Batman: Pinnacle of human perfection with a splash of the crazy

Image by kevindooley via Flickr

This is the second in my series taking about superhero characters. In my kickoff post I explained how in some ways they are the modern Gods – created in our image to put into stories to help us understand ourselves better. This time I’m looking at Batman, the broody anti-hero without any powers.

The Hero

The only son of wealthy parents, young Bruce Wayne is scarred forever when he witnesses his parents gunned down in front of his eyes. He dedicates his life to perfecting himself physically and mentally, forging himself into a foe who will stand in the way of criminals and keep them from devouring society. Searching for something to help him inspire fear in the cowardly and the unjust, Bruce takes inspiration from the dark image of a bat. Now the World’s Greatest Detective, the Batman prowls the streets of Gotham City with his mind, his muscle, and his endless array of gadgets, defending the innocent from the evil forces of the night.

Why We Love Him

Batman is a normal human being who has mastered himself and walks with the Gods. A regular person who through discipline, focus, and patience became someone all the other heroes admire and respect.

Batman is the ultimate in physical human perfection. He never gets exhausted scaling the tallest of buildings, and has muscle definition that would send Spartans back to the gym feeling flabby. If a martial art ever comes up, he’s mastered it. Swimming? Fencing? Gymnastics? Olympic level skills across the board.

Not content to by the ultra-jock, Batman is also a genius level scientist and engineer. One of his original titles was “World’s Greatest Detective“, and one story has him studying from Sherlock Holmes himself. He is always three steps ahead of not just his foes but also his fellow heroes, and the devices in his magical bag of holding utility belt are rarely not up to correcting the task at hand.  In spite of all the training, time, and effort needed to be the Batman, he also manages to maintain himself as a multi-Billionare in his spare time. Both mentally and physically, Batman is everything we imagine we could be if we just started working hard rather than sitting around on the internet all day.

Yet it is the emotional aspect of Batman that cements him as an icon. His obsession over his parent’s death turned him dark, relentless, and more than a little crazy.  Yet he doesn’t kill. In most versions, he refuses to use a gun at all. He inflicts terror and fear on the cowardly underbelly of society, yet does it through some of the highest moral avenues. In some ways he has mastered the most dangerous of human emotions and turned them into a powerful tool.

As A Character

Whereas I think Superman is somewhat limited in his storytelling options, Batman’s humanity and challenges make him an incredible character. We’ve already seen him mentor several Robins, struggle with loneliness, and grapple with the deep paranoia that fuels his world. He’s been everything from campy to psychotic, and from Miller’s classic Dark Knight Returns about an aged and broken Batman, to Nolan’s brilliant The Dark Knight about Batman facing his own moral impact upon the world, there is no shortage of new ways to explore his facets.

Joker (comics)

Image via Wikipedia

I’d even argue that it is the richness of the Batman character that gave rise to one of the greatest comic book villains: the Joker. Comic villains are often defined in opposition to the heroes they face, like the intellectual Lex Luthor to the mighty Superman, and the Joker was born out of funhouse mirror reflection of Batman’s own psychosis and obsessions.  Like Batman, the Joker has been endlessly redefined. He’s grown from a goofy clown, to a drowning psychopath in The Killing Joke, to Heath Ledger’s raging anarchist. In the DC Universe it is said that when the other super-Villains want to scare each other they tell Joker stories. Only the greatest of characters could give birth to one of the greatest of villains.

Little kids reading comics can never hope to grow up to fly like Superman, or climb walls like Spider-Man, but there is a little voice in the back of their head that tells them that if they really worked hard enough they could be Batman.

Now if I only had a cave…

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Superheroes: The Character of the Gods

The Legion of Super-Heroes during the 1970s. A...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been a fan of comics and superheroes most of my life, but it wasn’t until I was an adult (or ‘adultish’) that I began to appreciate their roots are much deeper than just fueling the imaginings of geek kids. In some ways, the superhero is the reincarnation of the classical Gods – powerful yet flawed beings that populated incredible tales to show what it means to be human.

Gods as Humans

The Greek Gods were fallible beings created by the people of the time to help explain their world. They had incredible power, but also had human weakness exaggerated to the extreme. Hera was majestic but insanely jealous, Zeus was powerful but insatiably lustful, and Poseidon was both protector and tempestuous earth-shaker. They contained everything it meant to be human, yet rose above it in epic battles and tales that helped people understand their own lives and gave them an escape.

Superheroes as Gods

Comic book superheroes, with their own ability to hurl thunderbolts and shake the earth, are the modern equivalent. Batman struggles with internal rage and frustration, while Spider-Man fights his own insecurities and guilt. Their biggest difference to the Gods of old may only be their colorful costumes and masks. The best of them are more than just shallow cartoons, but have traits that embeds them deeply in our minds and resonant with parts of our own lives. You can see their connection beautifully and amusingly captured in the blog Growing Up Heroes.

I’m going to crack open some of these modern pulp heroes (and in some cases movie-stars) and look at what makes them work as characters and archetypes. What do their origin stories say about them? How have they changed over time? And what do the most enduring of these heroes say about us and our values?

My first hero-focused post in this series will cover the nearly archetypal Superman, but I plan to cross the Marvel and DC Universes to visit some of my favorite heroes and some of the ones I’ve struggled to understand. If you have a favorite, let me know and I’ll share my thoughts.

These imaginary characters have captured our imaginations for decades now, and I think they are worth stopping to pay homage.

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