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The Batman/Superman Dilemma

It began simply enough. “You like Batman better than Superman,” my girlfriend asserted over dinner a few weeks ago. I couldn’t dipute the claim, but mounted a fairly swift defense of the character as “misunderstood”. That prompted an incredulous response which suggested that I “like Batman better because he’s darker”. That’s an interesting assertion. I don’t believe it’s true – certainly not in my case at any rate. I think the public’s perception of Batman as a more enduring, more fascinating and all round ‘cooler’ pop culture icon that the Man of Steel stems from a whole host of factors, that can’t be succinctly summed up with an observation that one is dark and gritty and the other is light and fluffy. So, why are we fonder of the Caped Crusader that the big blue boy scout?

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Notice how Superman is trying to look half as badass as Batman...

I might argue that this probably isn’t the fairest time to be asking this question. Of course popular consciousness is focused on batman more than his compadre – The Dark Knight is among the biggest grossing films of all time and was released last year, as opposed to Superman’s last big screen outing which happened in 2005 to very low fanfare. I think that the last time Superman was really in the popular consciousness was with Superman II (which also engrained “kneel before Zod” in the popular lexicon). That was more than two decades ago. So I think that Batman has an unfair advantage when it comes to grabbing cultural awareness.

But even beyond that, there’s something compelling about Batman. Something that makes him instantly recognisable. Even when Superman had his own weekly TV show with Lois & Clark in the nineties (and when he still has a teen-centric Smallville) the only live-action television superhero programme we think about – to this day is the camptastic Batman! with Adam West. It doesn’t matter that it was terrible in nearly all senses of the word or that it was outdated, but when we think of men in tights on the small screen, it’s a forty-year-old Andy Warhollian nightmare that haunts our thoughts. I don’t think quality is an issue here – though I never watched either Superman show to access the quality for comparison.

So, why does Batman hold the public’s attention or imagination more than a man who can fly?

Some might suggest it’s as simple as who he is. Superman is practically a god. He is faster than a speeding bullet, he can fly and – if you watch the Richard Donner films – he can turn back time. That’s not the most relatable hero ever. Famed Hollywood nerd god Joss Whedon famously explained his own issues with the vast majority of the DC pantheon of heroes, compared to their Marvel counterparts:

DC’s characters, like Wonder Woman and Superman and Green Lantern, were all very much removed from humanity. Batman was the only character they had who was so rooted in pain, that had that same gift that the Marvel characters had, which was that gift of humanity that we can relate to.

In his own comment, he distinguishes Batman as an instantly relatable (okay, relatively relatable) character among DC’s other god-like heroes. Batman is just a regular guy. A billionaire, to be sure, with keen martial art skills – but he’s nothing we couldn’t be if we tried hard enough.

Is that the case? Does a character have to be relatable to enter popular consciousness? I don’t think that’s fair. All manner of strange – and indeed alien – creatures have engrained themselves on popular consciousness despite not being relatable. At a guess, I’d say more people would recognise Spock than Kirk (highlighted by a work colleague who went as the alien because “no one knows who Kirk is”) not withstanding iconic non-human characters like Alf or E.T. or Godzilla or King Kong (or even Klaatu). Maybe the relatability does tie into the public perception of the character, but I don’t think it’s defining.

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Shadows are not a good look for the Man of Steel...

So, is my better half right? Is it as simple as the fact that people respond to the darkness of Batman better than the lightness of Superman? I don’t really buy that logic. You might argue that dark and gritty is now as fashionable as black (appropriately enough), what with Battlestar Galactica defining televisual science fiction or the soul-destroying The Wire being the best drama in yonks. I think the view is overly simplistic. Star Trek was huge this year, with a highly optimistic tone, while audiences rejected the darker Terminator: Salvation. Doctor Who is doing the bomb everywhere with it’s relatively bright and optimistic protagonist and unflinching sense of fun (and – despite darker spells – the good guys always win).

The message to take perhaps is that audiences can respond to lighter entertainment – if it is handled well. There has been a fair amount of criticism of recent efforts with the character of Superman to make him dark and gritty (some would suggest that there were elements of that in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns and – for example – in Jeph Loeb’s For Tomorrow miniseries). Arguably some of the majore character detours in the nineties were due to attempts to give the character a sense of pathos to match his more famous companion.

I think that represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the Superman character. Yes, he was created of a tragedy arguably greater than Batman – the loss of his home planet – but he isn’t defined by that tragedy (he only learns of it in adulthood). That loss doesn’t define him – it’s more plot device (how’d he get to earth?) rather than character development. Superman – clad in his bright primary colours – is exactly what his nae implies. He is a super man – a representation of everything that is best about mankind. Our capacity for mercy, compassion, love – our ability to to do great things when the situation calls for it.

Denny O’Neil, the famed comic book scribe, once remarked that Superman’s Metropolis and Batman’s Gotham were skewed reflections of the same city: New York. Metropolis was the city of the most pleasant day of the year, without a cloud in the sky and no noise polution. Gotham was the city on the darkest night, probably overcast. I think the same is true of Batman and Superman. Batman is the dark and twisted side of human resourcefulness: obsessive, paranoid, withdrawn, aggressive. Superman is the best of us, turned up to eleven. Human ingenuity allowed us to fly without wings and move faster than the speed of sound (it hasn’t allowed us to time travel yet) – Superman is just that principle give metaphorical form. It can overcome anything.

I think that idea is smart and relevant. Marlon Brando as Jor-El articulated that so well in Richard Donner’s original film:

Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.

That section of dialogue gets overshadowed by the obvious Christ parallels (“my only son”), but it perfectly articulates who Superman is and why he’s relevent. And why he’s still relevent today

It seems that Hollywood has taken the wrong message from the success of The Dark Knight last year. Angst is the order of the day. There were even rumours that the studios were looking at inserting the same sort of moral ambiguity in the planned Shazam! for example.

I think that complete misses the point. Sometimes optimism is good. Sometimes lightness is good. Dark isn’t necessarily deeper. Moral compromise leads to good drama, but it’s necessarily the most important part of a given story. I think that if writers realised that, then Superman may be able to gain a better and stronger hold on the popular imagination. Once the underlying principle behind the character is accepted, then he can become a stronger part of our collective consciousness.

I’d argue that the world is ready for a new Superman movie. I’d argue that it could even do better than the last Batman movie. If it were done right.

I think that our unease with Superman comes from the way that we do live in morally ambiguous times, and the attempts by creators to have Superman express and dwell on those ambiguities. Other popular culture icons exist to explore these questions and quandries (as Christopher Nolan used Batman to explore the Bush administration) and their success does not undermine the symbolism of the boy in blue. Just because we can understand the darkness and pragmatism doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate hope.

After all, didn’t we all demonstrate that we can still respond to hope back in November?

2 Responses

  1. I’m gonna through an idea out here. Superman is the more human and relatable of the two. I mean in terms of character, Batman is the more inhuman. With him being a tramatized insane individual that let a single event destroy himself.

    • That’s a fair point.

      I’m almost worried to re-read the article and discover what I said six years ago. I reckon the me from six years ago would have some interesting things to say to the me of today, and vice versa.

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