12 June 2013

Superman vs. Batman

The DC fighting game Injustice: Gods Among Us premiered April 16th after a three-month-long online promotional tournament that ended in a fight between Batman and Superman. The fan-chosen champion? Batman.

This isn’t the first time, either. Batman has defeated Superman on multiple occasions in past comics and cartoons, most notably in Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns and its 2013 animated movie adaptation.

What does this mean for this week’s Man of Steel, which is following in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and is already down to 65% on Rotten Tomatoes as of this post? Would more people prefer Nolan to direct another Batman movie than produce a Superman reboot?

Last summer, in anticipation of the theatrical release of The Dark Knight Rises, I explained on KSL why the wave of marketing and leaked plot details didn’t deflate my enthusiasm. Everything from an unoriginal title to early issues with Bane’s voice raised serious concerns among fans, but I stubbornly expected a Batman experience as satisfying as the first two installments – maybe more so. The article was optimistically titled “I Believe in ‘The Dark Knight Rises.’”

I wish I still felt that way.

Yes, most of my hopes and predictions came true: Cillian Murphy had a cameo (as Jonathan Crane, not his alter ego the Scarecrow); Marion Cotillard really was Talia al Ghul; Nolan made a nod to Robin after all. But this predictability was the problem.

The truth is, when asked to share my opinion on the film, my answer is never the same. If, at that moment, I’m remembering how Bruce Wayne escapes from Bane’s prison by letting go of his securities (almost literally cutting the cord), my reply is more positive. I like that visual metaphor and the rousing music that accompanies it.

Conversely, I’m not always willing to fill in the dozen or so plot holes with comic book canon or a game of thematic connect-the-dots. John Blake knew Bruce was Batman because he’s an amalgam of all the Robins. Batman had to waste time rigging that giant flaming Bat-Signal because he’s all about theatricality and inspiring people. We were tricked into thinking he died because he similarly faked his death at the end of the Frank Miller book I mentioned earlier.

In fact, it’s the clumsy homage to said graphic novel that discourages me the most; it just doesn’t translate that well to this retold continuity (nor does No Man’s Land, for that matter).

Thankfully, one thing that doesn’t carry over from The Dark Knight Returns is Superman…though he might have provided a better explanation for how Batman survives the nuclear blast. Instead he’ll debut separately.

Though there were a lot of rumors that Warner Bros was trying to tie the two DC franchises together, building up to a Justice League movie Marvel style, that has more or less been denied by Christopher Nolan. Though producing Man of Steelhe has stated that he will not be involved with Justice League.

Regardless, and in spite of what the critics are currently saying, I’m betting that Man of Steel will disappoint less than Rises did, if only because expectations are lower. What’s more puzzling is why that is. In other words, why don’t we like Superman as much as we like Batman?

Granted, I’m just assuming Batman’s fanbase is larger. True, Superman is the classic American hero, seen earlier in movies and in several successful live-action TV series. But his last film, Superman Returns (2006), was much less popular than Nolan’s Batman trilogy – hence the reboot.

But it's worth noting that Superman Returns has a 76% on Rotten Tomatoes. One fan was Quentin Tarantino, whose own Kill Bill movie series includes a monologue in honor of Superman. However, if anything, it might actually do more to explain why that character doesn’t sit well with some people:
Superman didn’t become Superman; Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. … What Kent wears, the glasses, the business suit, that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak. He’s unsure of himself. He’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.
A common reason for disliking Superman is that he’s too super; for being stronger than a locomotive and faster than a speeding bullet, he’s hard to identify with. He’s also too bright and colorful and nice – unlike Batman, whose dark, brooding, vigilante attitude is “cool” nowadays.

Or as comic writer Jeff Parker said in a 2012 interview with Comicbooked.com, “[Batman] works in so many genres at once – he is a pulp hero at the same time as being a super-hero, but he works in detective, spy, horror, fantasy – several types of stories all while not changing as a character.” Unlike Superman, who pretty much requires big sci-fi plot conventions if there’s any chance of conflict.

But maybe there’s such as thing as too much conflict. In a recent New York Times article about BYU’s computer-animation program and its emphasis on family-friendly fare, one student describes Batman film “The Dark Knight” as “just so dark,” saying it leaves viewers feeling worse about themselves and humanity. (She must not have stuck around for the ending.)

But what about Superman? Can kids of all ages love and admire this guy? Todd VanDerWerff, writing for the A. V. Club, actually thinks it’s impossible not to:
Superman resonates because he’s a mirror, in some ways. We can all project onto him the things we best like about ourselves and about humanity. He’s the guy we want to see in ourselves, the thing we secretly hope we are, even when we know we’re nowhere near that, or even capable of it.
He goes on to review the Jewish heritage of Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who “came up with an alien superhero because they felt like aliens in their own land….” Similarly, Superman is often described as a Messianic figure, living in but not of the world, a savior for those unable or unwilling to save themselves.

What's more, a peer-reviewed journal published a study concluding “that embodying the ability to fly in [virtual reality] primes concepts and stereotypes related to superheroes in general or to Superman in particular, and thus facilitates subsequent helping behavior in the real world.” In other words, if you get to be Superman in a video game, you’re going to want to be more heroic in the real world.

Yet it’s Batman that fans voted to win in that Injustice duel. It’s Batman that gets a separate series of popular video games, namely the Arkham franchise (continuing this October with the release of Arkham Origins). It’s Batman we want to be, proven by the popularity of his gravely intonation, “I’m Batman!”

Maybe Injustice is aptly named. It’s not fair that Superman – an American icon, a savior immune to world issues like cancer and mass shootings, an all-around good guy – should lose out to an angry ninja dressed like a bat and obsessed with revenge. But the dark night is over for now, and come this weekend, I won't mind if Superman’s day in the sun convinces me that brighter is better...however unlikely that is.

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