Power is Knowledge: the unifying theories of Batman

01We all know that Superman can do anything, but as was often repeated in a defining run on his most vividly complementary character, written by Grant Morrison in the 2000s, “Batman thinks of everything.” The two figures emerged within a year of each other in the 1930s, and moved into place two pillars of pop-culture persona and modern self-perception. Superman personified deed and Batman materialized thought, but of course there were, between this colorful and gloomy character, many shades to consider.

02Superman was first seen in “Action” Comics, while Batman first was in “Detective” Comics — its very name a form of thought. But Batman isn’t exactly the thinking-man of action; that would be his much later associate Oracle, more precisely the thinking-woman of action, who puts her intellect into play besting opponents from beyond the scene as an omniscient computer whiz. Batman is the more blue-collar (or -cowl) character who first had to build such a crime-stopping structure with his brawn. Batman remains a “peak physical specimen,” which is the kind of thing that used to be said of the 19th-centry bodybuilder ideal that Superman is modeled on, but Superman is so all-powerful we rarely see him having to actually fight; Batman represents the bottom-up struggle of a working public servant while Superman is upper (uber) management — his fights seem more like an old-school gentlemanly boxing match, while Batman scraps in the shadows and the streets.


So Batman is intensely physical, and with more at stake than his invincible counterpart
. But famously, Batman doesn’t kill; he is a law-observing man who does not reserve ultimate judgment, though he is also an intensely violent one who does dispense extreme consequences. But those consequences are, to him, like one end of an equation — commit the crime and pay the cost. It is an intellectual exercise for him, and a rational commandment: the supreme thing Batman cannot 03countenance is to be outsmarted. His most absolute disapproval is directed not at opponents who do wrong — for he can stay confident of his superiority to their intellectual failings in not finding a better way to achieve their goals — but for allies who don’t think fast enough, and see far enough, to outsmart their opponents and surpass themselves in finding non-lethal ways to subdue evil and restore order. Much is made of the bond between Batman and his villains — from the camaraderie of The Killing Joke’s finale to the symbiosis of The Dark Knight Returns’ whole Joker/Batman dance. The people he banishes are the allies who can’t meet his dispassionate standard (crimefighting killers like The Huntress or Jason Todd).

04Witnessing the murder of his parents left the boy Bruce Wayne not knowing what to do; he will never not know what to do again. This is why the device of Batman being left by his adversaries with byzantine riddles to unlock and puzzles to decipher is a central trope of his adventures, and why this tendency alone makes the much-ridiculed parody TV show of the 1960s actually one of the truest portrayals of the character’s essence, in some significant ways.

05Batman has almost always been a character seen as being in need of a counterweight — the cheeriness of Robin, the positivity of Superman. In more recent portrayals, like the Grant Morrison JLA of the 1990s and the (sometimes) friendly rivalry seen in Greg Pak’s Batman/Superman in the “New 52” era today, Batman is shown as the corrective to Superman’s unrestrained power, a vigilant anchor of the Superman to his humanity. Seldom if ever is the question asked or explored of what Batman would do if he himself had power like Superman’s. “Thinking of everything” includes conceiving of the worst in humanity — while not necessarily envisioning what is beyond everything; that is, things which don’t yet exist but which a more optimistic mind than Batman’s might help bring about. It’s possible that Superman has the elevated view, not just the higher position, that enables this. Batman keeps an eye on Superman, but on some level Batman may understand that he needs to keep exposed to Superman’s mind too — might a mind like Batman’s, on its own, corrupt any superpower?

06Superman’s own mythos provides a probable answer, and a parable of how to stay human without insisting on being earthbound. Lex Luthor fancies himself an antidote to Superman’s dangerous potential too, but he becomes Superman’s enemy while Batman becomes his ally. Time and again, however, Luthor seeks Superman-level power (as in his pursuit of a cosmic source of strength in the fascinating Action Comics run written by Paul Cornell and starring Luthor in the year before the New 52). Luthor seeks this power not to momentarily rein Superman in (as we saw famously in Batman’s synthesis of some spare kryptonite in The Dark Knight Returns), but to keep, for himself. This contrast suggests that Batman is not just “lacking” superpower, but avoiding it. But also implies that he does this out of contempt for Luthor’s tendencies, not for Superman’s nature. Luthor seeks control and unbalanced advantage, thus upsetting the meritocracy that Batman’s scrapping embodies — and that Superman’s perfection, over-advantaged as he is, does as well; after all, it is unnatural for Batman or Luthor to become super, but Kal-El is working with the talents he started with.

07Batman works the existence of a Superman, and the random complications of a Joker, and the potential of a Robin or Batgirl, into his equation for how society can balance out. He hangs back in the shadows, keeping the darkness out of sight but free of terror, and what is more terrifying than the unknown? Batman makes it his business to know — chemical compounds, criminal records, villains’ weaknesses and allies’ untapped strengths. He holds together families of comrades (father-figures Alfred and Gordon, sons and daughters like the many Batgirls and Robins, surrogate spouses like Catwoman and wayward siblings like the Joker) to replace the family he could not hold onto as a child. He is the mythic patriarch who provides while being left behind; not the young Moses figure borne into a world of possibility like Kal-El on his galactic voyage, but the older Moses figure who does not make it into the better land he leads others to. But we all understand that fathers know best. Batman has thought of everything — especially you.

 

 

 

 

08

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply