Mar 20, 2015
Why we want Batman to beat Superman
Superman: The Movie was released nearly 37 years ago with the tagline “You will believe a man can fly”. Oft repeated, this phrase has since become more than a simple marketing gimmick. It now verbalizes everything Superman represents: Hope, belief in the impossible, and the potential greatness of humankind.
37 years later, we no longer believe a man can fly.
Warner Bros. has just released the first trailer for their upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. And if you’ve been following my articles at all, you know I’ve been dreading this movie, mostly due to my displeasure with Man of Steel and DC Comics’ projects in general lately. This new trailer has done nothing to make me more optimistic. In fact, I’m more convinced than ever that Batman v. Superman is going to be the culmination of everything I dislike about superhero movies.
Batman v. Superman, whatever else it ends up being, is the end result of decades of heated fan debate: Who Would Win in a Fight? It’s a question comic readers have fought about time and time again, despite the comics being uninterested in answering it until relatively recently. The Caped Crusader and the Last Son of Krypton have butted heads once or twice over the years, but traditionally, DC Comics is much more about heroes teaming up than fighting. Pitting characters against each other for shits and giggles is much more Marvel’s thing. The notion that Batman and Superman should ever be enemies instead of friends didn’t really catch on until Frank Miller’s radical re-envisioning of the duo in The Dark Knight Returns.
But it all strikes me as a silly debate, even by comic book standards. By any reasonable argument, Batman vs. Superman would be about as much of a “fight” as Bambi Meets Godzilla. The only way to even pretend Batman stands a snowball’s chance in hell is to stack the odds in his favor with ridiculous deus ex machinas. “Oh, Batman would win because he’d have a bat-kryptonite ring or something!” Arguments like these are meaningless, because by that logic, anyone could beat Superman, especially if they happen to have kryptonite handy. It’s like saying Howard the Duck would win in a fight with Galactus because he’d just happen to have the Ultimate Nullifier on him.
And the reason why Batman is the frequent favorite in this fight has absolutely nothing to do with the actual capabilities of either hero. It stems entirely from popularity. Batman is generally the more beloved of the two, so when they do battle, writers use any excuse they can think of to have Batman emerge the victor. The insane popularity of Batman in the last few decades is a cultural phenomenon that I’ve devoted a lot of thought to, and to be honest, it kind of disturbs me. I don’t like what it says about the mindset of our culture and what we value.
Before I explain, let me say that while I may often give off the opposite impression, I actually really like Batman a lot. Even the Christopher Nolan version. I just get sick of the fandom’s laser focus on this one particular iteration of the character. I liked The Dark Knight as a film, but frankly, it’s among my least favorite versions of the Batman mythos. He’s one of the most adaptive and versatile characters in all of fiction, and with so many interesting and diverse visions of Batman out there, to be obsessed with just this one seems incredibly dull to me.
And the fact that Nolan’s take on Batman has become such a dominating cultural force worries me, because Nolan’s Batman has some really troubling themes going on when you really look at those films. Batman, at his core, has always had a somewhat fascist undercurrent to him. Certainly, that can be said of most superheroes, since the very concept of being a vigilante crimefighter implies an individual deciding his judgment is superior and forcing it upon others. But with Batman, these qualities have always seemed a little more pronounced. He’s an absurdly wealthy private citizen devoting his resources to assaulting and imprisoning people usually far less powerful and well-off than he is. At the very least, Batman can’t help but feel a tad elitist, regardless of how much his enemies are deserving of his wrath.
But in the Nolan movies, these troubling fascist themes are no longer just an interesting curio in the background. They’re magnified and put front and center. Christian Bale’s Batman is an explicit fascist. Brutal, manipulative, and largely uncaring about the collateral damage of his mission, he violates the civil rights and privacy of those citizens he professes to be protecting, and by The Dark Knight Rises, he and his allies have turned Gotham into a virtual police state.
It’d be interesting if Nolan’s trilogy was meant to be satirical, deconstructing the inherently fascist aspects of superheroes by exaggerating them, a favorite trick of Alan Moore’s. But the tone of Nolan’s Batman films is weirdly unironic, as though we’re meant to see Batman as completely justified in all his actions, and that Gotham City is actually better off sacrificing their freedoms for his protection.
I’m not saying that’s necessarily the wrong way to look at those films; I’m saying they don’t exactly leave much open for debate when it comes to some pretty complicated questions, and instead offer up the moral certainty that Batman is in the right. Bale’s Batman is one of the least heroic versions of the character I’ve seen, and may be even borderline sociopathic. So the fact that this is the version people have most latched onto is deeply troubling to me.
And really, why do people like Batman so much? I mean, I know why I like him. I dig the ninja/gothic/film-noir mystery mash-up aesthetic, and I like the sort of dark Peter Pan-esque story of a broken man who’s still a little boy trying to reclaim his lost childhood inside, and of course he has one of the greatest rogues galleries ever. But why do the people who don’t really like comics, who hate the Adam West show, who like to pretend Robin never existed, who shun all the colorful or weird parts of character, why do they like Batman? Why is Batman the one superhero who seems to particularly appeal to those who don’t even seem to really like superheroes?
Part of it may be that Batman, more than any other A-list superhero, most easily adapts to the “real world”, or at least as close as movies get. At the very bare bones of the Batman concept, there are no sci-fi or fantasy elements. He’s not an alien or a mutant, he didn’t fall into a vat of chemicals, and he’s not a mythological god. He’s just a guy in a costume who fights gangsters. So if you’re looking to make a toned down, “realistic” superhero movie for people turned off by more outlandish fare, Batman is probably your best bet. He’s the only hero with both the name recognition to draw a crowd and the flexibility to go the ever popular grim-and-gritty route.
But I think a bigger part of it is that Batman offers people a certain kind of wish fulfillment that other heroes don’t. Fans will tell you they prefer Batman because he’s “more relatable”, due to his lack of superpowers, but that has nothing to do with it. Surely, the socially-awkward middle class Clark Kent would be far more relatable to the average Joe than billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne.
Batman’s appeal is in his empowerment fantasy. Yes, Superman also offers the fantasy of being powerful, and we can identify with the shy, unnoticed Clark pining over the pretty girl in the office, and we can fantasize about secretly being the all-powerful he-man that can save the day and sweep her off her feet. But the fantasy of being Superman comes with restrictions. Superman is a role model, and therefore bound by a pretty strict moral code. Having all the power can seem a less appealing fantasy when you’re not allowed to let your aggression out, or to unleash your id and go nuts. No one wants to be a smiling boy scout all the time.
But Batman is a little more flexible. Of course, he’s also bound by certain rules: He must never kill, and he must never use a gun. But Batman can get angry. Batman is allowed to intimidate and sometimes even torture people. And since Batman isn’t an alien Hercules who might decapitate someone if he gets rough, he gets to play hard. He can beat his enemies bloody. Batman offers the fantasy of being obscenely wealthy, sexually unattached, desired by women and feared by men, and able to take out your anger every night on anyone who looks suspicious.
Let’s face it, Batman appeals a lot to angry, antisocial misanthrope types. They don’t want to be a happy, monogamous goody two-shoes like Superman. They want to be rich enough to have anything they want. They want to plow model-attractive super-villainesses without the responsibility of a relationship. They want to sneak around and blow off steam by beating up anyone they think deserves it. They want to be feared and respected.
So truthfully, the reason why a lot of people like Batman is obvious. But why the fascination with seeing him fight Superman? Many of Batman’s fans don’t just seem to prefer him to Superman, they seem actively hostile to Superman. There’s something almost fetishistic about the way people would love to see the Dark Knight take the Man of Steel down a peg or two.
At first, it may seem like a simple case of people rooting for the underdog. Batman, a mere mortal, is obviously at a disadvantage going up against the godlike Superman, and people love to see the little guy triumph over impossible odds.
But that’s not really what this feels like. For one thing, it’s impossible for me to look at a conflict between a poor, well-meaning farm boy who fights for truth and transparency as a journalist and a manipulative, secretive billionaire on a violent, vengeful rampage and see the latter as the underdog, regardless of who has superpowers.
Whenever I ask people why they hate Superman, the response I get is always along the lines of “he’s stuck-up” or “he’s a wimp”. There’s this perception of Superman as being out of touch, a stuffed shirt, a coward. But any fair reading of almost any of his movies or comics doesn’t really support this, regardless of what you may have gathered from Superdickery. Superman has always been compassionate, brave, and heroic. So what exactly makes people see him as otherwise?
It feels like people want to see Superman punished. Punished for what, exactly? Well, what’s the principal difference between Superman and Batman? Yes, I know it’s hard to narrow down, since the two are night and day, but the one I’m focusing on here is optimism. Batman and Superman have views on the world that could only be more different if one of them was an outright villain.
Superman assumes the best in people. Batman assumes the worst. Superman is more about protecting the innocent, while Batman’s focus is on punishing the guilty. Superman lives in bright, clean Metropolis, and Batman lives in dark, crime-ridden Gotham. Superman lives in a world of hope, Batman lives in a world of fear.
People say they relate to Batman because of his lack of superpowers, but what they truly relate to is his anger. Unlike Superman, Batman lives in our world, or at least our world as we too often choose to see it. We’re pessimistic by nature, because it’s easy. It’s easy to see the bad in things. It’s easy to let all the horror in the world get us down. We dwell on it until it’s all we can see anymore. Mostly, it’s easy because it requires no effort. The world has always been shit and will always be shit, so why waste time trying to make it a better place? Gotham is the real world as viewed through the lens of a bitter person who’s given up.
But Superman is different. He may be a flamboyant fantasy, but the world he lives in is every bit as much the real world as Gotham. It’s just seen through the lens of an optimist. Superman is about hope, and Metropolis is the world as seen by a hopeful person. Superman challenges us to see the good in life, and dares us to actually make an effort to improve things. He tries to show us that life is worth living and that the world is worth saving.
But it’s hard to hope, and easy to despair. People turn away from Superman and towards Batman because he offers the easier path. Superman says, “Yes, life can be hard. Tragedies happen. Your home may blow up. Your father may die. The woman you love won’t even notice you. But you can overcome it. You can save the world. Because inside you’re strong. Inside you’re a Superman.” Batman says, “The world is misery and pain so don’t bother trying to fix it. You’re living in a madhouse. People are maniacs, and the only way to deal with it is to either lock yourself up in your house and shun everyone, or beat the maniacs bloody and lock them away where you never have to think about them.*”
[*Granted, that’s not a very accurate summation of the real message of Batman, but it’s what I think a lot of people take away from him.]
A big part of the plot of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice seems to be the world becoming mistrustful of Superman. The trailer shows protesters yelling at him to “go home”. A statue of Superman bears graffiti reading “false god”. Voiceover narration talks about him as though he’s some aloof deity who everyone fears and mistrusts simply for being so powerful. As sad as this makes me, it may be the most accurate reflection of the current public perception of Superman.
The fantasy of Superman has always been that a man with that much power but also the strength of character to use it only for good could actually exist. That basic human decency could prevail over the corrupting influence of power. But maybe in a post-9/11 world, we’re just too mistrusting to believe in that anymore. The world just seems too confusing and violent for us to indulge in a happy fantasy like Superman.
So those who root for Batman to beat up Superman aren’t doing it because he’s the underdog, but because they hate Superman. They hate him for wanting to save the world and make a better tomorrow. Because they’ve given up on tomorrow. They want nothing more than to wallow in misery, and lash out at anyone who asks them to do otherwise. The strange thing is, I bet when a lot of these people were kids, they looked up to Superman as a hero. Now they only see him as a coward.
37 years ago, we believed a man could fly. Now all we want is to see that man dragged down into the dirt with us.