The Eternal Issue: Batman vs. Spider-Man

 

 

Ah, TAC tackles only the big burning issues of our day!  Travis D. Smith over at The Weekly Standard raises a philosophical question that has always intrigued me:  who is the greater hero, Batman or Spider-Man?

Reservations  about technology are at the heart of Spider-Man’s story. Peter Parker  gains the proportional strength and agility of a spider when a high-tech  experiment goes awry. His webshooters and spider-tracers are products  of his own ingenuity. His rogue’s gallery, by contrast, comprises a  testament to the dangers inherent in modern technological science given  the myriad ways it can be misused and lead to unintended consequences.  With few exceptions, Spidey’s foes can be categorized as either (i) good  guys who were transformed into villains (or ordinary thugs who were  made much worse) by technological mishaps or unexpected side-effects  (e.g., Doctor Octopus, Electro, Green Goblin, Lizard, Morbius, and  Sandman; Venom, too, indirectly), or (ii) crooks who specifically  invented, obtained, or otherwise employ technology for the sake of doing  wrong or becoming worse (e.g., Beetle, Chameleon, Hobgoblin, Jackal,  Mysterio, Rhino, Scorpion, Shocker, and Vulture; Kraven is the  noteworthy exception). The young Peter Parker is corrupted by the  culture around him no less than any other young man. His first instinct  is to use his newfound powers in a selfish, though harmless, manner: He  plans to make it big in showbiz for the sake of supporting his family.  But after he internalizes Uncle Ben’s message, Spider-Man stands out as a  marvel precisely because he is both the victim of science gone wrong  and a manufacturer of technological wonders, yet neither makes a monster  of him—if we set aside that brief period he had six arms.

Modern  society, marked, if not defined, by our devotion to technological  science and premised principally on theories of rights, explicitly  rejects classical ideas that emphasize virtuous character and duties  that transcend individual will. Assessing all relationships in terms of  power, defending subjective rights as absolutes, and replacing  interpersonal duties with collective responsibilities, preferring the  indirect benefactions of impersonal institutionalized mechanisms,  modernity is a breeding ground for tyrannical souls and a recipe for  tyrannical regimes. It is in this light that Spider-Man can help us to  see that modernity’s capacity to turn out relatively well depends on  habits and ideas that precede it.

When  I teach introductory classes in political theory, I am grateful for the  example that Spider-Man provides of Glaucon’s model of “the man of  perfect justice” from Book II of The Republic, one who always  does the right thing (in terms of complying with conventional morality)  even though he always earns a reputation for doing the wrong thing.  Nobody who would wield great power intending to work on behalf of  justice can avoid earning a bad reputation. Spider-Man is sure to be  accused of being an accomplice in any bank robbery he thwarts. The  headlines of the Daily Bugle regularly prompt readers to ask  themselves whether he is a “Threat or Menace?” Nevertheless, Peter  chooses to keep up the good fight. The language of “choice,” however,  falls short here. Whereas Bruce decides to become a costumed agent of  vengeance, acting on an internal compulsion, Peter regards what he does  not so much as a choice but as a responsibility, a duty he must meet  irrespective of his preferences and desires. This accords with the  classical notion that virtue is demanded of us by our very nature; it is  not something that anyone can opt in or out of indifferently.

Go here to read the rest.  In my misspent youth I collected comics, (As a sign of advancing maturity I got rid of them when I was 13.  If I had saved such treasures as my Spider-Man #2 I could probably pay for my kids’ college education from the sale of them now!), and two of my favorite characters were Spider-Man and Batman.  They both got into the superhero business as a result of tragedy:  Batman by virtue of seeing his parents gunned down before his eyes by a street thug as a child, and Spider-Man due to his beloved Uncle Ben, his foster father, being slain by a burglar that Spider-Man could have apprehended, but was too self-absorbed to help a cop chasing the burglar who then later killed Uncle Ben.  I always thought Spider-Man had the more powerful motivation as his lack of action, his sin of omission, led to the death of Uncle Ben, while there was nothing that Bruce Wayne as a child could have done to prevent the death of his parents.  Spider-Man would occasionally get fed up with being a superhero but would then recall his Uncle Ben and renew his one man crusade.

I identified with Spider-Man much more than Batman.  Spider-Man was a bookish teenager suddenly vested with great powers.  He was also broke and his travails over money had a ring of familiarity to me.  Bruce Wayne as a multi-millionaire was outside of my childhood experience and although I enjoyed his rogues gallery of colorful adversaries, his lack of powers did not appeal to me.

Spider-Man was probably the better comic back in the Sixties, especially as drawn by Steve Dikto who had a very compelling realistic style.

These of course were the days of the campish Batman television series and even then I found that to be too ludicrous for enjoyment.

My favorite Spider-Man story at that time was a trilogy in which he was suffering from the flu and had to stop the bad guys and somehow get the serum necessary to save the life of his Aunt May who was seriously ill.  It sounds silly in that bare bones summary of the plot, but the story arc emphasized some good lessons for a growing boy:  courage against the odds, fighting for those you love and that superpowers do not make the hero since Spider-Man lost much of his as a result of the flu, and was even more heroic as a result.

Intriguingly my greatest appreciation for Batman came after I became a parent.  In the nineties there were a series of very well done Batman animated cartoons, a sample is in the video below.  Watching them endlessly with my kids, I grew to appreciate the fatherly qualities of Batman, not only for his ward, Dick Grayson, but for the city of Gotham as a whole.  Like most literature comics can hold up a mirror to ourselves and I saw Batman now through a different prism than I did as a child.

Comics were a brief stepping stone for me as a child on to more advanced literature, but the moral lessons they initially taught me, such as the necessity to protect the weak, to struggle for the good no matter the odds and that with power comes responsibility, were important ones for me to grasp and as a result Batman and Spider-Man, along with their colorful cohorts, served me well.  Not bad for the twelve cents I paid for each issue back in the Sixties.

 

 

16 Responses to The Eternal Issue: Batman vs. Spider-Man

  • I grew up with marvel comic books, but determining the greatest of imaginary creatures is not an eternal issue for me. Forgive me for being such a spoilsport. Only the shadow really knows.

  • “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…”

  • Batman.

    What else needs be said?

  • The Super Heroes are all personifications of the virtues, of Justice. The evildoers are all personifications of vice.

  • My oldest son is less than one month from being five years old. His favorite shows are Superman and Batman, both done by the same people, from the early and mid 1990s. Hub shows them nearly every day. These cartoons were not developed solely for children and often have some mature subject matters.

    Cars, trucks, trains and superheroes are usually fascinating to little boys. They were for me and they are for my son. I remember the Filmation Superman and Batman cartoons from the 1960s as well as the Spiderman cartoon. They used to be shown in the afternoon hours after school.

    I once heard it said from a radio DJ that he preferred Batman to Superman because Batman was more believable. Almost nobody in the Batman world had superpowers.

    Spiderman has a superpower and finds himself with an obligation to use it no matter his personal struggles. Batman uses his vast resources to fight his enemies.

    Which one prefers depends on one’s own tastes.

  • I always liked Superman partly because he was a down to earth midwestern farm boy at heart. DC has in the recent decades played up the “Last Son of Krypton” in regard to Superman, but there was always more of Kansas than of Krypton in the Defender of Truth, Justice and the American Way.

  • True RL! And how could I have overlooked Duck Dodgers, the champion of justice in the 24th and a half century?

  • Don, I think you hit on an imporant point that the Weekly Standard article only inches toward.

    Take this as a thesis: Spiderman is human, Batman is angelic.

    Batman isn’t a superpowered being so much as supernatural. He knows everything, is all-powerful, and acts with perfect motives. He fights beings that are pure evil. In his origin story, he was only a witness to sin. On the other hand, Spiderman was born in original sin. Peter Parker is trying to improve himself, whereas Batman always seems to be perfect. Spiderman’s enemies are as human and error-prone as he is.

    Batman isn’t a character to be emulated. We’re foolish and sinful. We’re not the world’s greatest anything. Humans make their biggest mistakes when they think of themselves as angelic: willing to become agents of God’s pure wrath in order to make the world a better place. That’s where the Weekly Standard rightly senses something dangerous.

  • Wow Don. i didn’t know about Duck Dodgers – at least I sure don’t remember it. Pretty cool stuff.

    Merry Christmas!

  • Duck Dodgers came out a few years ago. It became a favorite of my kids and I enjoyed it also. Merry Christmas RL!

  • “Take this as a thesis: Spiderman is human, Batman is angelic.”

    Interesting thesis Pinky. I always found Superman to be a more down to earth character than Batman, in spite of his vast powers. Batman was sort of an archetype of Nemesis in his war against the underworld, as he was originally portrayed. This changed in the Fifties when Batman got involved in science fiction and time travel adventures and became a much more run of the mill superhero. DC returned to the original concept with the New Look Batman stories starting in 1965.

  • I’m sure you know Bats better than I do. The most I know about Batman’s history is that he’s oscillated between dark avenger and camp. But he does play with being a force of nature, an archetype of fear. Spiderman is a spider because he got bitten by a spider. Batman is a bat because he thinks it taps into subconscious fears.

    Now Superman, I never could relate to. He’s 100% of everything good, so there’s never any suspense with him, except for the inevitable Kryptonite. The guy has one weakness, so every writer has to exploit it, or there’d be no story. I never found Superman to be any more human than Popeye.

  • Superman has several weaknesses:

    Kryptonite, in manifold forms; magic; and he loses his power under a red sun. In the Golden Age of comics in the forties the fact that Superman was so immensely powerful was overlooked and he almost always battled gangsters with no superpowers, with the exceptions being Lex Luthor and a very few supervillains such as the Toyman. Since that time writers for Superman and Action Comics have been bedeviled at trying to come up with situations for Superman that are challenging without relying on one of his weaknesses all the time. Periodically Superman’s powers have been reduced, but the pull to portray Superman as the most powerful of superheroes is apparently irresistible at DC.

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