So before I begin, I need to make it clear that I am not ‘more’ of a Superman or Batman fan. I have dedicated countless hours to the examination of both characters, from narrative, artistic and philosophical perspectives, and I see them as very complex, and complimentary characters. I have been watching, reading and experiencing their stories for three decades, and I know their different permutations pretty damn well. I want more than a slugfest. I want a rigorous political debate with a Hollywood budget!
I suppose this is pre-empting a concern I have for the forthcoming Superman V Batman film currently in production. I worry that, based on Superman’s present unpopularity (at least, compared to Batman) that the ensuing comic-inspired carnage will be very one-sided, but this would be a terrible mistake. Judging by the trailers, there seems to be a large reliance upon Batman’s ‘cool’ factor, but also interestingly upon Superman’s present stance as a cultural outsider. Let me unpack this.
Part of the reason Supes and Bats are so constantly compared (and theoretically pitted against each other) is their vintage. They are now the two continuously longest-running comic book characters in the world. With a year separating their creation, they have become a part of the iconography of popular culture, ubiquitous with comics, films, cartoons, toys and video games.
While the recent Batman films have cemented the character with a post-9/11 cool, historical trends actually give us a sharp reminder that, actually, both characters are quite susceptible to changes in the socio-political temperature, which is in no small part due to their contrasting politics. It was not so long ago that Joel Schumacher and George Clooney gave the world a Batman that was so clunkily misconceived that talks for Batman V were immediately canned. Not even nipples could save the dark knight that time!
At the political core, Batman is a capitalist and Superman is a socialist, which has been discussed at length. But going even further, Batman is scientific, Superman is creative.
Both character’s cultural reception depends vastly on how they reflect the world. Consider Superman’s biggest peaks in popularity; upon his invention (1938), the sci-fi obsessed 1950s, the late seventies (partially fuelled by Jack Kirby’s trippy work for DC and the monumental smash that was Superman: the Movie. To understand what a massive cultural impact this film had, one only needs to look at the current vomiting of superhero films to understand), the early 1990s (hello Clinton) and the early 2000s (thanks to Grant Morrison’s excellent All-Star Superman series and the surprisingly enduring Smallville series). Batman, however, enjoys a fairly steady status of cooldom, only occasionally interrupted by George Clooney.
It is also interesting to note that Superman is a southerner. The fictional town of Smallville is in the not-fictional state of Kansas, and Batman is from the fictional city of Gotham, which was strongly modelled on New York City. This may not mean much to those outside of the USA, but there is still a massive cultural divide between North and South which is endlessly played out in attitudes and stereotypes.
The forthcoming film appears to be heavily influenced by the 1985 graphic novel the Dark Knight Returns, judging by several shots and Batman’s armour. This is important for several reasons, primary of which is that Dark Knight Returns cast Superman as a kind of super-powered agent of the American military, the first time this had really been done, and Batman as a disruptive, radical force. Looking at what little we know about the forthcoming film’s plot, and the recent Man of Steel film, it appears that these roles have been reversed, which makes a compelling change to one of the most popular Batman stories in history. In recent years, we have indeed seen Batman working in some very murky moral circles, especially in terms of privatised military hardware and mass surveillance. In an interesting footnote, there are some places even Batman won’t go. In a rejected story entitled Holy Terror Batman, Frank Miller had a militant Batman fighting Al Qaeda. When DC Comics said no, Miller simply took the ears off the character, called him ‘The Fixer’, and published the story elsewhere.
Another point I would like to make is the discrepancies between the Dark Knight Returns graphic novel and its recent animated adaptation, which, while a lot of fun, did give me cause for concern in terms of the penultimate battle between the characters in the narrative. In short, a heavily armoured Batman stages a battle with Superman, attacks him with synthetic kryptonite and then fakes his own death, which allows him to continue to operate unhampered. The battle is relatively brief, and actually fairly one sided. Batman gets a few good licks in, and Superman spends time slowly ‘dismantling’ Batman, but the fight is cut short with the heart attack Batman suffers at the critical moment. In the animated version, however, this scene is drawn out, and a lot of extra stuff is added in, which mostly consists of Batman beating Superman up, reflecting the contemporary uneasiness with Superman, i.e. ‘Batman is cool, Superman is not’.
Maybe an aspect of Superman that has been consistently misrepresented in film is exactly why he is so inherently good? Superman, being Kryptonian, has a very different mental makeup than humans. This appears at first to be simple idealism, but it is actually more than that; Kryptonians have a broader spectrum of understanding available to them. Humans can struggle to empathise, and can struggle to see beyond their own personal gain.
Kryptonians have a heightened level of consciousness, with the abilities to see far beyond their own experience. This is also reflected in the occasional ‘evil’ Kryptonian that crosses Superman’s path, like General Zod. While Zod may appear to be a really nasty piece of work, you’ll note that often he is still making decisions based on a strict moral code, entirely to do with the Kryptonian legacy. Also, while we’re going at some comic book science here, I would like to note that Kryptonians are almost entirely immune to mind control (very handy if you’re a superhero) and can actually communicate with each other on a telepathic plane.
It’s harder to be an idealist, whereas the antihero is always in. Consider some other antiheroes: the Punisher, Spawn, Wolverine, Daredevil. Whether or not they are selling comics books and movies (Wolverine is the only one in this list that has proven impervious to low sales in this regard), there is always an element of cool. Now consider some idealists: Wonder Woman, Captain America, Cyclops. They sell units consistently well, but their cultural cool is shaky, coming in and out of fashion according to the socio-political temperature.
Now we are in an interesting position where we like who is playing Superman (sorry Brandon), and we don’t really like who is playing Batman (sorry, Ben), which again is kind of messing with the formula, so who knows… Just don’t fuck this one up, guys. Everybody wants this to be good.