There was a time when Superman and Batman were good ‘ole chums. I’m sure they’d play racket ball and discuss how their weeks were going. They would sit beer in hand, and stare out at the sunset talking about how it was a shame that Superman would outlive anyone he ever loved. Clark shedding those Super-tears. Bruce patting him gently on the head and telling him it’d be okay.
All that changed in 1986. A lot of things were going on in 1986. I was happily pooping my pants and playing Super Mario brothers. (It’s a tradition I carry on to this day.) The Red Sox were losing big games as usual, prompting diehards to scream “We AH CURSED!” But the most important thing for the comic book world was the release of The Dark Knight Returns.
The Dark Knight Returns, a four issue mini-series, was written by Frank Miller, one of the fathers of the modern comic book landscape. In four issues, The Dark Knight Returns took the characters of Superman and Batman, deconstructed them, and replaced them with the characters we know today.
Batman as a semi-crazed fascist, hell-bent on cleaning up the world? That’s Miller’s work. Superman as the ultimate boy scout? You can chalk that up to Miller as well. In four-issues Miller rewrote the psychic mythos of both characters. Miller saw Batman as the maniac who crosses every line but murder to clean up the streets. He became a fascist who does everything but murder. And it makes sense that this sort of character would need a foil. And that’s how you get Superman — the good farm boy with a heart of sugary mush. Miller just couldn’t see the two of them getting along.
Setting up Batman and Superman are the most epic of foils has given rise to one of the debates of my generation. In between “Yankees or Red Sox?” “Pepsi or Coke?”, and “Atheism or Divinity” comes “Are you a Superman fan, or a Batman fan?” It’s a deal-breaker. I’ve seen married couples come to physical blows over this disagreement.
Shouting “I would never raise my child a Kent sympathizer!” women have dragged their belongings out of the house as their confused children hugged their legs. I’ve seen this scene unfold a thousand times, each one as painful as the last.
There is no middle-ground in this war.
Until you get to me.
I don’t know why I have appointed myself the defense attorney for a fictional character’s reputation. It’s just a calling for me. Like those who go off to live in a monastery.
Let’s be real with each other: any guy who drives a tank and knows Kung-Fu is a unanimous inductee into the Bad Ass Hall of Fame. The problem for me starts when jazzed-up Batman fanatics spit their hurtful rhetoric about Superman, “Fuck Superman, man! He can’t be hurt! He’s invincible man! I just can’t relate to that shit!”
I heard it all over the place this past summer. It was a steamy July night when the midnight showing of The Dark Knight went down. And after the masses poured out of the building and into the damp night, the masturbating began.
“Oh man, Batman! It was sick!”
“Yeah dude, the Joker man! Amazing!”
“Holy shit when the Batmobile turns into the Batpod!!!!”
If exclamation points at the ends of sentences were actual physical objects, people would have been falling over in that parking lot from missing eyes. I stood there with my friends and I joined in with the orgy of praise. I loved the movie. But then I made the mistake of lobbing a criticism.
“The dude needs a psychiatrist.”
At once they were on me.
“What do you mean?”
And I retorted.
“I’m just saying a lot of people have their parents killed. And most of them are able to move on. He needs to see a psychiatrist, not don latex and beat people up.”
I knew I was trying to be pain in the ass. In a group of friends that love playfully pissing one another off, my behavior wasn’t out of the norm. My friends scoffed at me, and we went back to doing everything short of starting a cult dedicated to Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale.
But however much I was joking, my point was genuine. Batman zealots often make the argument that Superman is a character you can’t relate to. “I can’t relate to an alien who can’t get hurt.” And yet, somehow people can relate to Batman.
Maybe I’m missing something here. Let me recap my understanding of Batman.
Batman is billionaire Bruce Wayne. When he was young, his parents were murdered. He seems to know every single form of martial arts ever. He is a genius detective. He bangs roughly fourteen trillion women a year. And he his psyche has scars so deep they make Manson look sane. And to work all of this out he wields tanks and swords and Batarangs and hangs out secret laboratories.
Actually, never mind. He’s relatable. I always forget that all the Batman fans out there are billionaires with murdered parents who seek justice by donning garbs. And then there’s Superman. I’m going to piss off all you Batman fanatics and tell you a secret. I relate much more to Superman than I do to Batman. Why? Let me break it down for you.
Superman is the quintessential everyman.
No, we’re not born from different planets.
No, we can’t fly super fast.
But tell me if this sounds familiar. Clark Kent is born into a world that he doesn’t understand. He has a loving family. They’re not exactly like him, and sometimes that makes him feel uneasy. Growing up, he had friends he cared about, but couldn’t completely relate to. Clark struggles to find a place in the world for himself. He is an alien to others, but he relates to them. He has a loving wife, but one that he struggles to understand, and find the time for. He has talents that make him gifted in tremendous ways, but he struggles to accept the fact that despite these gifts he can’t do everything. He will never be able to fix the world’s problems, completely relate to even those he loves most, and his place in the world will be a life-long search.
If Clark Kent isn’t the definition of everyone’s existential crisis, I don’t know who is. Who can you relate to more? The fascist lunatic billionaire with an army of destruction at his disposal? Or the everyman trying to find his place in a world he doesn’t fully understand or fit into?
Draw your own conclusions.
Maybe that is why people dislike Superman so much. Even though they claim he’s unrelatable, maybe they relate to the guy too much. We’re all aliens in this world, trying to find our place. They claim he can’t get hurt, but at least once a story-arc he’s getting his ass handed to him by unforeseen powers. And how many times in your life have you been blinded by hardships you didn’t expect.
Batman and Superman are two sides of the same coin. They depict parts of every person. Batman is our more visceral side — our rage and our anger stemming from our pain. Superman is the more philosophical side —the broader questions about our place in the world.
In the end it’s easy for me to see why Batman is more enjoyable. Blowing shit up with missiles is always going to rad. What’s more entertaining? Rage or pontificating? But what bothers me are the dismissive comments about the relatability of Superman. Just because something is cool, doesn’t mean it’s relatable.
Maybe Batman will always be the cooler character. That’s fine with me. But there’s no need to denigrate one character to make the other cooler or stronger or faster. As long as Batman can throw elbows and rage with unrelenting Emo-kid angst, we’ll dig him. But if my position as fictional character defense attorney gets me anywhere, I hope you’ll soften up to Mr. Clark Kent. Just because he doesn’t live with an eternally faithful manslave who services his every whim doesn’t mean he doesn’t need a hug too.