Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision to partner with Stan Lee and become "The Governator" in a new animated series highlights the influence of superhero comic culture on mainstream entertainment. Whatever the obstacles to attracting new readers to print comics, digital media continues to offer opportunities for creators to reach a global audience.
While innovative new ideas abound, established brands can and do find an audience. Teaming up with Stan Lee allows Schwarzenegger to use the superhero archetype to continue his unique brand. Superheroes are the perfect venue because these characters brings together values, ideas, and desire associated with the U.S. experience in a narrative form deceptive in its simplicity, yet powerful in impact.
Having seen Stan Lee at MegaCon, I know that he continues to be a creative and marketing machine. Still, this latest project emphasizes the unique space superheroes occupy in the modern cultural landscape. For Schwarzenegger, the move to further mythologize his persona as a superhero makes perfect sense. His life experience has always embraced the United States as symbolic space. His public career and private life read as an affirmation of the American Dream. A country boy from a far off land, he came to America, pure of body and clear of mind to make his fortune. His unlikely success as a bodybuilder, turned movie star, turned politician isn't surprising if you consider the elements of his life as a series of myths affirmed. The belief that immigrants come to the United States for opportunity, that they work hard to be successful, that they integrate themselves into the community and eventually assume roles of communal stewardship are classic ideas. In practice, issues of racism, economic inequality, and educational access make achieving the dream harder than we like to imagine. Still, Schwarzenegger affirms the dream in a big way. The glitzy of his Hollywood life distract us, but the core of Arnold's appeal is the celebration of United States as we imagine it to be, not necessarily as it is.
Like Lee, Schwarzenegger has embrace the narrative values and ideas based on the opportunity represented by the American system. The comic narrative Stan Lee help create was built on a rapport with the public created through thank you notes to reader-created fanzines and creating letter pages in popular books. Stan Lee’s hip style, inclusive manner, and emotive storytelling helped to create a community around superhero characters as much about those character's everyman identity as much as their superpowers. Lee championed creating characters readers would care about in his stories. The core of Marvel comic story is real people thrown into extraordinary circumstances and rising to become a hero. In Schwarzenegger, Lee's formula becomes an ironic twist.
Bringing his established persona to comics allows Arnold to continue the affirmation symbolize by his life and career. Comic book superhero are powerful representation of nationalism and family values (Superman), physical and intellectual drive (Batman) and idealized and controlled femininity (Wonder Woman). With all the uncertainty at home and abroad concerning the future, the appeal of the American Dream is enhanced, not diminished. This explains some of the appeal driving the explosion of superhero related media.
The decision to take elements of Schwarzenegger's life and make them into a standard superhero comic narrative is entertaining, but also discontenting. The Governator has classic superhero elements--young sidekicks, high tech armor, and a secret base. Yet, the inclusion of Arnold's career, wife, and children plays as much as wistful yearning for what he represents as much as parody for entertainment.
Blurring the line between the real Schwarzenegger and the imagine Schwarzenegger, even in an animated cartoon, highlights the destiny forestalled at the heart of Schwarzenegger's real life story. Schwarzenegger wants to run for President. Yet, constitutional restrictions prevent him holding the office. Like a movie stopped at the beginning of the third act, he now leaves political life without achieving the ultimate culmination of the American Dream he has personified for so long. Facing this crushing reality he has turned himself and his story into a superhero comic narrative that continues and extends his status as exemplar of American success.
By embracing a superhero persona, Schwarzenegger extends the mythology of self that defines his life in the United States. In some small way he is insuring that he will continue to act as a symbol of a pure immigrant experience. This superhero persona will never age, never tire, and reminds us all of the promise encapsulated in Schwarzenegger's American Dream.