Saturday, October 1, 2011

Superman Vs. Batman: Choose Your Icon

Superman and his alter ego, Clark KentImage via Wikipedia
If Superman is Batman's opposite – as I suggested in last week's post – what makes Superman an icon?

For writers, understanding the difference between the two characters is crucial if you want to create a memorable, long-lasting character. Despite their differences, Superman is no less an icon than Batman.  In fact, when people think of super-heroes, Superman is usually the first one who comes to mind.

Superman also represents the quintessential American hero.  Perhaps no other fictional character embodies the values of “truth, justice, and the American way” – a tag line even used during the 1950s Superman TV series.

Ironically, Superman contradicts many of these values.  He was not born in the United States (the ultimate foreigner, he’s from another planet!).  He did not work hard to get his super-powers – he acquired them because of his physiology and the natural environment of earth (lighter gravity, yellow sun).

Superman is not really about “truth,” either, since he hides his identity under the guise of Clark Kent.

Yet these qualities appeal to a very different set of emotions and associations which elevate Superman to icon status:

The Ultimate Immigrant.  Superman, like many of us – or our parents, our grandparents, or other relatives – came to this country from somewhere else.  He did not inherit American citizenship; he adopted it – by choice.  And he came to love America as many immigrants do.  (It has been suggested by film scholars that some of the best films about America have been made by directors of foreign birth, such as Frank Capra.)

Furthermore, Superman’s love of humanity isn’t limited to this country – it’s inclusive of all citizens of earth (and even natives of other worlds).  This makes him a universal hero, which taps into the American ideal of our nation serving as a shelter for “the tired, the homeless, the hungry.”  On the surface, Superman wears a costume strongly evocative of red, white, and blue, but his costume merely reminds us that America itself was meant to welcome others.

(This ideal, by the way, stands in stark contrast to Batman, who is often portrayed as a provincial hero devoted to protecting one particular city, Gotham City.)

Natural Abilities.  Superman is not only gifted with super-powers, but he’s gifted with an abundance of them: super-strength, flight, invulnerability, x-ray vision, telescopic vision, microscopic vision, ad nauseum.  Some writers have complained that Superman’s god-like abilities make him extremely difficult to write, and some comics fans claim that such a powerful character is hard to identify with.  (And some writers – and even filmmakers – have made the mistake of taking Superman’s god-like status to ridiculous levels.)

Yet this abundance of powers taps into deeply cherished emotions and associations, including “American exceptionalism” – the idea that there is something special about us, that we have the know-how and the determination to overcome odds and to be a shining light for the rest of the world.  An arrogant notion?  Perhaps.  But who doesn’t want to believe themselves special?  Who doesn’t want to believe they can accomplish, achieve, or acquire more than they have? 

Superman embodies the hope that we, too, can live lives of abundance – abundant health, wealth, friends, fulfillment.

This is not to say that Superman always has it easy.  The challenge faced by comics and film writers has always been to create worthy challenges for Superman, and some have succeeded more than others.  Before DC reinvented the character back in 1986, one of the recurring themes was that Superman – for all of his powers – was not a god.  He could not save his loved ones, including his foster parents, from death.  Nor could he bring back his beloved homeworld of Krypton or his natural parents. 

Later versions of the character were stripped of these humanizing elements to his detriment, in my opinion.  Instead of Superman losing loved ones, his powers were toned down.  He could no longer survive in space for unlimited periods of time, for example.  But such limitations have a negligible effect, I think.  Furthermore, they undercut the theme that, no matter how powerful Superman is, he’s still human.

And there is something reassuring in that theme: no matter how powerful we get – as individuals or as a nation – we’re still human, too. 

Hiding in Plain Sight. Volumes have been written about the importance of the Clark Kent persona to Superman – how it further humanizes him, how it represents the “mask” we all wear in public –  when we have to pretend we’re something we’re not in order to function in society – and how we know there’s more to us than even our closest friends suspect.

And all of this is true.  Superman has always pretended to be a dweeb (before the term dweeb was even popularized) so he can walk among normal humans, so he can have family and friends who will not be endangered by his enemies, and so he can have some semblance of a normal life.

And don’t all of us wear similar masks, such as when job interview or date,?  Don't we try to project what we think the other person or company wants?  Sometimes we wear masks for our own protection – reveal too much to others and we can get hurt. 

Paul Laurence Dunbar, in an early 20th century poem, “We Wear the Mask,” described the persona adopted by African Americans in order to be accepted iby white society (or at least to avoid being singled out for harm in the era of segregation and lynchings), but his poem could easily apply to anyone anywhere. NPR recently broadcast a disturbing story of FBI agents being trained to regard all “religious Muslims” as potential terrorists.  And in my Intro to Lit class, we read Dwight Okita's "In Response to Executive Order 9066," a moving poem written from the persona of a 14-year-old girl  who loves tomato seeds and hot dogs and who was being sent to a Japanese relocation camp during World War II.

As a nation, we have a long way to go before we realize the ideal of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for everyone, before equality truly becomes a reality and not an ideal.  Ironically, Superman – this god-like character of unimaginable power – embodies this struggle because he, too, is forced to hide, to wear a mask (ironically by not wearing an actual mask at all).

In their own ways, Superman and Batman embody different aspects of our hopes, dreams, and fears.  It’s tempting to think of them as the yin and yang of the American psyche (or, perhaps, the human psyche), but I prefer to think of them as complementary icons who point to the complexity and richness of life – and fiction.

If given a choice of Superman or Batman, which would you prefer and why?

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Kristi's Book Nook said...

I have always been partial to Batman. I think he is easier to identify with since he is just a man with gadgets. Superman is a great hero but from another planet which makes him so unreachable. I have always been partial to Batman.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Ironically, the very things that make Superman "unreachable" have always been what appeal to me the most about the character. Being from another planet is, to me, not much different than being from another country, state, city, or other background. At least Superman looks human. I think this calls attention to the differences and similarities we all share.

Eve Greene said...

I always liked Superman the best, and I'll admit that the first reason that comes to my mind is very shallow: it was Dean Cain in tights that made me realize that guys were not icky. That said, him being so strong but still reachable, flawed and humble always appealed to me plot-wise.
I asked my best friend, who is a Batman enthusiast, why he didn't like superman much. He said: "Are you kidding? Superman's costume is ridiculous!"
At least I don't feel alone in my shallowness anymore.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Hm. Personally, I'd rather wear a big red S on my chest than a pointy cowl, but that's just me. :)

Shallow reasons are as valid as any other for liking or not liking a character. When I was younger, I was drawn to characters whose names began with the letter G.

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