While writing my last entry (‘til deathrays do us part), I began to ruminate on the popularity of Batman over that of Superman, specifically in the United States. In most ways, Superman seems as if he should be the absolute king of all superheroes. He is the prototype for the entire genre and as far as the stories go, he is acknowledged as such. Not only that, but he is often cited as the ultimate immigrant, the only true pillar of virtue in the universe and the embodiment of the “American Dream”. If this is truly the case, than why do Americans prefer The Dark Knight to The Man of Steel? I believe it is (in part) because Batman embodies the American Dream in a far more accessible manner.
As I mentioned before, the journey of The Last Son of Krypton is often presented as the ultimate immigrant success story. Not only does he successfully assimilate into American culture, but adds his own knowledge and strength to the tapestry that is this great nation. I don’t think that this point is disputable, but it isn’t inherently relatable. Yes, the majority of the population finds its roots in other countries, but many of us were born within U.S. borders. Our ancestors gave us their traditions, but we cannot all empathize with their hardships. Additionally, even immigrants aren’t necessarily prone to reject an American born figure especially if they buy into the other aspects of the story. Basically, Superman is the ultimate immigrant story, but that positions him no better than the American born Batman.
Another aspect of this American Dream is living up to ones potential. In normal circumstances, triumph in this area typically garners economic success stories. Within the largely symbolic genre of superhero fiction it is perhaps better represented by the literal triumph over the evils of the world and the characters own condition. This is where Batman begins to gain ground on Superman. Yes, Superman does fight a never-ending battle, and one that he is often winning in, but his starting point is a bit more advanced. Superman is essentially never threatened physically; in turn, all of his real problems are philosophical. Superman can do anything; the hard part is figuring WHAT to do. In theory, this should be no less interesting than other stories. The problem is this type of narrative is very difficult to write and suffers from being done very badly over and over again. On the other hand, Batman starts where any of us would. Not only does he triumph over the tragic death of his parents, but he brings himself to such a high level of perfection (both mentally and physically) that he can stand side-by-side with men and women who can travel faster than light and punch through mountains. Yes, The Caped Crusader is blessed with the benefits of being able to afford anything he needs to achieve these goals, but I think the majority of the audience accepts this as a necessary resource to bring oneself to the pinnacle of human potential.
The American Dream also calls for the creation of a positive family legacy. The pioneer of the group is always credited with this and it is a very important part of the realization of an American Dream. Both Batman and Superman’s biological families are already portrayed as men and women who have already accomplished this. Jor-El is a respected scientist and member of the ruling class on Krypton. Thomas & Martha Wayne are respected philanthropists in Gotham before their tragic deaths. There have even been some apocryphal writings on the history of the Kents. However, it is their deaths that start the new dreams. New families start when people begin to wear symbols on their chests. To be clear, anyone who is around for the beginnings of the superhero can be included in this family. For Batman this is Alfred and for Superman, the Kents. However, it is now the burden of the hero to create the new family legacy. Superman does create a legacy, but it is an odd one. The Legion of Superheroes, teenage superheroes from the future who see Superman as a legend and recruit Superboy (Superman’s adventures when he was a boy!) serve as the philosophical children of Superman. Once again, this is a concept that should work but is haunted by writers’ difficulty to grasp the philosophical side of the story. Once again, Batman gets an advantage because of this. I would say one of the big differences between Batman and any superhero is public awareness of his supporting cast. Anyone who is aware of Batman will most likely be aware of Alfred, Gordon and Robin if nothing else. These characters, both literally and potentially, provide infinite extension of the bat-family legacy. Not only that, but many of these characters have or have had their own solo books. The Bat-Family is always in action, Superman doesn’t have that.
This isn’t written with the intent of bashing Superman; in fact he’s one of my favorite characters and there isn’t much I would change about him or his supporting cast. I just think it’s important to analyze why the public perceives characters as they do. Batman is a far more functional in a traditional sense and more writers are able to write him effectively (especially when they actually know the material they are working with.) I’m also not claiming that there is no fan base for Superman, it just needs to be recognized that it may take a bit more care to bring him back into the spotlight. We can believe a man can fly again.
Vinny’s unrelated Video Pick of The Week!