That the cowboy has given way to the superhero in the American myth is painfully revealing. It is the siren song of the last frontier, giving way to an overcrowded and dangerous society where the law fails, and only a gift from the storytelling gods can give a man his freedom and let him do what’s right.
The Western promised a kind of universal freedom available to anyone who could go out west. The comic book superhero turns freedom into something that is only magically available to a small elite.
. . . . The tension between freedom and order is at the heart of all these narratives. The freedom to be an individual, to be left alone and still lead a moral life. The vigilante is a private figure. Mysterious. He may have a secret identity, or he may just show up when needed. His public self is not his real self. Yet it is his best known self. He participates in the group only on his own terms. He comes and goes when he pleases, rather than being compelled to by any authority.
The superhero takes the ordinary urban battles of cops and robbers and makes them extraordinary, with superhuman men and women fighting each other. But this myth is an admission of urban helplessness. The need for vigilantes on the frontier was an admission that anarchy does not work. And the need for them in the city is an admission that the urban society in all its progressive multicultural glory does not work either. As much as the stories may try to leave behind the city and its dysfunction, for other worlds and complex mythologies, they always have to return there sooner or later. Because it is its failure of law that gives them meaning.
And though the superhero myth has displaced the Western, it lacks the essential American appeal of it. While there was something unique about the frontier, there is nothing so unique or different about urban decay. The glamor and decay of the American metropolis, the spectacle of New York and Chicago writ large, are not nearly as fascinating as it was in the 1930′s or 50′s. Urban decay is now everywhere. Skyscrapers mingling with multicultural slums is no longer uniquely American. And while there is something in the response to it that is American, the creation of a secular religion, with men elevated to godhood to resist urban blight and inspire its residents with a progressive morality, it is no longer truly liberating. Only escapist.
What does it say about a society that leaves behind the cowboy for the superhero, and the frontier for the decaying urban infrastructure? That which the passage of all myths says about a society. The death of the cowboy is the death of the West, at least in the minds of those who tell the stories. The birth of the superhero comes from the stories of an urban culture that fears police and criminals, and does not feel competent enough to resist their trespasses on their lives and freedoms, but wishes that someone out there would. Someone so superior to them that he or she might as well be a god. And if not a god then a billionaire. Which is close enough.
— Daniel Greenfield, “Cowboys vs. Superheroes”, Right Side News