Who Is Batman?

[Bat]Man and Superman

These two comic book superheroes, arising within a year of each other from the depths of the Great Depression (Superman in 1938, Batman in 1939), have endured as two of the most universally recognized icons in popular culture, having thrived in all forms of media since their inception to the current day.

Who Is Batman? CONTINUES...

These two comic book superheroes, arising within a year of each other from the depths of the Great Depression (Superman in 1938, Batman in 1939), have endured as two of the most universally recognized icons in popular culture, having thrived in all forms of media since their inception to the current day. They have frequently "teamed up" in a series of World's Finest adventure comics, but they have always been an awkward match. A comparison of the two may help to illuminate that peculiarly mutable quality that has distinguished Batman since his creation.

 

Both are orphans, defined by childhood trauma: in Superman's case, the destruction of his home planet, Krypton (which, as an infant ensconced in a rocket, he didn't actually experience); in Batman's, the brutal murders of his parents before his eyes by a craven mugger. Beyond their similar origins, the pair represents a clear dichotomy in the heroic figure, Batman, the dark yang, to Superman's light yin.

Superman's home is the gleaming Metropolis, bustling and futuristically utopian. Batman haunts decrepit Gotham City, a bleak, Gothic, claustrophobic warren of pitiless gargoyles and dank back alleys. Superman retires to his pristine Fortress of Solitude in the immaculate Arctic to reflect; Batman broods in his eerie, subterranean Batcave. Superman's miraculous powers are generated by the sun; Batman is a creature of the night. Superman's arch foes, such as Lex Luthor and Brainiac, tend to be rational, organized criminals with understandable goals (world domination, generally). Batman goes up against the likes of the Joker and the Scarecrow, psychotic agents of chaos and terror. Superman is a godlike being masquerading as a hapless mortal; Batman is a vulnerable human being who assumes the persona of an inhuman avenging thing. In their civilian identities, Clark Kent (Superman) is a drooling nerd, while Bruce Wayne (Batman) is a suave international playboy.

But the most important distinction lies in the heroes' motivations: Superman operates out of an altruistic desire to uphold truth, justice, and the American way. Batman is driven by revenge. He is not promoting some abstract value like "goodness." He hates criminals and is driven to punish them.

So, perhaps we can simply say that Superman represents our ideals, Batman our fears. Our ideals don't change much, whatever might be happening in the world. A certain banality is inevitable in the character of Superman, as he evokes the universal values of peace, justice, security-profoundly important concepts, but not sexy ones. The essential immutability of the Superman character is much in evidence today: on television's Smallville, our young hero remains a figure of Rockwellian rectitude, chaste as a schoolgirl. The periodic "bad Clark" episodes, in which Supes's personality is distorted into that of a sneering rebel, are so much fun precisely because we know Superman would never really act that way. It was the red Kryptonite's fault! Superman is ultimately about protecting the status quo. He is the mythic receptacle of our most dearly prized virtues, which derive much of their strength from the very fact that they are constant.

 

But our fears...our fears are different. They are private, reactive. They evolve. We need a flexible myth that can confront both the monster under the bed and the complex anxieties that come with adulthood, and Batman, that most morbidly conceived of long-underwear heroes, has fit the bill for nearly seventy years. We love Superman. We need Batman.

 
 

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