Superman and Batman. The World’s Finest Team. The two oldest and, likely, most well-known superheroes of all time. They are the pillars of comic book heroism. Without them, there may not be a Spider-Man or an Avengers or any comic book movie boom to speak of. A lot is owed to each of them.
One is an unimaginably powerful being removed from humanity who has a seemingly infinite wealth of power from which to draw so that he can punch all of his problems away. The other is a mortal man, limited by his human body and driven by the tragedy of his past where he was incapable of saving those that meant the world to him.
And I’m here to explain why the former is vastly more interesting and engaging character than the latter.
Let’s start with the Bat.
I’ll be honest… Batman as a comic book character has really never spoken to me. He’s had some good iterations between the Christopher Nolan trilogy of movies or the 1990’s Animated Series, but on the whole, Batman is just not an engaging character.
As noted above, Batman is a human character. In a world of demigods and planet-busting aliens, Bruce Wayne is a guy in a cowl with a bunch of pointy boomerangs. He regularly takes on monsters made of clay or women that control plantlife or even those aforementioned demigods with only his highly-trained mind, some gadgets, and a well-maintained physique.
AND HE WINS. ALL THE TIME! That’s a problem.
Batman is unrealistic wish fulfillment at its most absurd. He’s just a man, but he’s counted amongst the most powerful heroes of the world because he’s got what amounts to an Infinity Money cheat code, more martial arts expertise than a human could realistically ever learn, and just a ludicrously written ability to prepare for threats. The Justice League of America? You know, a gathering of the strongest heroes on Earth, all with diverse powersets, weapons, and origins? Oh yeah, Batman can effortlessly take them down in an afternoon if he wants. Because “prep time”.
When the White Martians made their way to Earth, they were able to subdue almost the entire JLA. They disguised themselves as a variety of metahumans with several different powers, they mind-controlled the planet, and they insidiously took down the League through careful planning and subterfuge. Oh, except for Batman, because he was OBVIOUSLY able to see through their plan and all-but single-handedly defeat them when the chips were down.
Batman reminds me of a Michael Scott joke. When asked what his greatest weaknesses are in a job interview, The Offie‘s Regional Manager character Michael Scott replies “I work TOO hard. I care TOO much”. When then asked about his strengths, he replies that they will find his weaknesses ARE his strengths. That’s Batman in a nutshell. He has no weaknesses, and he’s never allowed to look defeated or overcome for long because DC and it’s writers over the last 80 years have set him up as the best at anything ever no matter what period the end amen. His greatest flaw is almost always set up as “He’s TOO driven to fight crime! He’s TOO dedicated to keeping Gotham’s streets clean”.
For me, Batman’s best use is as a foil to his incomparable supporting cast, which is unquestionably the best in comics history. Batman is the boring animatronic robot off which characters like Alfred, Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, Barbara and Jim Gordon, and others can play. He’s the unachievable ideal to which they all strive, even as they know it’s unrealistic to think they could ever reach that end. They are the characters who are driven as both heroes and people–remember, in Batman’s own words, Bruce Wayne is the costume. So while Dick Grayson, for example, may have every day problems the layreader can relate to, Batman never ever will. Barbara Gordon was crippled, and she spent two decades using her disability to change her approach to heroism and not let it define her life going forward. Batman was crippled, and he went on vacation and just made his boo-boo all better because Batman ain’t got time to be crippled; he has to go throw gas pellets at crime! He just overcame a broken spine and kept right on spin-kicking felons without any ill effects! THIS IS NOT A REAL THING, BATMAN COMIC BOOK. You can’t have your back broken by a monster and then go all MMA on Two-Face three months later! Give your character ramifications!
Batman: He’s the richest, he’s the smartest, he’s physically the best, and by golly, people like him! No problem is too great or small. Remember, he’s just one man in an insane world, but the most insane thing is that he’s always going to stop the rampaging gods around him.
But if Batman’s problem is that he is unrealistically perfect, where does that leave the one whose powerset is “being unrealistically perfect”? Well…
When Superman confronts a foe stronger than he is, Superman just gets stronger and punches it into defeat. When Superman encounters a foe tougher than he is… Superman just gets stronger and punches it into defeat. When Superman meets a foe faster than he is… Well. Stronger. Punch. Defeat. You get it. Superman is not an engaging character for his physical confrontations because he will always win those. Superman vs [X] is valueless because it’s always Superman. He is the best at physical power and direct confrontation.
And therein lies the glory in Superman that, admittedly, a lot of writers miss out on. When you are capable of anything, nothing is going to be a problem to you. The problem… is EVERYTHING. Superman has unimaginable power and a borderline-perfect morality system, and that’s what’s interesting about him. There is an entire world out there with billions of people facing millions of crises in any given moment, and while Superman is capable of saving ANY of them, he can’t save ALL of them. Imagine living in a world where any time something bad happens to someone, they could realistically wonder why you weren’t there to save them. You are partially to blame for whatever ill has fallen them. You certainly could have helped; it’s well within your ability. But maybe you were saving two other people half a world away. Maybe you were stopping a tsunami three timezones over. Maybe you were just sleeping because you can’t go 24/7. whatever the reason, you weren’t there when you could have been… maybe even should have been.
Kal-El of Krypton lives in a world where no matter how much he does, it will never be enough. And he can only mentally balance these scales by telling himself that, yes, while he will always do what he can, he can’t let everyone in the world be dependent on him, or else he’s little more than a benevolent dictator. He loves humanity, and therefore he is constantly weighing how much intervening in the face of adversity would be life-saving versus how much it would be authoritarian. When you examine the character of Clark Kent, you realize how daunting his life must truly be.
And yes, I get that I basically just said “Batman can do anything, and that’s why he is a bad character. Superman, meanwhile, can do anything, and that’s why he is a good character”. But Batman is supposed to represent you. Batman is just a guy doing his best. So his portrayal as flawless and capable of overcoming all obstacles is an insult. Superman represents an ideal. He represents not a man, but humanity as whole. As we grow, and as our technology and command over the world around us increases, we are faced with choices where we become more or less totalitarian or more or less humanitarian. Superman is to remind us to acknowledge there is a barely visible line to walk in that regard, but we must always try to stay on it.
What’s more, whereas Batman is the ultimate insider–a billionaire elite who peddles influence over corporations and politicians–Superman is an outsider. He is not of our world, and time and again, it has been proven that the worst of humanity will always see him as a threat because he is different. Lex Luthor has preyed on this fear many times when he has convinced large swaths of the population that Superman is bringing about their doom one way or another. When the chips are down and herd mentality is at its worst, humanity has shown they will give up on Superman because he’s not truly like them. But Superman never gives up on mankind.
So I’m not necessarily saying Superman is a consistently better written character than Batman. I’m not even saying Superman has more great stories than Batman (he does, though; deal with it). What I’m setting out to say with this article is that Superman is inherently a better character than Batman. Crazy, megarich, ultrasmart, best-at-everything, barely-a-cardboard-cutout Batman.
Batman does have a better supporting cast, though. Imagine how great the Bat books would be without Batman! I’d read that shit forever.