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.