Some Notes on Batman, Superman, and Modes of Exegesis
So, here’s what I believe about stories and ideas. I think the idea of Superman or Batman is like a black sculpture in a dark room, and that the stories we tell are like water balloons filled with phosphorescent paint. You throw them out there and sometimes they splatter pointlessly on the walls and sometimes they’re just swallowed by the dark, but sometimes they hit this invisible target and illuminated a part of its shape. The more stories you tell, the more of the shape you describe.
When I talk about what I think characters like this mean, I’m talking about which stories I think hit their mark — which stories stuck around and seem like classic or wholly illustrative ones because they resonate with some particular, genuine notion rattling around in the collective unconscious. This is what I mean when I talk about what stories mean, and obviously it’s very personal and subjective and et cetera and so forth, who cares. I’m just laying out my terms here so we know what to fight about.
A Universe that Gives Us a Messiah
Superman is a character that exists in the cosmological mode. This means he exists primarily to tell us what the universe is like, rather than how we should deal with society (the sociological mode) or how to deal with our own internal world (the psychodramatic mode).
The moral of Superman is not that Superman is fundamentally good — Superman’s fundamental and irreducible goodness is a mechanism that serves a larger notion — the moral is that the universe is fundamentally good, and we know this because it gave ultimate power to Superman. There are a lot of people who have a lot of powers in Superman’s world, but at the end of the day, Superman can beat them all. Superman’s power is ultimate.
And of all the people that the universe could have given that ultimate power to, it gave it to a guy who is completely and irrevocably good, kind, compassionate, righteous. The significance of this cannot be overstated, because it is central to the very idea of Superman: Superman lives in a moral universe where absolute power is not given to the smartest, to the hardest-working, to the best or brightest or strongest, but to the one who is most morally-virtuous.
Superman’s universe is not a meritocracy; if it were a meritocracy, Lex Luthor, who IS the hardest-working, the smartest, the brightest, the most ambitious, possessed of the greatest will, would have Superman’s power. Superman’s universe is not a meritocracy, it’s an, I don’t know, I don’t want to call it an aristocracy because that’s not really right. An agathocracy maybe. Of all the things that universe could prioritize, it prioritizes kindness.
And the reason for all of this is to describe a world in which kindness is the unassailable virtue, the absolute qualifier of humanity, to reassure the readership that whatever hardships human “meritocracy” has visited on us, whatever happens to us because of hierarchies of power or intellect or industry (or race or gender or sex or creed), the universe still only cares about kindness, and at the end of the day, kindness will always be triumphant.
(It’s not hard to see how Superman and Jesus maybe both have their roots in the same Jewish Messianic tradition — the universal balm to suffering is knowing that there is a higher law than man’s law, and that law doesn’t despise your weakness or poverty, doesn’t despise anything.)
Superman v Batman: the Cosmic Tort
You know, once in a while someone’s going to ask, “how is Batman supposed to fight Superman, Superman can set him on fire with his eyes,” and I think this is a good question but a bad reason for the question. I mean, Superman’s main villain is Lex Luthor, who is pretty much exactly like Batman except he can’t fight, and we’ve had like ninety years of drama from Superman v Lex Luthor. The practicalities of a Batman v Superman fight I think are less important than the semiotics — less why would Superman and Batman fight (comics are rife with reasons — mostly dumb ones, but they exist) but what’s the point of having Superman and Batman fight?
I don’t think Batman is particularly interesting in the cosmological mode — Batman’s universe is one of maximum dysfunction, in which the only justice comes when the individual asserts his indomitable will onto the chaos. Batman v Superman is maybe a sort of Ubermensch versus Superman — a kind of Will to Power versus Will to Sacrifice — but I think this undermines a lot of Batman’s character, which isn’t really nihilistic at all, and instead adheres to specific and rigorous moral standards. Is Batman’s universe fundamentally good? Well, it gave Bruce Wayne unlimited resources to do good in it, so even if we want to pretend that this is a story about the Triumph of the Will, we’ve got to factor in the limitless power of the Wayne Family Fortune.
Frankly, I don’t think very many writers look at Superman as a cosmic figure (only a cosmically-powerful one) in the first place, so let’s leave the Cosmic Tort aside.
Superman v Batman: the Civil Tort
One effective way to make the fight is to move Batman and Superman both to a sociological mode. Frank Miller once said that in this mode, Superman is a conservative (working to preserve the status quo), and Batman is a radical (working to wholly, as opposed to incrementally, overturn it). And, indeed, The Dark Knight Returns describes this very thing, and also reveals an important part of radicalism, which is that it’s not synonymous with “leftist”. The Dark Knight Returns is a very good story, and it’s also a paean to fascism.
(I once read on Twitter a TV critic saying that he’d outright dismiss anyone who thought The Dark Knight Returns is fascist, right after sharing an article on fascism that couldn’t have described TDKR more accurately. The whole thing read like a subtweet of Frank Miller. A couple things that happen in TDKR, in case you’re not convinced: Batman demonstrates his supremacy over a mutant leader in single combat and then drives the undesirables out of Gotham; Batman seizes control of the city from a corrupt and ineffectual bureaucracy in the face of imminent existential threat; Batman reforms a gang of unruly young men by teaching them the military virtues of discipline and asceticism; Batman demonstrates that the most powerful champion of the failing government loses because he lacks the will to do what needs to be done; Batman creates the model of a new man to revitalize a crumbling civilization; Batman imposes an unaccountable vision of justice and order on a chaotic city, and builds a fortress and a private army to facilitate this. The fact that Batman refuses to kill the Joker [and he is willing to make him a quadriplegic, so there’s a certain level at which his moral code is just semantics] and that “loyalty to Gotham” stands in for loyalty to a national polity don’t, to me, obviate the fact that TDKR is obviously and unquestionably a paean to fascism.)
It’s a compelling story, it’s an exciting story, it’s an interesting story, because of course fascist narratives are compelling and exciting and interesting; if they weren’t no one would be compelled or excited by fascism — but it’s hard to get behind the idea that it’s a good story, unless we’re doing that thing where we evaluate art according to all possible metrics except for morality.
(I am saying this on the grounds that I think fascism is intrinsically bad; some people disagree with that assessment, but…those people are fascists, so.)
Superman, in this version of the story, is exactly as Miller describes him — not an unstoppable force for good, but an unstoppable force for stasis. He doesn’t make the world better, he just preserves it from existential threats in a bad and imperfect form. Instead of being a symbol of a fundamentally good universe, he’s a symbol of a fundamentally shitty universe’s inability to change.
Bringing both Batman and Superman into this sociological mode maligns them both, unless I guess you’re actually a fascist, and I don’t want to necessarily impugn Frank Miller’s character but…
Well, let’s leave that for now, and just say that I don’t think this mode is really a very great way to look at Batman.
Batman v Superman: the Psychodramatic Tort
All right, so, the thing about Batman at the sociological level isn’t that he doesn’t make sense, it’s that he’s bad. Batman as a sociological text is basically monstrous — it’s classist, amoral at best, nihilistic. It posits a world so heinously corrupt that essentially all violence is countenanced, with the except of murder — but even then, the rule against murder is basically an arbitrary personal preference. There’s no abiding philosophy to Batman as a social allegory, because even if he believes in a principle of doing good or protecting the innocent, none of the rest of what he does actually facilitates that.
We can argue that the persistence of Batman as a character is basically just indicative of the worst qualities of the human character — our persistent conflation of strength with force, our atavistic equation of punishment with justice — and I think that’s fine, it’s always fine to indict humanity, I’m not going to argue against that.
But I also think there’s a mode in which we can look at Batman where Batman is actually good, and that mode is the psychodramatic mode.
Imagine then, that instead of Gotham City being your city, Gotham City is your soul. Batman and his allies are all you. The civilians are all you. The rogues gallery is all you. Everything is you. Batman’s war on criminality is your war against yourself.
The inciting incident for Batman is the murder of his parents at just about the age where he can understand what it means to both be safe and to have that safety taken away — any younger and he might not have drawn a broader moral lesson from it; any older and he might have begun to build the coping mechanisms that we use to deal with tragedy. Batman experiences the murder of his parents at a maximally-disruptive level; Gotham City is the landscape of his soul, and the systems that are meant to police it, that are meant to govern it, that are meant to sustain it, have all broken down.
(A first aside: some comics creators like to make a joke about MY PARENTS ARE DEAD being Batman’s only motivation, where the joke is like, “come on man, it’s been thirty years, have a new personality trait”, and I think that’s pretty interesting because I’d have imagined that seeing your parents murdered right in front of you when you were a child would maybe be the single most formative event of your life, like it’s the kind of wound that you grow up around rather than getting over. Dismissing it as a central psychological trauma seems to me to blithely dismiss every other kind of trauma in a way I don’t care for. But, I don’t know, my parents are very much alive, maybe this IS the kind of thing you’re supposed to get over.)
(A second aside: I don’t think it’s very interesting or worthwhile to imagine that all of Batman comics take place in a child’s imagination as a metaphor for how he copes with trauma; this is because I don’t think it’s actually a particularly great metaphor for how children cope with trauma, and if a story isn’t going to give us insight into how the mind is functioning in context, then “it’s all happening in someone’s imagination” is kind of a dumb gimmick. The psychodrama I’m proposing is an allegory for minds in general, not a specific dramatization of a response to trauma.)
So, central to this new soul is the Batman — a figure that has repurposed every aspect of his life to some new, essential goal: preventing harm to other people. We call it “justice”, but justice is really an exterior thing; instead what we’re waging war on are the parts of ourselves that drive us to harm others.
You can see that this vision of Batman is predicated on fear, of course — the Bat is the symbol of his fear, and instead of permitting that fear to drive outward or to become destructive, it is embraced and harnessed and used to the essential purpose of self-actualization.
Batman’s allies in this mode are really aspects of the self — we can see Alfred, for example, as the portion of the self reserved for a kind of maintenance; you can’t be Batman only, someone needs to clean the dishes and make the tea and tell you to take a fucking nap sometime for fuck’s sake. Commissioner Gordon is the part of the self that interfaces with corrupt external systems, or with the voice of the interior systems that the Batman can’t directly change. Batman’s identity as Bruce Wayne is a set of skills used to navigate the outside world, while preserving the integrity of that essential purpose.
Similarly, Batman’s rogues gallery — often described as reflections of Batman himself — are really aspects of himself; Batman’s virtues, but lacking some crucial restraint to keep them in balance. Ra’s al-Ghul is righteousness unrestrained by compassion; Poison Ivy is empathy unrestrained by judgment; Bane and the Riddler are willpower and intellect unrestrained by virtue or empathy. Batman’s status as a detective transforms in this scenario into a kind of deep introspection — an ongoing process of sorting out the true causes of the perturbation of the soul, and recognizing and identifying them as virtues that have grown out of control.
I think this is especially interesting (and I know I’m getting far afield of the Batman v Superman question, I’ll get back to it, don’t worry) when we look at the Joker as Batman’s arch-nemesis.
Why So Serious?
The essential characteristic of self that the Joker represents isn’t really malice or cruelty or evil by any traditional standard, but a fundamental unseriousness. The Joker is evil because the thinks the suffering of other is funny. He doesn’t take the pain of others seriously; he doesn’t take the Batman’s moral mission seriously; he doesn’t take notions of justice or law or anything else particularly seriously. The psychodrama of Batman has, at its two guiding poles: Batman, who represents a disciplined, committed compassion that recruits every portion of the self to an over-riding purpose; and the Joker, who thinks none of that shit matters.
I think it’s a particularly telling argument to set up Batman as a response to fear, because laughter is also a response to violence and horror — a way of distancing and insulating the self from it. If I encounter something that horrifies me, I can embrace that horror and use it as fuel to take action to correct it; I can also make a joke out of it, I can laugh it off. This unseriousness permits me to both countenance and commit terrible evils, and may be actually the most crucial element to committing evils in the real, living, social sphere: in order for me to do harm, I have to find some way to not take that harm seriously.
Batman comics dramatize an essential war between virtue — which is a shared commitment to ideals — and nihilism.
This also, I think, lends an interesting perspective on the Joker’s obsession with Batman — it’s the Joker that’s fixated with him, and not the other way around, and whether or not that’s on purpose I think it’s indicative. Compassion and virtue are actually the natural condition; it’s this nihilism that has to make its case; like Reddit nerds who are convinced of their superiority because of their affected detachment, it’s not enough for the Joker to simply not care about something, he also has to destroy the idea that you should care about something. The Joker can’t really kill the Batman because he doesn’t want the Batman to die, he wants him to give up; death doesn’t prove anything, and the whole point of the Joker’s nihilism is to not just be a nihilist but to prove that being a nihilist is right.
So, What Does This Have to Do with Why Batman and Superman Should Fight?
They shouldn’t. It doesn’t make any sense to have them fight. In fact, it makes MORE sense to have them be best friends, as all the best stories about Batman and Superman do, because they are exploring the same notion — that Good is fundamental, and Evil is artificial — from two different perspectives. Superman shows us at a cosmic level that the universe is fundamentally on the side of good. Batman shows us at a human, interior, individual level that goodness is the natural victor of the battle between virtue and nihilism. The way that they meet in the middle is a harmony of Macrocosm and Microcosm, a sort of hermetic rebus, and I think this essential alchemy is actually the reason that these two particular characters have stuck around, both separately, and with each other, for as long as they have.