Stories featuring superheroes generally aren’t my thing – I enjoy fantasy and science fiction well enough, but so often superhero media lacks a coherent consistency. If the Flash can move as fast as sound, why does he get punched? Does Captain America’s shield always return to his hand or doesn’t it? Obviously these questions are rhetorical.
Aside from the occasional Vertigo publication (namely Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Mike Carey’s Lucifer series), comics in general usually aren’t my cup of tea, often because of the cliched or inconsistent story, even within the same volume or issue. Recently a friend challenged me to talk about who was the “better” super hero – Batman or Superman – and with the caveat that I am not a prolific super hero fan out of the way, I’ll talk a little about my exposure to each.
Super-powered by our sun, raised by hard-working, honest Americans, he was created at a time where nationalism was thought necessary to help bind the country together in common purpose. Depending on the writer he could shoot heat rays from his eyes, fly faster than the speed of light, see matter at the atomic level, and could withstand even the most forceful of blasts.
Superman has never been an interesting character to me, because he’s a “perfect” being. He almost always fights unquestionably for the same moral good as relates to the average archetypical America, his sole weakness is usually easily overpowered by a surge of hope or help from his friends, and there’s very little internal conflict when it comes to his conduct.
The best portrayal of the character, in my opinion, is in 2003’s Superman: Red Son where, instead of landing in Kansas, the infant Kryptonian lands in Cold War soviet Russia. It takes the normal idea of Superman and flips it, and ultimately the story explores what it is to be a force for good for all of humanity, not just one country over another. There’s internal conflict when his values don’t quite match up with the rest of humanity’s, there’s at least a “reasonable” limit on his powers, and the story is less about him and more about humanity. A good read.
All in all, I’ve never been terribly impressed with Superman.
While obviously the caped crusader has been presented in comics for decades, I really have to give it to the creators of Batman: the Animated Series for giving the character a fantastic story arc, filled with inner turmoil, a grittier reflection of society than I was used to seeing in “kids” television, and stories that often had no clear good or bad guy.
Batman, in my opinion, has two glaring flaws as far as genre goes: promotion of vigilantism and power of the rich. Far from it for me to say that laws are always (or even regularly) just, but a great small moment in The Dark Knight movie was the interaction between the real Batman and the costumed amateur crime-fighters trying to emulate him. It’s one thing to work for what one believes is right, but as many have pointed out before, Bruce Wayne could do a heck of a lot more to clean up Gotham than Batman’s one-at-a-time approach.
That said, Bruce Wayne/Batman only gets away with any of his antics exactly because he represents the top 1% of wealth-holders. How many untold millions went into the design and implementation of his gadgets, car, underground base, and general lifestyle? Batman may strive to help the poorest and neediest in Gotham, but he certainly isn’t one of them, and never will be. Whatever experiences the writer decides he’s had, whether as a thief in Asia or living on the streets in Europe, he still comes from and has access to almost unlimited funds, and basically flaunts that fact as both personas.
There are plenty of inconsistencies when it comes to Batman as well, but largely I feel Batman is, in most cases, a “Mary Sue” – a perfect or nearly flawless character. He has an unimaginable number of toys and gizmos, most any of which could be leveraged to help humanity (even just the biotechnical compounds he develops). He’s always one step ahead of the bad guys, and when he isn’t, he’s still strong or smart or tough enough to outlast them.
Honestly, both characters suffer from the same root problem: wish-fulfillment. Looking at Superman, he’s better than everyone at functionally everything, can do anything he wants, and for many defines the very concept of masculinity. He’s an ideal, but that picture is marred by the fact that by his very nature he’s inhuman and the example he sets is unrealistic. I believe Superman was created, and continues to be written, as an object of envy – a “I want to be him!” kind of deal.
Conversely, Batman isn’t enviable in and of himself (having tragically lost his parents, is almost perpetually mopey, and doesn’t seem to actually enjoy life), but his concept is; he ignores the law to punish people who he thinks are bad for society. With only an internal moral code to guide him, he does what he thinks is right and the story almost always justifies his actions, meaning he was correct to go outside the law every time.
When thinking of this post I considered an allegory of a freeway. Superman represents the flashiest, fastest, most expensive car on the road. People may see that car and say “dang, I wish I had that.” Batman is the petty moments of vengeance we like to see on the road – someone driving on the shoulder getting pulled over, or not letting in someone who waited until the last possible second to merge. It’s a case of “I should do that” as opposed to having or being something.
Batman isn’t out there encouraging people to pay taxes or care for their families – the very nature of his stories are that the system is broken and only an entitled, well-funded vigilante has the conviction to take charge.
Superman is a plot device, someone who is stronger, faster, and better at almost everything than anyone else, who only gets beaten (and then only temporarily) when he doubts himself or fails to rely on the power of friendship.
I think there’s a lot to unpack here, both in the characters described above and my individual take on each, but really it boils down to the fact that while both characters represent wish-fulfillment, ultimately I’d prefer a story about a human with at least some measure of relatable strengths and weaknesses, to an alien who unflinchingly lives up to an idealized American image that is simply beyond belief.
Soon I’ll write up the companion piece to this heroes article, looking at several Batman villains and detailing which (if any) I think are the “best” when it comes to story, motivation, and characterization.