Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has been seen and judged, at least by the critics, and, well, the word has not been kind. But somehow I doubt that’s going to deter people on its opening weekend. Decades of goodwill towards the characters remain untarnished by the various missteps their respective film franchises have taken over the years. There is still something primal about the names “Batman” and “Superman” that speaks to our inherent need for heroes. We want to believe.
Everyone latched on to Commissioner Gordon’s closing line from The Dark Knight, where he says, “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” And although he was talking about Batman, I think the two halves of that statement nicely encapsulate our feelings for both characters. Superman, with his noble honesty, is the hero we hope we deserve, but Batman and his ruthless pragmatism is the one we need right now. We want to soar in the sky, but we see a world that needs us down on the ground.
Now don’t get me wrong, Batman’s a hero. He may have a more strict moral compass than Superman, but he’s on the side of the angels. He sacrifices. He endures. For no reward other than the right thing having been done. Except too many of those who embrace the character see only the relentless crook puncher, the fear-inducing vigilante who does to criminals what should be done. Forget being the world’s greatest detective; for some, he’s just the Punisher in a bat costume.
For me, the dichotomy between Batman and Superman has always been one of action and inaction. Not that Superman is a passive character. But his greatest act of heroism is in not abusing the awesome powers he has. He struggles with the knowledge that he can pretty much do whatever he wants, and resists the urge to simply do everything for us. To make us dependent on him. To treat us like a bunch of children who don’t know any better. Whereas Batman says, “Nobody will do this if I don’t,” Superman says, “I’ll show you the way, but the rest is up to you.”
But deep down, don’t we want a Batman? Someone who will shoulder the weight and fight the fight by any means necessary? Who says, “These are the rules and they will be followed and those who don’t will pay the consequences”? Maybe it’s that Superman is such an impossibly perfect example. Maybe we can relate to being driven by the pain of loss more than we can to the aspiration to something higher. Maybe it’s Batman’s inherent humanity whereas Superman, while embracing us, isn’t one of us.
And maybe that’s why we can’t get Superman right on-screen these days. We can do the grim, gritty Batman in our sleep. But doing sincere goodness? That’s hard. We’re too cynical for “Truth, justice and the American way” to work anymore. Anyone peddling that has to be up to something. Anyone that strong has ulterior motives. They can’t be in it just for everyone else’s well-being. And so we get the glum navel-gazing of Superman Returns, and the reluctant heroics and wanton destruction of Man of Steel. We believe a man can fly; we just don’t believe he could possibly be that perfect.
It’s hard not to see the Superman/Batman schism in today’s cultural climate. We’re asked to fear instead of hope. We’re asked to look at the grim reality of today rather than at an optimistic tomorrow. We’re asked to wallow tragedy as a driving force in a quest for justice. We’re squires to the Dark Knight, missing the nobility in the quest while reveling in the violence of it. While hope is soaring above us, up up and away.