It should come as no surprise in this season of Hollywood blockbusters to hear that superheroes are hot stuff. This year alone, movies have come out about the X-Men, the Green Lantern, the Green Hornet, and Thor. (Let us know if we’ve missed one.) San Diego’s annual Comic Con (which started yesterday) is sold out. Opening today is the latest cinematic addition to this crowded genre: Captain America: The First Avenger.

Less often talked about, though perhaps more startling, is the way in which comic-book superheroes both rise out of and feed into America’s nationalistic zeal — and the military crusading that zeal can inspire. With their boldly inked, hard-and-fast boundaries between good and evil (with America historically on the good side) and their epic scenes of violence and vengeance, books and movies featuring superheroes like Captain America often have unmistakably martial overtones. 

Here’s the trailer for this latest one. You’ll see what we mean:

In their book Captain America and the Crusade against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence cast a wary eye on the fascinating (if sometimes problematic) interplay between patriotism, war, and superheroes.

Jewett and Lawrence point out, for instance, that Superman, Batman, Sandman, Hawkman, the Spirit, the Flash, the Green Lantern, the Shield, Captain Marvel, Sub Mariner, Wonder Woman, Plastic Man, and Captain America all were created between 1938 and 1941, in the anxious years leading up to America’s entrance into World War II.

Captain America and the Crusade against Evil

Captain America and the Crusade against Evil

(They would, no doubt, be unsurprised to know that more than half of all American superhero movies from 1951 onward have been made in the eight years since 2003 — the year their book was published — an era during which the U.S. has been actively fighting wars against the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, and Iraqi insurgents.)

Jewett and Lawrence point out, too, the telling way that superheroes seem to fight against the specific archnemeses threatening America’s lofty ideals in every generation, whether those nemeses are Russian communists, Arab jihadists, or even corrupt government bureaucrats. Although Captain America famously began his fabled career by punching Hitler, he has also over the years “allied himself with many causes, always adding a selfless muscular component, whether in battling against Cold War enemies, post-Watergate presidential villains, or industrial magnates who pollute the air and water.”

In this new film, Captain America has gone back to fighting Nazis. Perhaps Iron Man has already taken care of all the terrorists? And a superhero has to have somebody to fight. As the folks at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal show us so clearly, superheroes aren’t much fun without bad guys and violence.

Yet is the same true for nations? Does America really need to be forever doing battle against evil — a U.S.S.R., an Axis of Evil, an Osama bin Laden, or a Muammar Qaddafi — the way Batman needs Joker or Superman needs Lex Luther? Jewett and Lawrence probingly ask this question and others like it, and the answers they give provide meaty food for thought.

Click here to order Captain American and the Crusade against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism.