Batman vs. Superman; Bad Boy vs. Boy Scout. A tired old debate only fit for comic book addicted geeks who can’t handle reality? Hardly. We are talking world famous heroic archetypes here, two very different embodiments of Western ideals. We can learn about ourselves as people through studying them.
It’s not really about who has the greater powers, or who would win a mano-y-mano fight. The debate really starts with what we believe. Batman and Superman both uphold our longing for justice, our desire to live in safety from senseless crime. But whereas Superman appeals to those who believe we can get there by following the rules, Batman is more appealing to those who believe that our laws and court systems are just as likely to betray us as to help us. The relative popularity of these two archetypal heroes over the course of the Twentieth century reflected the evolution (or devolution) of public trust in the justice system. Superman won the day when ordinary folks still thought the system worked in their favor. As that trust eroded, Batman became the choice du jour.
Of course, there are still lots of folks out there who believe that the Boy Scout route is the way to go. More power to them… no wonder they stick to Superman. But to those who consider that attitude more a symptom of naivety than idealism, Bad Boy Batman’s purely personal moral code, concerned less with “good and evil” than with simply dealing out justice on his own terms, makes more sense.
There are gender issues involved. Superman tends to be more popular with men, Batman with women. In a male-dominated market (such as existed in the first half of the 20th century), Superman’s rather adolescent approach to relationships isn’t much of a factor. His powers, and his comparatively thin personality development, are not big drawbacks. Men might be more likely to believe in the system their forefathers built, and to see Superman’s up-front approach to upholding it as preferable.
But when more women are putting the money down to watch or read superhero stories, Batman has an edge. Women tend to insist on a relationship-capable hero who is not so rule-bound, even in the adventure genre. Just check the romance section of your local bookstore. Bad Boy heroes are everywhere, but the Boy Scout Next Door is pretty much reserved for romantic comedy. In other words, many of us ladies just don’t take the “nice guys” as seriously these days as we do the dark, brooding, Byronic dudes. (Sorry, Nice Guys, but don’t take it too hard… we might prefer to date Batman, but we’d often rather marry Superman!) Right now, however, the market is more saturated with female buyers, many of whom may feel that the system has let them down. Maybe we believe that Batman is more capable of getting the job done (on several possible levels, but that’s for another essay :->)
Another issue frequently cited is the possession of “super powers”. Most say that Superman has them and Batman does not. But that depends a lot on how you define super powers. If we define them as abilities not available to “typical” humans, then both of our boys have them. Yes, Kal-El was born with his strength, x-ray vision, etc. But most “typical” humans are not born into filthy rich families. Now, if Bruce Wayne were a self-made millionaire, this argument would hold, but he’s born into wealth. He is also blessed with an unusual level of native intelligence. Therefore, he is just as advantaged as Kal-El, in a very real and practical way. He learns how to use his birthright to greatest advantage, just as Clark Kent does. So, essentially, Superman and Batman are equals in this respect. The superiority debate must look elsewhere for fodder.
The respective villains are revealing as well. Lex Luthor doesn’t see himself as a bad guy. In his own mind, HE is the hero, and we are shown enough about him to understand why. He might be sadly mistaken, but he’s still part of a stable moral system. Batman’s enemies (especially Heath Ledger’s Joker) have no such illusions, as a rule. They just “do things”… real sociopaths, with little to no moral code, much like the real criminal element in our society today. And, if they do happen to have a personal moral code, it’s so warped it makes ol’ Lex look like a Boy Scout himself. Which kind of villain frightens us more today?
So, fundamentally, it’s not about the powers. It all boils down to what we believe, what we fear, what we want as a culture. Would we women (the ones who are paying a large share of the everyday entertainment bill) rather be Lois Lane, or Catwoman? Do we, as a culture, go by the book, make our world better through the system (Superman), or do we abandon a hopelessly flawed system for vigilante justice (Batman)?
Personally, I vote for Batman. Meow.