Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Batman and a Protestant Work Ethic

Batman's origin story is a different kind of origin from Superman's, just as Batman is fundamentally a different sort of hero from Superman.

Superman is the sole survivor of Krypton. When his planet was destroyed, he was sent to earth and raised by Martha and Jonathan Kent. He possesses amazing powers, and uses them to defend Truth, Justice and the American Way. But aspects of his story could be (and have been) changed, and he would still be a hero.

In Mark Miller's Superman Red Son, Kal-El lands in Russia instead of in America, and is as idealistic about communism as the traditional Superman is idealistic about democracy. He makes terrible mistakes along the way, but he remains a hero, doing everything he can to work for the good of all human beings.

Elliot S! Maggin, in The Greatest Green Lantern of All, suggests that had the planet not been destroyed, Kal-El would have been the Green Lantern for Krypton.

In other words, Superman is a hero, in some essential way. He is not the merely product of his circumstances. There is something heroic about his very nature--something ethereal that makes him heroic.

Batman, by contrast, has always been very straightforwardly the product of his circumstances. His parents are murdered in front of him, and he responds by vowing to battle criminals. This is the cornerstone of Batman. As Frank Miller (who for all his faults is probably the writer who best understands Batman) says "no murder, no Bat-Man".

This difference of dependance on circumstance explains why, though both characters have tragic pasts and both have been portrayed as tortured heroes, the tragic history of Batman has always been more palatable and memorable than the tragic history of Superman. Superman, the lone survivor of his race, utterly alone in the universe, somehow doesn't seem to be as tragic or as tortured as Batman, the multi-millionaire philanthopist. It even explains how it is Batman, not Superman, who has a reputation as a loner, even though Batman's Batcave is full of allies (Alfred, Nightwing, Robin, Huntress, Batgirl, Oracle, occasionally Catwoman and more) and Superman's Fortress of Solitude is, well, not.

Batman is not, however, solely a product of his circumstances. Above all, the heroic example of Batman is the ability to better oneself, by hard work and perseverance. Batman is an exemplar of a "protestant work ethic". Batman is not only enabled by grace to turn the evil situation of his parents' murder into good, he is ethically compelled to do so. He works because it is right so to do. Batman's training and work do not constitute a quest for redemption but rather an ethical imperative.

Together these two seminal heroes of the DC Universe encapsulate the paradoxical command of St. Paul: "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, to will and to do."

So as Superman is a transcendent figure of divine intervention--salvation we have not earned from we know not where, Batman is a figure of the moral imperative to work out that salvation ourselves.


Elliot said...

Good points!

Yeah, it's funny how mysterious loner Batman has all those sidekicks. And even when one graduates (Robin to Nightwing) he hangs around sometimes AND Batman winds up getting a replacement (same with Batgirl to Oracle - later silent Asian Batgirl turned up). Plus there was Azrael for a while, though that one went bad.

Viagra said...

Interesting way to put things out. I have always been more of a Batman fan, mainly because he was made that way do to his past, and that type of character is always appealing to me.