Monday, April 23, 2012

The Eternal Debate: Batman vs. Superman


What’s this? Comic book talk? What the hell does that have to do with movies? The name of the blog is, “Film Thoughts,” not “Random Nerdy Thoughts That Wander Into Your Brain and You Feel the Need to Expound On,” Zack. That’s true and I wager I might be alienating my audience with this one. (Whatever audience it is that I have.) Never mind all of that. Today I’m here to ponder on perhaps the biggest debate in all of nerdom! Kirk vs. Picard? No! (By the way: Kirk.) I’m talking Batman vs. Superman! Which one do I prefer?

And who’s to say this debate isn’t film-related? Lots of directors and media types have felt the need to weigh in on this issue. In “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” Tarrantino, through his proxy of Bill, made a wildly out-of-date statement that Superman’s secret identity of Clark Kent and Clark’s buffoonish behavior is some sort of meta-comment on humanity. Not knowing what the hell he was talking about didn’t stop QT from stating his opinion, not that it ever does, so it shouldn’t stop me!

For a fact, a media-type stating his grossly misinformed opinion is what brought me here to today. On one of the message boards I frequent, for whatever reasons, somebody dug up the introduction Stephen King wrote for Batman, issue 400, from back in the eighties. Unsurprisingly, considering the kind of fiction King writes, (The bloated, self-indulgent kind? Thank you.) the horror scribe professes his preference for the Dark Knight over the Man of Steel. Anybody who has found themselves involved in this or a similar debate among other nerdy types have probably heard a lot of the same points that King trots out. He can’t relate to Superman because he’s too alien, too powerful, too over-the-top. Batman is more down-to-earth, more serious, more relatable for a mere human being. Assuming Stephen King is a mere human being. It’s many of the same trite points comic nerds have been listening too since at least the nineteen thirties.

People saying they prefer Batman because they can't relate to Superman, because he's an alien, because he's super-strong, etc., has never made a lot of sense to me. First off, these people have probably never read that many actual comic books. Especially the ones where Batman fights a Rainbow Monster or is reincarnated as a caveman or whatever. Comic books are uniformly ridiculous and any character that’s been around for more then a decade, much less half a century, have probably had some pretty embarrassing shit happen to them.

Besides, saying that Superman’s innate alieness makes him fundamentally unrelatable doesn’t wash. Superman might be an alien but he was raised by humans. He has a human's heart and belief system. Superman is the ultimate humanist. He could totally destroy all of our societies but he doesn't because he believes in humanity's values. A writer who gets the character, like Grant Morrison for example, understand that. He is absurdly powerful but, instead of looking down on humanity, he looks up to it. As for his superpowers, there are no more or less ridiculous then anything else in a comic book. Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound and has Super Ventriloquism, but Batman has also traveled to Zur-En-Arrh and thrown around Bat-Shark-Repellant. Bat-Mite is canon. You can’t tell me he isn’t.

Saying you can’t relate to Superman because he’s an alien is like saying you can't relate to Batman because he’s a billionaire. Use you’re imagination, people. Do you only watch movies with characters you can relate to on a deeply personal level?

The belief that Batman is more rooted in reality then Superman is also ridiculous. Once you apply even an ounce of critical thinking to the Batman universe, it all falls apart. If Bruce Wayne really wanted to stop crime in Gotham City, instead of investing millions in a personal war on crime he can never win, how about creating factories in low-income neighborhoods in Gotham City so that poor families aren't forced to turn to crime to sustain themselves? Or invest in social reform programs, like better schools or prisons centered around rehabilitation instead of costly, ineffective prolonged imprisonment? Or, at the very least, why not throw some money at Arkham Asylum, so they can improve their security and don't have the Joker breaking out every three months and murdering a shitload of people? Moreover, how come I can count the number of people who have figured out that Bruce Wayne is Batman on one hand? How many people in Gotham have the resources and free time necessary to carry on such a hobby? No body but Hugo Strange or Hush can process-of-elimination that shit out? All of this is excluding the fact that a mental case dressed as a bat beating up a clown is inherently more gritty and serious then a man in spandex that can fly. There’s a certain level of suspension of disbelief involved with all of the characters. There has to be. Obviously. Arguing your preference for one character or another based on their nebulous “realism” is, for lack of a better word, dumb.

I actually do love both characters. There have been some incredible Batman stories written over the years. (Whatever Happened to the Cape Crusader? is one of my favorites.) But people saying they prefer Batman over Superman because the former is more relatable or realistic clearly haven't thought it all the way through. And probably haven’t actually read a comic book anytime recently, or at all. They've both existed in the same universe, least we forget. They both hung out with Martian Manhunter and fought a giant starfish. Superhero comics are dumb and that's actually what's fun about them. Anything is possible and the adventure always continues. 

Not that I'm saying comics have to be silly to be fun. Or that comic's should always be fun. These characters are incredibly versatile. You can literally tell any kind of story with them. This might be why sometimes my superhero fandom actually outweighs my horror fandom, since you can tell a serious melodrama about Batman and have it possibly work, why the same logic probably wouldn't apply to Jason Voorhees. (Though I would love to see someone try!) You can say that about Dracula, Frankenstein, or other classic horror characters, who are just as, if not more, versatile. That’s the thing with these characters. They live forever. They all outlive their creators and whatever original intentions those creators might have had. We will still be telling Superman and Batman stories fifty years from now. Don’t tell me we won’t. Future authors and current ones should be able to reinterpret these characters in whatever crazy permutations they want. Even if it means turning Superman into a gun-obsessed Hitler-killer with a Santa Beard. Or Batman into a cop-murdering, Black Canary-banging goddamned sociopath.

It always helps to have a sense of scale, perspective, and, most importantly, humor about this sort of thing. Sometimes the readers, and especially the writers, need to step back and take a deeper look. Realize that, why it's okay to take this goofy stuff seriously sometimes, that it can be a rewarding experience, you've got to level it out some too. Look, I like Geoff Johns, really I do. Even accepting the bad stuff, I do. But surely he had to have a moment when he typed the words: "Zombie Elongated Man eats her heart" and thought to himself just what the hell he's doing. (Or maybe he was too busy thinking, “They are paying me a shitload of money to write glorified fanficiton about the stuff I loved when I was seven!” That’s probably what I would be thinking.)



Anyway, all of that is really besides the point. I really wandered off-topic, didn’t I? I guess my thesis here is that saying you prefer Batman over Superman because he’s more realistic or whatever is an inherently misinformed and flawed argument. And a total copout. Like one because he’s got a cooler costume or a better rogue gallery or supporting cast. If you say Batman is better because his villains are more interesting, you might have a point. If you say Superman is superior because his powers are more dynamic or his supporting cast more varied, I could conceivably agree with you. The realism fallback is an excuse argument for plebs and normals. (Of course, none of the I-feel-totally-reasonable-points raised in this article will stop the plebs and normals from totally using the exact same reasoning I’ve criticized here. Because those people are stupid and they should shut up forever. At the very least, you should ignore them forever.)

I certainly don’t think a preference for one or the other makes some sort of deeper Freudian statement about you. Batman might be Dark most of the time and Superman might be Light most of the time, but not all the time. You certainly can’t say that one is a Goodie-Goodie-Two-Shoes while the other is some Angsty Dark Avenger of the Night. Both have been squarely Lawful Good over and over again throughout their publishing career and both got retarded in the nineties. It really doesn’t reflect anything on you as a human being or a nerd. Let’s not pretend that any of our comic book heroes are more or less inane then the other.

But getting back to the central debate at hand here. Don’t think you’re getting out of here without me answering the question at the heart of the matter here. Who do I prefer on a strictly non-objective, totally personal level: Batman or Superman? That answer is easy, my friend: 

Aquaman.

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