Batman is Our Problematic National Hero

A happy confluence this past week between Hollywood and the Gregorian calendar! The new Man of Steel Superman movie opened the weekend of Father’s Day. And yet, unlike the last son of Krypton’s newfound association with the National Guard and Gillette Razors, no effort was taken to link holiday and film in any sort of promotion, implicit or otherwise.

For anyone well versed in Americana, this might seem like a missed opportunity.  As guardian of truth, justice and the American Way, Superman is ostensibly an ideal icon to serve as father figure for America. He is courageous, brave and selfless. A genuinely earnest figure dedicated to the American mythology of self-determination, guided by the optimism of the two Jewish sons of immigrants who created him.

Like a god-hero of ancient lore, the most majority of his foes are monsters lacking any sort of humanity. They are alien overlords, hyper-intelligent robots, genocidal behemoths, and stylish fae. Even his archnemesis Lex Luthor, who technically lacks superpowers, is so far removed from his other men in terms of wealth and intellect that he might as well be of another species. Superman relies more on his strength than his wits, but his greatest “power” is his inherent rightness. He is the ultimate bulwark of a just and good society against external threats, albeit in a way that’s humane and decent.

A logical choice for national icon? A father figure that generations of young men have looked to for a proper set of values and traits to admire? No. Obviously, no. Superman is fucking lame. Like so many things that are unhip, he is beloved only by the very young and the very old. No, cool people venerate Batman- or, as the Joker implied in Arkham Asylum, Bruce Wayne’s true identity.

Batman is the American James Bond: Affluent but not soft, handsome but not prissy, brilliant but not nerdy, and a complete and unstoppable badass with a will of iron. He is human and tormented and (ostensibly) vulnerable, making his actions all the more courageous. Batman is a loner who needs no one, save for his two-dimensional man-servant/butler/nurse/eunuch Alfred Pennyworth, who is little more than an extension of his master’s will. Pennyworth’s inner thoughts, if any, are well hidden.

Batman’s central conceit is that institutions are fundamentally broken and society cannot be trusted to self-regulation. Governments would sink into corruption if not for his oversight. Criminal scum would overwhelm the streets if not for his fists. Social services would decay if not for the benevolence of Wayne Enterprises. If Superman battles the enemies without, then Batman fights against the enemies within. His rogue’s gallery is by far the most distinct and iconic in all of comic books, sporting an array of villains that speak to aspects of his own psyche. Be it his intellect, his wealth, his fear, or his madness. It is the last of these that speaks most closely to Batman’s heart, creating his most dangerous villain. After all, were Bruce Wayne truly sane, he would have his enemies killed quietly, like any respectable plutocrat.

Perhaps Batman’s cultural hegemony is due, in part, to successful run of movies and cartoons over the past several decades. It also likely speaks to the character of our age. That Americans now tangle with a crumbling infrastructure, a skyrocketing rise in poverty, a historically unpopular Congress, unprecedented government surveillance, and an impending environmental collapse, does not bode well for Superman’s vision of America. But then, I suppose that some would argue that America has always had this character, with ugly brutality and banal avarice nesting just below the surface. The intergalactic alien marauder is not nearly as interesting as the knife-wielding clown who argues that people are rotten and civilization is one big joke. We have chosen a hero who struggles to fix a corrupted home while wrestling with his own personal demons. Superman would true hero if we believed that there was an American dream were not deeply tarnished.

Besides, the guys who created Superman- that most idealistic of American characters- got screwed out of their royalties and rights. The implications for that are pretty ugly if one looks too closely.