On March 25, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will open in movie theaters, making loads of money and setting up a string of big-budget releases of DC superhero movies for years to come. This blog isn’t about the movie though, but rather the characters themselves.
Superman and Batman first appeared within a year of each other (June 1938 and May 1939, respectively), and both characters have long since become cultural icons. For at least the last thirty years, however (ever since Tim Burton’s Batman movie, released in 1989), Batman has been the clear fan-favorite of the two, regularly topping Superman in popularity polls and Internet search tallies. With the exception of the few years following Superman: The Movie (1978), one can extend the period of Bat-dominance back to the sixties, when Adam West and Burt Ward camped it up in Bat-and Boy Wonder-garb.
Growing up as a comics reader, I liked Superman well enough. He seemed like he’d be a tough character to write for, but the multitude of creators involved did the job admirably. Superman had to be vulnerable to something, otherwise where was the suspense? Thus was born a rainbow of Kryptonite colors, all of which had a different effect on the Man of Steel. (My favorite was Red Kryptonite, which had varying effects—transforming Superman into a dwarf, a dragon, and causing him to grow extra limbs, to name just a few.)
Batman was always cooler. Superman was the Boy Scout following the rules, Batman the rebellious rich kid, making his own rules and enforcing them with the aid of a thousand awesome gadgets. Attempts to explain the popularity of Batman over Superman often revolve around the fact that Batman is “just a man” (i.e., playing in a possible, if not probable, sandbox) while Superman is clearly fantasy. This tends to gloss over the many elements of Batman stories that strain credibility—75 years of successfully avoiding bullets, for one thing, not to mention the dogged persistence of rogues setting up shop in Gotham City despite what even die-hard criminals would acknowledge as a limited expectation of success.
Changing with the times, Batman has evolved into a somewhat hard-boiled detective, as he was portrayed in the 1970s, or a borderline psychopath, as he was in certain comics of the 1980s, when “grim and gritty” were the words to live by in the comics industry.
Meanwhile, Superman kept being Superman.
While Superman’s physical abilities clearly defy any rational explanation—even in the crazy world of comic books, the physics of Earth’s yellow sun granting super powers to an alien born under a red star was always best left unexamined—the character has always been grounded in a way that Batman wasn’t. Both were orphans, but while Batman seemed to have largely raised himself (with the occasional sage advice of his butler Alfred), Superman had Ma and Pa Kent, and Smallville, which made him humble, relatable and distinctly American.
Batman has made a career of hanging bad guys from their heels over the sides of skyscrapers, while Superman, in at least two comic-book scenes that I know of, has talked suicidal people down from ledges. He could’ve just grabbed them, of course, but he didn’t. Batman is about the execution of power, and Superman is about the self-imposed restraint of it. Batman, at his most violent, is about feeling your oats and an eye for an eye, whereas Superman displays a more mature and interesting sensibility—knowing you have power, but grappling with how and when to use it. Why doesn’t Superman enforce world peace, or guarantee American dominance? Why doesn’t he end world hunger or destroy nuclear weapons? Looking at America today, whether it’s envisioning our role in world politics, or questioning the extent of our responsibility to help those less fortunate, Superman seems pretty relevant.
I once saw a poll asking fans to describe Batman in one word, and the answers ranged from “awesome” to “redemption” to “darkness”, among many others. When posed the same question about Superman, the answers were “good,” “decent,” “inspiration,” “ideal,” and “hero.”
So who’s my favorite? Batman’s angst and anger give plenty of fuel to a character who’s still going strong in the twenty-first century, but there’s plenty of that stuff in the real world. There’s only one Superman.
Peter Dabbene wrote the graphic novels Ark and Robin Hood. He is a reviewer for Foreword Reviews, and his poetry and stories have been published in many literary journals, collected in the photo book Optimism, and in the story collection Glossolalia. His latest books are Spamming the Spammers and More Spamming the Spammers.