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We watched saw Captain America in the theaters last weekend, and it was pretty good, a solid three stars.

In one scene, the Red Skull confronts Cap and explains that they have more in common than one might think. They are superior men, a cut above the ordinary lot, and why did Dr. Erskine give you the full superhero treatment while leaving me disfigured by a half-assed version of the treatment when we’re so much alike?

It’s a common trope of superheroic comic books, a trope shared with pulp adventure novels, Saturday morning serials, Amazing Stories style space opera, and similar adventure fiction of the 20th century. The villain gets the hero alone in a quiet moment and explains that they’re really cut from the same cloth. He may tempt the hero with promises of power and an invitation to his evil organization (Dr. No to James Bond). He may try to sell visions of a new world, a better world, built upon the ashes of the old (Vader to Skywalker). He may simply be looking for a little sympathy (Belloc to Indiana Jones). But the basic trope is an appeal to the kindred spirit the villain imagines among Nietzschean supermen.

Naturally, Cap refuses the idea, just as every two-fisted hero does. A villain might say something like “We stride like gods among ordinary men.” A two-fisted hero is far more likely to say something like, “Shucks, I just did what anybody would have done in the circumstances when I ran into that burning building to save those kittens.” It’s a peculiarly American conceit, the egalitarian sense that nobody is inherently superior, that everyone can be a hero if they choose, a departure from the earlier conceit of Victorian romances that the gentleman adventurer was a gentleman.

But, y’know…? In the pulps, the heroes and villains truly are superior to the ordinary man, in almost every way: stronger, smarter, more daring, richer and better-looking. And the heroes don’t just do what anyone would, as evidenced by the crowd of onlookers who did not, in fact, dive into the burning building. Perhaps anyone can be a hero in the real world, but within the world of the pulps, the villains are right and the heroes are wrong, if only on this particular issue.

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