I’ve just finished watching a Spiderman movie with my oldest son, and while watching it, I began wondering why it is that America has produced the cultural phenomenon of the comic book superhero.

Popular culture is far more interesting to me than ‘high’ culture. I’m interested in what interests the vast majority of ordinary people. I’m not too interested in what interests professors of literature at Ivy League colleges or literary critics of the major newspapers. I’m interested in what interests teenaged kids, movie goers and the general population fo ordinary folks.

The comic book superhero is actually a fascinating phenomenon, and it is curious that it is a peculiarly American phenomenon. Is there such a thing as a French superhero? A British superhero? Is there even a Canadian or Australian or Brazilian superhero? I don’t think so. Comic book superheroes are American through and through.

Of course, all the anti American cultural snobs can turn up their nose if they like, “So the comic book superhero is something to be proud of? What next? a song of praise for the Big Mac? cultural observations on the superiority of Wal-Mart as a retail model for the world?” I hear it, but let’s put the snobbery on one side for a moment.

I think America produces superheroes in popular culture for some very interesting reasons. First of all, the superhero is a modern version of the gods and heroes of the classical age. In the classical age the heroes had supernatural powers. They were half man and half god. They struggled with their destiny. With their supernatural power they had supernatural responsibility. They had to make tremendously difficult moral choices. As such, both the superheroes and the gods of the ancient pagan world revealed to mere mortals the depth of their own calling, the possibility that they too had a supernatural dimension to their lives, that this required great ressponsibility and engaging in difficult moral choices.

There is more to it than that. America produces superheroes, and nobody else does. Why is that? It reminds me of a comment I once overheard which was made by a snooty English woman. “Americans are so sweet!” she said condescendingly. “They still think it is possible to be a hero.” She was right. Americans do believe that it is possible to be a hero. They believe it is possible to be a hero because they Believe.

A vast majority of Americans (even those who do not go to church) are believers in the broadest sense. They believe in God. They believe in good and evil. They believe that there is a battle between good and evil and that the result is still all to play for. They believe that their own involvement or indifferece to this battle matters. They believe it matters not only for the good of the world, but also to the benefit or detriment of their eternal soul. Americans believe they can be heroes because they Believe.

Having lived most of my life abroad, and traveled widely and come back to America, it strikes me that this is the most important distinction between Americans and the rest of the world. Americans are believers. They still buy into the great myth that there is a battle between good and evil, and that their own moral choices can make all the difference.

Are comic book superheroes an error in taste? Are they tacky and lower class in their spandex suits, their artificial anonymity, their over the top villains and their simplistic world view? Are they common, low brow and lacking in subtlety? Probably.

Do I like them? You bet.