies and expands his or her injustice to the innocent public, the hero fights back, bringing justice, peace, and prosperity back to people. There hasn’t been a supervillain being incredibly evil without spreading his or her ideas and impacting other people negatively. This rhymes with the controversy about Manifest Destiny that whether imposing own ideas on other groups is justified or not.

Loki in Avengers 1, for example, represents tyranny and dictatorship using violence to make people surrender.

“Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel” (The Avengers)

 

 Given that he gave this speech in Germany and an old man stood up to him saying “There are always men like you” (The Avengers), what Loki has said is a metaphor of Hitler’s inhumane government. The cover of Captain America #1 shows the same theme. It introduced readers to Captain America, “a brightly-clad superhero designed to be a symbol of American national identity, and showed him socking Adolf Hitler on the jaw.” (Maslon and Kantor)

Superhero comics and movies in America have clearly shown the inclination against villains who try to force their morbid principles to people. What villains want to spread is tyranny and violence against the American ideas of freedom, equality, human rights, and pursuit of happiness. However, what is the limit of imposing ideas to others? If the evil thoughts of supervillains and the negative results they lead to should be strictly opposed, should we also oppose good intentions that may lead to some negative results? Thanos’s intention can be explained solely as controlling the universe’s population and preventing the exhaustion of resources. “Sacrifice” now, according to Thanos, is only needed to avoid more sacrifice later. It sounds beneficial.

The historical process of Manifest Destiny is not essentially different from those, regarding the name of freedom and the deaths of Native Americans. The question that what the limit of spreading ideas should be has always been discussed with Manifest Destiny. Seeing the controversy inherited and discussed over and over in superhero comics and movies is intriguingly ironic and meaningful.

 

Political Connections

 Superheroes in America have always been connected to political topics. From the very beginning— “Action Comics #1”—an early version of Superman wrangles a confession out of a crooked D.C. lobbyist by dangling him over the dome of the Capitol building. (Action Comic #1)

 The modern form of Manifest Destiny in politics is reflected in superhero comics. Bush, who said in a 2000 debate against Al Gore that he had no interest in “nation-building,” proceeded to do so in Iraq. When Bush began the war in March 2003, his overt reason was to find “weapons of mass destruction.” (Jones) In reality, he tried to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and install a system of American democracy. During the same period, superhero comics portray the president in a different way. After the 9/11 tragedy, the “grim-and-gritty” (Jones) vigilantes of the 1990s receded in favor of more optimistic heroes. To keep up with “this more tempered approach to heroes and patriotism in the post 9/11 environment” (Jones), George W. Bush was portrayed as a thoughtful leader in Marvel’s 2006 Civil War saga in the shadow of the Patriot Act. The patriotism, pride, and solidarity in modern American politics cause the determination of the people to keep the country the strongest and expand their ideas.

Cultural Connections

 The modern Manifest Destiny, because America has already taken the whole continent, also increasingly impact foreign countries. Spider-man: India is a great example of American cultural exportation under the cover of cultures from its destination.

 According to Shared Devejaram CEO of Liquid Comics LLC:

“It is one thing to translate existing U.S. comics, but this project is truly what we call a “transcreation,” where we actually reinvent the origin of a property like Spider-Man so that he is an Indian boy growing up in Mumbai [formerly Bombay] and dealing with local problems and challenges.” (Adesnik)

 

Shared Devejaram, born in New York to Indian parents, tried to preserve American heritage while resonating with Indian audiences.

The plots of western Spiderman and Indian Spiderman are parallel to each other. Although the Indian version is rooted in magic and mythology rather than science, the myth of Spiderman that “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” is kept. Peter Parker learned the myth of Spiderman as an embittered teenager without a sense of obligation. He refused when a security guard asked him to stop an armed robber in the midst of making his getaway. In the same night, Peter found his beloved uncle Ben murdered, discovering that the murderer was the one he let go. In Spider-Man: India, Pavitr Prabhakar learns his lesson in an almost identical manner. While swinging across Mumbai, Pavitr heard the cries of a young woman surrounded by a gang of thugs. He did nothing and swang away. However, kind Uncle Bhim decided to confront the same woman’s assailants. He was murdered. Pavitr revenged and learned the enduring lesson. (Adesnik) However, Peter Parker and Pavitr Prabhakar did acquire their superpowers in very different ways. Peter Parker, as “a bespectacled teenage bookworm” (Adesnik), devoted himself to academic pursuit. On a public science fair, he was bitten by a radioactive spider and gained his superhuman power. Pavitr Prabhakar was bullied in an expensive private school in cosmopolitan Mumbai for wearing traditional clothing. Pavitr met an ancient mystic who warned him of an impending battle between ancient forces of good and evil. The old man endowed Pavitr with the power of the spider and told him “This is your destiny, young Pavitr Prabhakar. Rise to the challenge . . . fulfill your karma.” (Adesnik)

The fact that it is Pavitr’s destiny to fight for justice seems rather unreasonable since American people believe that there is no limit for what people do on the land of infinite opportunity. However, the idea of Manifest Destiny reveals itself. George W. Bush referred to it when he stated that “History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty”(Bush) in his second inaugural address.

Devarajan’s attempt to transform Peter Parker into Pavitr Prabhakar forces him to confront the age-old challenge of separating the universal aspects of human nature from the particular characteristics of a specific culture. The success or failure of more coming “foreign superheroes” will eventually tell us about the validity of Americans’ faith in the universality of their most cherished ideals. Whether it should be seen as the cultural Manifest Destiny of modern America or the global trend of communication and integration, the thesis of American superheroes will continue.

Conclusion

 In early American history, synonyms were used to explain the not yet named Phenomenon, but Manifest Destiny has always been one of America’s founding ideas. Superhero comics and movies, which are its modern reflection, inherit the spirit and essential ideas, influencing both domestically and internationally in the United States until now.

 

Annotated Bibliography

Adesnik, David. “Marvel Comics and Manifest Destiny.” The Weekly Standard, 26 Nov. 2014, https://www.weeklystandard.com/david-adesnik/marvel-comics-and-manifest-destiny

The Weekly Standard has a solid reputation for its well-written conservative journalism, favors to the right, and uses relatively moderate wording. In this article particularly, I am more interested in facts rather than the way the author reads it, but I will use it as a relatively credible source.

Bacon, Tom. “Ten Times Superheroes Did Politics!” Geeks, 6 Dec. 2017, https://geeks.media/ten-times-superheroes-did-politics

As a collection of political relations in American superhero comics, the article uses short paragraphs to give basic backgrounds. While the love for superhero and typical American sarcasm are clearly shown, the facts it provides are relatively reliable after I compare several different sources for the same incidents. 

BoybluesDCU. “The History of Superman (Clark Kent/Kal-El).” DeviantArt, 2017, https://www.deviantart.com/boybluesdcu/art/The-history-of-Superman-Clark-Kent-Kal-El-669996539

DeviantArt is an online artwork, videography and photography community. Whether this source is “trustworthy” is not important since I am only using a picture of  Superman from this website to show his comic appearance over the years.

Editors, History.com. “Manifest Destiny.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 5 Apr. 2010, https://www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/manifest-destiny

History.com is a history-based digital cable and satellite television network that is owned by A&E Networks. With its publicity and reputation, the historical facts should be relatively trustworthy with a degree of patriotism and simplification for young students. I use this source only to get basic information about Manifest Destiny in history, but the main focus of my research paper will be the modern representation of this idea.

“Era of U.S. Continental Expansion.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, https://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/HAIC/Historical-Essays/Continental-Expansion/Era-of-U-S–Continental-Expansion/

This site is a collaborative project between the Office of the Historian and the Clerk of the House’s Office of Art and Archives. It provides relatively accurate and simple historical facts about the US continental expansion, but I use this source to expand my understanding of the idea rather than using it directly in my paper.

Jones, Steve. “How Manifest Destiny Effects Modern Foreign Policy.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 8 July 2018. https://www.thoughtco.com/american-manifest-destiny-3310344

ThoughtCo is generally not considered biased based on minimal use of loaded language and simply answering questions with evidence. This passage gives simple examples of modern Manifest Destiny in American politics, but what I value more is the author’s summary of Weinberg’s opinion about the core features of Manifest Destiny. The passage, though well supported, is too opinionated for me to use directly.

“Manifest Destiny – The Philosophy That Created A Nation.” Manifest Destiny – The Philosophy That Created A Nation < Manifest Destiny – Michael T. Lubragge < 1801-1900 < Essays < American History From Revolution To Reconstruction and Beyond, http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/essays/1801-1900/manifest-destiny/manifest-destiny—the-philosophy-that-created-a-nation.php

In November 1994 a group of students from the Arts Faculty of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands founded this website, and it grew over years with more students’ edition. This passage gives a summary based on primary documents. Although it is hard to check what political bias it has, I use it as a trustworthy source.

Maslon, Laurence, and Michael Kantor. “What Politicians Can Learn From Superheroes.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 7 Dec. 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/superheroes-politics_b_4096780.

HuffPost is a liberal online news source founded by Arianna Huffington that leans to the left. Articulated with passion, wit, and sarcasm, the passage discusses the political relations of superhero comics, but I use it mainly as a balance to “Ten Times Superheroes Did Politics!” above because of their slightly different wording.

Manifest Destiny and the West.” National Gallery of Art, 2018.

https://www.nga.gov/education/teachers/lessons-activities/uncovering-america/manifest-destiny-west.html

National Gallery of Art is a fairly credible source for historical primary documents. Pictures from this website help my thoughts and give me new feelings about the topic.

O’Roark, Brian. “Super-Economics Man! Using Superheroes to Teach Economics.” Journal of Economics Teaching, 2017.

http://downloads.journalofeconomicsteaching.org/2/1/1-4.pdf

JET is a peer-reviewed, economics pedagogy journal devoted exclusively to transmitting innovative teaching ideas to educators of economics at all levels. This paper uses different superheroes as examples to teach basic concepts in economics, which is not directly connected to my idea. However, the way the author analyzes superheroes is interesting and gives me some new ideas.

Smart, Talia. “Superhero Popularity in Past and Present America.” Superhero Popularity in Past and Present America | The People, Ideas, and Things (PIT) Journal, 2016, https://pitjournal.unc.edu/article/superhero-popularity-past-and-present-america.

This passage is a statistical summary of superhero popularity in the past and nowadays. It is one of the most trustworthy data I can find based on 21 cited works. I use it to analyze the popularity of superheroes representing different American ideas in different periods in modern US history.

“Superhero Movie Viewers in Cinemas in the U.S. by Age Group 2019 | Statistic.” Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/979282/superhero-film-viewers-in-movie-theaters-us-by-age/

Statista is a German online portal for statistics, which makes data collected by market and opinion research institutes. It is one of the most credible sources I can find. I use data graphs about the age groups of viewers as evidence that American ideas reflected in the superhero comics and movies will be inherited by young people.

“Superhero Timeline.” Guinness World Records.

http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/products/books/superlatives/superhero-timeline

Guinness World Records publishes a list of superheroes created in different periods. The facts drawn from this website are trustworthy since I use timelines on other websites to do a simple fact check.

Frederick, Merk. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: a Reinterpretation. Harvard Univ. Press, 1995.

Frederick Merk was an American historian. He taught at Harvard University from 1924 to 1956. His research about U.S. history is used as a very credible and valuable source in this paper.

O’Sullivan, John, Annexation (1845), United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17, no. 1 (July-August 1845): 5-10

https://pdcrodas.webs.ull.es/anglo/OSullivanAnnexation.pdf

 John Louis O’Sullivan was an American columnist and editor who used the term “Manifest Destiny” in 1845 to promote the annexation of Texas and the Oregon Country to the United States. His writing is used as a valuable primary document in this paper.

Weinberg, Albert Katz. Manifest Destiny: a Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History. Quadrangle Books, 1999.

 Weinberg, born in 1899, was appointed for a study of the historical evolution of American nationalism. In his 1935 publication that was republished in 1999, he specifically discusses the concept of Manifest Destiny with high academic integrity. I used his research and writing as a trustworthy source.

“Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations, United Nations, 10 Dec. 1948

https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. I use it as a primary document to illustrate what kind of American ideas were expanding.

Brinkley, Alan. American History, A Survey Volume I. 9th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill 1995

 Alan Brinkley is an American political historian who has taught for over 20 years at Columbia University. I used primary documents presented in his research, which should hopefully be trustworthy.

Blum, Schlesinger, Jr.et al. The National Experience: A History Of The United States. 6th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985

 John Morton Blum is Sterling Professor of History at Yale University and the book is about the history of the United States with an emphasis on public policy. I used the primary documents in it.

 “Action Comics #1.” CGC Certification Verification, D.C. Comics, 1938, https://www.cgccomics.com/1134755001/#features/.

 This is our online Civ resource and a primary document directly related to my topic. It is very credible in this paper.

Bush W. George, Second inaugural address, 2005

https://www.pagebypagebooks.com/George_W_Bush/Second_Inaugural_Address/Inaugural_Address_p3.html

 The website is generally trustworthy on historical primary documents without any interpretations. I use the primary document as a valuable source.

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