NOTE: This article contains spoilers for Immortal Hulk (2018) #13-26, Hawkeye Freefall (2020)#1-6, and Iron Man (2020) #1-3.
Over the course of eighty years, the core idea of what the American superhero is has changed significantly. Be it a gradual political shift rightwards into authoritarian conservatism/centrism (depending on Geoff Johns’ mood), or the overwhelming corporatization and deification of household names like Batman and well, Batman, the genre has come a long way from its humble populist roots. With America tumultuously nearing the end of its most recent quadrennial election cycle, I can’t help but think about heroism, and more specifically, American Heroism.
Being a Canadian spectating America from my peanut gallery up North (a land where smug blowhards deny the existence of white supremacy and racism as it festers in their backyard), I’ve always found the American fascination with heroism interesting. In the past year alone, we’ve seen nurses, doctors, essential workers, USPS workers, and hell, even Joe Biden propped up as heroes by the American masses (not to say that they aren’t heroes (well, that last one’s questionable), nor that other countries don’t celebrate their heroes). You can’t blame Americans for seeking out their heroes; after all, the concept of the modern superhero was born and bred in the United States. In a time like this, where the very concept of democracy is being threatened on a regular basis, there needs to be something pushing back against that evil. But in the pursuit of heroism, accountability can easily be thrown to the wayside.
For a nation that posits itself as the “Greatest Country in the World”, and one that is anything but, (before you jump on me, I don’t know which country is, I just know that the United States don’t even crack the top 10) the long, storied history of America’s heroism is one that lacks accountability. Accountability for the methods used to end the second World War, accountability for the United States’ actions in South America and the Middle East, accountability for the mistreatment of the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised to this day, the list goes on and on. Heroism is a seductive beauty, a siren calling out to those who want to do right by themselves and their community. But what tolls does it extract, and what does it mean to be an American Martyr? Let’s look at three stories that play into this mythology.
Green with Evil
In Immortal Hulk #11, during the aptly-titled Hulk in Hell arc, the titular character goes to Hell, along with a small selection of his supporting cast. It’s in this arc where we see a conversation between Hulk and Jackie McGee, the reporter who’s been trailing him and his path of destruction. It’s an intimate conversation with a cognizant and intelligent Hulk, not the simple-minded, volatile Hulk that we’ve come to know over the years. McGee brings up how Hulk is allowed to feel rage, mentioning how quickly the public tends to forgive him and give him several chances despite his repeated offenses. McGee then states how the anger of men, particularly white and educated men, tends to be respected while hers is at best dismissed, if she’s lucky.
McGee’s concerns gain further credence later in the run, as by issue #26, the public once again forgives Hulk for his past actions and lauds him as a hero. It raises the question of how public reaction would change if Bruce Banner wasn’t a white man. How eagerly would the public be willing to forgive the Hulk for destroying entire towns, were the person underneath a Black woman like Jackie McGee?
The American Martyr is a character whose actions are forgiven time and time again, no matter how destructive and detrimental their actions may be. Their “necessary” evils are accepted as means to an end for the greater good. In a year where more than three hundred and fifty thousand and counting have been condemned to death due to the incompetence of the leaders of their nation, seventy-four million went to the polls to continue supporting that very regime. To their followers, they continue to be a hero, no matter the circumstance. But what motivates the American Martyr?
Countdown to Destruction
2020’s Hawkeye: Freefall is not about a redemption arc. In fact, it’s about the complete opposite, a spiral into self-destruction at the hands of one Clint Barton. Over the course of six issues, Matthew Rosenberg and Otto Schmidt show bridges burned and friendships put into question as Hawkeye tries to get his life in order. The story follows the titular Hawkeye (the second of the two, Clint Barton), as he protects his neighbourhood from the evil Parker Robbins, otherwise known as the Hood. To do so, Barton takes up his former identity as the Ronin as a means to bringing Robbins to justice. What ensues are a series of convoluted antics by Barton to try and hit Robbins from every angle possible, all while burning bridges and straining his relationships.
At the end of the sixth issue, as Barton hobbles off into the distance, I found myself asking, “Was Clint’s destination worth the journey he went on?” Don’t get me wrong, I loved Hawkeye: Freefall. But upon seeing Fancy Dan (of the villain group the Enforcers) remark, “Nah, let him go….he’s one of us now”, I hesitated to disagree with the villain. Let’s consider some of the things that Barton did over the course of the story:
- Robbed S.H.I.E.L.D and put 6 shield agents in the hospital
- Stabbed an innumerable amount of people with a katana
- Laundered stolen money through charity
- Lied to his girlfriend multiple times
- Lied to Spider-Man (which is worse than the former point)
- Knocked U.S Agent unconscious (Which actually isn’t a strike against him, to be fair)
- Extorted a Skrull civilian, who eventually got murdered by Bullseye
- Coerced an underage teen into being an accessory to vigilantism, who eventually got murdered by Bullseye
- Shot a dude in the gonads with a bow and arrow
- Shot Captain America with a bow and arrow (though, not in the gonads)
None of these sound like things that would constitute traditional heroism. Some are even literal crimes (referring to the money laundering, not knocking U.S Agent unconscious). So why should we cheer on Clint Barton? Is he really even a hero?
What’s interesting are Barton’s motivations. Barton’s main goal throughout the story is to take down the Hood. It’s a pretty standard, common goal; there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to take a villain down. But why does Barton want to take down the Hood? What does he get out of it? The aforementioned list doesn’t really scream altruism, does it? When he donates a copious amount of (stolen) money to charity, he does so in order to impress his girlfriend, something that the character even admits to. Barton’s consistently worrying about his image and what his friends and colleagues think of him. When he worries about the consequences of his secret identity as Ronin leaking, he frames it around them, not the general public.
The idea of scrutiny from their peers is what motivates the American Martyr, more so than just doing good for the sake of doing good. The vanity of heroism, and looking like a hero to those whose opinions matter to them, motivates them to try and achieve that praise, no matter what cost it may come at. Barton started his Hawkeye: Freefall journey confident, measured, and collected, and came out of it broken, alone, and vilified.
The war on drugs’ main asset was the vanity of it all, the metaphorical fight against the “horrible, terrible, vile” drugs affecting American communities. Three decades later, we’re left with a disproportionate amount of minorities in jail on non-violent drug offences, all imprisoned on the basis of maintaining the vanity of the campaign, such that all the pearl-clutchers could have their peace of mind. The pathos of Barton’s approach is one that’s mirrored in the real world by “heroes” working for the interests of select individuals. But how does the public perceive the American Martyr?
If there’s one word that could describe the first three issues of Christopher Cantwell and CAFU’s Iron Man run, it’s pragmatic. The story is quite stark (excuse the pun) and to-the-point with its take on the adventure-capitalist. It examines both the internality and outwardness of Iron Man in a society that doesn’t think of him all too highly. What is “back to basics” for a man with wealth that most could not achieve within several hundred lifetimes, and at what cost does it come to that man when he decides to be a hero? More importantly, what does the public think of a superhero who isn’t like them, launching into action from his ivory tower?
In an interesting framing narrative, the action in the first issue is interspersed with “screencaps” from not-Twitter showing how the public interacts with Stark’s posts. Spoilers: not well. To be fair, the vast majority of the criticism Stark receives is warranted; Stark’s decisions and actions are erratic and reactionary, chasing thrills and seeking validation. He makes foolish bets on races and enters the ring with Crusher Creel, and for what? Acceptance and respect are the American Martyr’s holy grail, as well as their greatest bane. No matter how much they do, and how much net good they bring to the world, what good is it to them if they’re not validated for it?
In the run’s second issue, after literally martyring himself to save the day, Stark lies in a hospital bed with 17 fractured bones and a punctured lung. At the uninsurable Stark’s bedside is Patsy Walker, A.K.A Hellcat, not to console him, but rather scold him for his actions. Without context, the scene does seem worse than it actually is, but for the bullheaded and adamant Stark, this was the only situation in which he’d be in a position to listen. Unable to run away or throw himself into his work, Stark is stuck in bed as he’s forced to come to terms with his actions.
The American Martyr is inexorable, adhering to their own ideals of heroism whilst not taking the time to examine their flaws. They lament about the way the public perceives them without making any worthwhile changes to improve that perception. A martyr, as defined by the dictionary, is someone who suffers persecution and/or death for their adherence to their beliefs. But the reality of the American Martyr is that it’s not them who suffers as a result of their beliefs, it’s those around them. Stark’s bullheadedness causes trouble for those around him, such as the aforementioned Walker when she’s injured by one of Stark’s investments gone wrong.
Despite being one of the most famous heroes in the Marvel universe, Stark continues to question his role in it, and whether or not he should continue being Iron Man. But this quandary is structured around Stark’s own wants and desires rather than those of the people around him. Stark doesn’t take responsibility for his actions, and when he does, we end up getting an authoritarian regime to unmask superheroes (and a Civil War, but who’s counting). The American Martyr worries about their place in society, but only as it concerns them, not the general public.
With great power, there must also come accountability. Just as I need to be held accountable for the number of times I’ve said “American Martyr” in this piece, those who lead under the guise of being a hero must accept the consequences of their actions. Is the American Martyr a hero? Depends on who you ask. Truth is, they are a stark reminder of heroism gone wrong, and yet they continue to be perceived as heroes by many. True American heroes exist (last I checked, Dolly Parton’s still active, and frontline/essential workers are still putting their lives on the line for us), but tend not to get the recognition they deserve.
As the United States transitions into its next presidency, the world should re-examine their relationship with their heroes. Truth is, the American Martyr isn’t a problem that’s exclusive to just the United States. It’s not just one person, or a group of people either. It’s an idea, one that’s propagated from nation to nation for centuries, sowing the seeds of discord in those foolish enough to fall for its allure. Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders (seeming safe havens for those privileged enough to consider leaving the United States) all have yet to fully reconcile with the reality of their nations being built on the genocide and subjugation of their respective indigenous people, parading around as paragons of progress while pretending the problems from their past don’t still exist to their day. Complacency is a key factor in seeding the idea of the American Martyr. It’s not new; it’s always been here. The lionization of false heroes is an international issue. In a time where people need their heroes more than ever, putting blind faith in those we falsely believe to be our protectors and leaders can lead us down a dangerous path. It’s up to us to examine our relationships with our heroes, lest we fall victim to the allure of martyrs.