In today’s world, it’s far too easy to fall into a state of despair. There are horrible natural disasters, untrustworthy politicians, and crumbling nations.
We look around at these immoralities and cannot decide among ourselves the best course of action. We tell our neighbors, “Go vote,” even though we don’t completely trust that our voices will be heard. We are in need of goodness, reprieve and relief. Some might say we need a hero.
The U.S. faced many hardships throughout the 1930s because of The Great Depression. Jobs were scarce, food was rationed and the so-called “American Dream” was little more than a mockery to those trying to obtain it. Then, the second World War came around, and Americans were asked to help the nation in every way they could. Women took men’s jobs, men went to war and again we asked: What is the American Dream? What are we fighting for? And what are we fighting against?
We’re all familiar with American propaganda that appeared in everything from Uncle Sam posters to Disney short films. As we line up to go to the movies today, we might miss a glaring aspect of U.S. morale during these times: Superheroes.
It is no mistake that among the first superheroes in pop culture were Superman (1938), Wonder Woman (1941) and Captain America (1941). All of these heroes embodied traditional American values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Superman was The Man of Steel, decked out in bright red and blue colors so that nobody would mistake where his core values lie. He was diplomatic, smart, handsome, strong and the eventual leader of The Justice League alongside Batman and Wonder Woman. His main enemy was a rich man who didn’t care about the everyday average Joe but only cared for himself and his own glory and power.
Wonder Woman came out of the transition period from the Great Depression to WWII and, as an Amazonian princess, took on the mantle of an American hero. She was strong and beautiful in red, white and blue but her values were also showcased in the essence of her fighting skills. She didn’t just beat up the bad guy and call it a day. No, she represented truth and justice, using her lasso of truth to force otherwise corrupt individuals towards honesty for the betterment of society.
Every superhero created during that time—including Batman, who is always of a gloomier color pallet—represented to children and adults alike what being a patriot meant. It wasn’t about having wealth and power like the villains; it was about being honest, keeping promises, fighting for what you believed in and remembering to be humane throughout the fight. These superheroes taught us that things worth living for are worth fighting for.
These superheroes weren’t just characters that some people made up for entertainment. They were characters that acted like mascots for citizens of the world, especially Americans. In times when families feared the government, DC and Marvel illustrated that there is good and bad in the world and it’s our responsibility to strive for goodness.
With all this in mind, it can seem a little odd to modern audiences that these characters who were born from a need for patriotism now look less patriotic than ever. With Marvel and DC coming out with more movies and shows than ever before, audiences are able to see new versions of these characters—ones that ditch the star spangled underwear and red-and-white striped shields and go instead towards dark colors like burgundy, navy blue, black, gray and silver.
Some suggest that this is due to marketing campaigns. For example, Captain America is a fantastic character. He’s moral and just, as he will fight to the death for what he believes in and will sacrifice his life for his comrades; but, with a name like “Captain America,” selling posters and action figures of him in Europe might be a little bit challenging. It’s easier to sell “Steve Rogers” in navy blue which appeals to a wider audience than “Captain America” in red, white and blue.
This argument is fair, and in many ways this might be true, not only for that character but for all of the patriotic heroes of that time. But I would argue that the meaning of the costume changes is deeper than that alone.
In changing these characters’ costumes, artists, directors and costume designers are conveying a message to the audience: that the original patriotic images are no longer needed, no longer wanted, or both.
It’s clear through the characters’ actions that they are still patriotic to a degree. Steve Rogers is still Captain America. He joined the army and fought for people with the knowledge that he might die serving his country. He was a war veteran. To say that Captain America isn’t patriotic is perpostuous.
And the same goes for the other heroes.
Even though their costumes have changed, their values have not. So why the ditch the flag and stars?
To find the answer, one must look at the movies.
Whether you’re a DC or Marvel fan, it’s clear that both sides are making movies that tell a clear storyline. First, we learn about the individual superhero. Who is Iron Man? Who is Batman? Then, we pair them with other superheroes and they fight one big enemy within one big city. But in the latest installments of each movie franchise, we see how the characters have difficulties working together. They fall apart and have to come back together as a community of superheroes to fight off a greater threat, one that threatens the world.
In this, we see that the superheroes’ motives are no longer a matter of self-interest, nor a matter of local community. Instead, these heroes are focused on sticking together to solve a global threat. It’s about global community, global unity and global peace.
Ditching the red, white and blue is not a matter of these characters becoming less patriotic. In fact, they are still very patriotic. It is actually a matter of them becoming more concerned with helping the world at large, not just their individual nation.
In many aspects, this represents who we are today. With crises all around the world like global warming, refugees fleeing theircountries, broken families and governments worldwide being viewed as untrustworthy, many people might feel a need for global unity. We are tired of seeing political officials fighting; we are tired of seeing lands destroyed and families broken. We feel that we need a hero, and while many of us step up to face the daunting task, many of us still need to see that this hope of global unity can be made into a reality.
These are the reasons that American patriotism alone is not as vividly portrayed through the costumes in these films. This is why Captain America is marketed as Steve Rogers in navy blue and dark colors, and why Superman wears burgundy and navy instead of his old bright colors. It’s not because they are less patriotic, but because our view of the world and our experiences are telling us to reach out to our neighbors globally and continue the fight for global unity.
Seeing these characters change is nothing new. It’s been happening for some time. As America moved further away from The Great Depression and WWII, the heroes began to face other issues. Blank Panther was created in the ‘60s as a mascot against racial tensions in the U.S., even going so far as to fight a KKK member. As 9/11 hit, Batman was viewed in a more serious lense, away from silly Adam West and towards Michael Keaton, fighting corruption in a way that mirrored society’s fears at that time.
So while our favorite Marvel and DC heroes started off as mascots to boost our morale specifically within a national context, they have now evolved into something more. They act as realistic examples for who we are and how we should act. They don’t just encourage us. They represent us as well.
By being uniform in this dark, steely color pallet, we are shown that across the board all humans should strive for this global unity and world peace through democracy.