Madness and Virtue: The Psychology of Batman Versus Superman
August 18, 2014 By Trevor Richardson
The history of comics, in no small part, has been defined by Superman and Batman. They are two of the oldest characters from comic lore that are still generating new titles to this day. They have rolled with the ups and downs of our nation’s history, weaving themselves into our cultural heritage through a world war, political upheaval, political scandal, the ebb and flow of patriotism versus skepticism, nationalism versus humanism, Vietnam, Watergate, the Protest Movement, Iraq, 9/11 and so much more.
Superman has gone through various stages of sweeping popularity and waning cultural interest as the mindset of the country has changed based on what was happening at the time. In the Depression Era, Superman was a symbol of hope, inspiration, and human potential. In the Post-Nixon Era, his popularity faltered as he was seen as “too perfect,” campy, and uninteresting.
Batman was originally envisioned as an answer to “The Shadow” of radio fame. Even in his earliest drafts, Batman was the antithesis of Superman. He was darkness, fear, and cold logic in a black cape to Superman’s primary hues, fists on hips, banner cape flapping like the American flag. Both heroes were widely successful during the early years around the WWII era because of America’s need for both a good example and a desire to see villains get their just desserts. As Superman’s popularity grew in the fifties as a result of a TV spot, merchandise, parade floats, and more, Batman found himself on questionable footing. It was around this time that the Age of Adam West began.
This vision of the Caped Crusader would hold for nearly two decades, reflecting in the Silver Age of comics in which we got the quirky back and forth mimicry between Superman and Batman that resulted in Krypto the Super Dog and Batman’s own “Ace the Bat-Hound, other super pets like Comet the Super Horse, TV shows like “Superfriends” and one too many “Holy That Thing, Batman!” exclamations that turned old world pulp into cartoons. In essence, around the 50s and early 60s, Batman was copying Superman and Superman, as a result of the George Reeves show and other placement in television and radio, was the guy to beat. At this point in the back and forth of “Batman vs Superman,” Bats was copying the Boy in Blue and, some would suggest, lost his way.
Until, that is, Frank Miller came along and gave us the aptly named Dark Knight Returns. The name was not just a reference to his storyline about an older Batman coming out of hiding to take up the cowl once more. It was also a pointed remark about what had happened to Batman, and also Superman, since their origins in the latter 1930s. Batman, with the “POW” and “BAM” campy fights and cheesy one-liners, the Bat gadgets as ridiculous and unnecessary as “Bat Shark Repellant,” to Miller’s eye, had all detracted from one central character trait: darkness.
This is the “Dark” Knight we’re talking about, so why is he running around in broad daylight, paying parking meters when he leaps out of the Batmobile, and chatting openly with the mayor and Commissioner Gordon like a city employee? Well, simple, comics had, despite having a formerly strong following among soldiers overseas, had become nearly exclusively “for the kids.” But Frank Miller wanted to change all that and The Dark Knight Returns was his way of saying, “The real Batman is back.” And not a moment too soon. America had changed again and, in a more suspicious, cynical age following Vietnam, Nixon, protest massacres and climbing national crime rates, we were ready to see a dark, tough vigilante again.
Batman was in, Superman was out — the cycle continued.
This push and pull between these characters is as old as comic books and has the peaks and valleys of our nation’s history written all over it. There is an essential difference in the most basic foundation of these two characters that Frank Miller understood when writing his infamous graphic novel. Superman and Batman might both be good guys, but they couldn’t be more different. They are polar opposites and, in Miller’s own words, “These two would hate each other.”
In anticipation of the upcoming film, we should take a look at the core differences between these two characters because, just as the evolution of their stories has, what they represent as heroes tells a lot about us as a people.
The easiest way to understand the psychology behind Batman and Superman is to look at the central iconography, the imagery of their worlds. Superman’s Metropolis is a gold and white architectural marvel, the gem of this version of America, most easily compared to romanticized concepts of New York City, Wall Street, East Village, its creative movements, and its cultural influence. Batman’s Gotham City, however, exists in shades of gray and black, where it is more defined by its crime bosses than its bankers and brokers. Gotham has more in common with Prohibition-Era Chicago under the crime lords than it does most modern day cities. Just in the cities themselves, we have a dichotomy: New York stock exchange versus Chicago mob deals.
This is also evidenced in the villains both men face off against daily.
Superman’s arch-nemesis is Lex Luthor, a corporate tycoon and, in most cases, a humanist who believes his own genius can improve the human race who will stop at nothing to succeed. Many versions of Lex show him envying Superman’s power, calling him a selfish god-like figure who hoards power to himself rather than share it to improve life for the people of Earth. Lex Luthor represents megalomania as it is motivated by an obsession with human evolution, destiny, and our future. In spite of his villainy, he represents “The American Way” just as much as Superman as he is an innovator, a company man, a die-hard capitalist, and a futurist. Their battles are allegories for ethical debates like “Does might make right?” or “The ends justify the means.” Questions such as these were at the core of the moral dilemma of the Allied Forces during WWII when Superman was created and they have carried through his mythology ever since.
Superman is a hero of principles, righteousness, morality, and humanity. He is a representative of our highest virtues battling enemies that either oppose those virtues or distort them into something evil.
Perhaps most interesting of all, Superman as the representative of “The American Way” in the Cold War Era meant, quite literally, “capitalism.” America’s economic system, for over a century has been confused with virtue and guarded as less of a financial issue and more of a moral one by politicians and pundits across the nation. It is worth nothing, therefore, that even as Superman guarded the American Way, he was going toe-to-toe with a wealthy capitalist turned super-villain. Moreover, the lowest points in Superman’s popularity have always reflected low points in how Americans view our market system. As our ideals shift toward what some might call “socialistic practices” and away from corporations and high-finance, our fondness for the man in the red cape dwindles.
We could, in a sense, redefine Superman, and his virtuosity, to mean, “Truth, Justice, and America’s Rightful Place as World Economic Leader.” In today’s world, this is a far less cozy idea than it was in the days of the Cold War and anti-communist propaganda. So, as ever, the pendulum swings back toward Batman and, again, we see Superman trying to be more like the Dark Knight, as evidenced by the recent, darker, more brooding version witnessed in “Man of Steel.”
Batman, however, has a different set of problems. His nemesis, The Joker, is a Petri dish of mental ailments. He is the ultimate misanthrope, hating humanity and getting a laugh out of doing harm. The Joker is also an utter psychopath and sociopath, having almost no physical capacity for remorse or shame. As Superman faces off in battles of virtue and morality, Batman fights psychology, madness, personality disorders, and pathology. Name a phobia or a neurosis and there is a Batman villain to represent it.
The Riddler is the embodiment of the narcissist, using his wit and genius to prove his superiority to other “lesser” intellects while also displaying aspects of Dependent Personality Disorder, a need to be validated or gratified by other people, which is what his puzzles are all about. Two Face is the physical manifestation of schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder. Penguin is, quite literally, suffering from a Napoleon complex or “short man’s syndrome” while also showing signs of “Histrionic Personality Behavior,” a form of attention seeking for physical limitations, as evidenced by his flashy way of dressing, his need for nice things, and constant remarks about his stature. Catwoman, with her moodiness, passions, and destructive relationships is a poster child for Borderline Personality Disorder. There are even characters like The Clock King or Calendar Man that are essentially exaggerated imaginings of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Perhaps most noteworthy of all, The Scarecrow, alias Dr. Jonathan Crane, is an actual psychologist who uses a toxin to entice a fear-based or phobic reaction in his victims. The Scarecrow literally uses the neuroses in the people around him as a weapon and, in the end, goes from an employee of Arkham Asylum to a patient.
It should go without saying, therefore, that anyone who does not understand why two good guys should be pitted against one another in a major motion picture should see that being good does not necessarily mean being the same. Superman and Batman are as opposite as science and religion. This is even evident in the way their enemies describe them. Lex Luthor calls Superman a “selfish god.” Batman’s enemies call him “detective.” Where Superman leads by moral example, Batman fights with intellect, forensics, and training.
If there is any remaining doubt about these characters, one has to only look at the main set pieces in each of their stories. In both towns one singular institution best represents the place, the people in it, and its chosen hero. The city of Metropolis revolves around The Daily Planet, one of the nation’s most prominent newspapers which stands for exposing corruption and defending Freedom of Speech, just as Superman fights for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”
Then there is Gotham City, built in the shadow of Arkham Asylum which is, not only the final destination of Batman’s vanquished foes, but a monument to insanity and broken people. Like Batman, his enemies, and the foundation of all of his stories, Arkham Asylum stands for madness.
In short, Superman and Metropolis are synonymous with virtue where Batman and Gotham represent psychosis. In the past few decades, America has had an almost continuous fondness for the Dark Knight over the Man of Steel and one has to wonder. What does it say about us that we, quite plainly, prefer madness to virtue? Perhaps the upcoming Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice will shed some light on the subject.
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