No two superheros are more iconic than Batman and Superman. If you’re a Marvel fan, I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. Go home. Though both are similarly dedicated to the pursuit of justice and both similarly possess righteous infallibility, the ways they approach their superhero-ing business are quite opposite. Superman is good-natured and morally upstanding: the boy scout. Batman is broody and outside the law: the dark knight.

Now, as much fun as I would have talking about Batman for an entire blog with a few snippets about Superman here and there, I’m going to link the celebrity of each of these Superheros to the cultural state of mind of their respective eras. Though both originated in the late 1930s, the popularity of Superman was at its height probably from the 1940s until the 1970s, whereas Batman didn’t really come into his own until the late 80s/early 90s. You could argue that the Adam West Batman gained some popularity for the character, but I’m talking about when Batman really developed his own pathos. Adam West was an interchangeable guy in tights who solved mysteries akin to those solved by Scooby Doo and the gang. More camp than character. Batman is grim, spawned in heartbreak and isolation, and he is just as deranged as the villains he faces off against, with the only difference between them being Batman’s rigid and absolutist moral code.

Superman, on the other hand, landed just outside of Smallville: an idyllic, rural countryside where he was lovingly raised by two wonderful parents, Ma and Pa Kent. There are those who claim that Superman is exceptional because the Kryptonian, Kal-El, is the real persona of Superman, and it is Clark Kent that is the mask. This is contrary to all the other superheros out there, but I would disagree. Superman is Clark Kent, not the other way around. The boy raised in Smallville, who loves and intermingles with the populace, dedicating his life to humanity, is who Superman is. That’s what he fights for: humanity. Lex Luthor, as any good antagonist will be, represents the direct counterpart to his hero. Just as Superman represents the best aspects of humanity, truth and justice (and shut up, work with me here), Lex Luthor represents the worst, greed, power-mongering, and cruelty. They are two sides of the same coin, fighting for the perpetuation of their own version of human nature.

That’s why the symbol on Superman’s chest represents hope. Superman is the hope that humanity can overcome its dark side. That we can recognize the value of compassion, truth, and humility: the attributes of Clark Kent, and that they can survive the dark times we live in and be reborn anew when the time comes. This is why Superman was popular during the conflict years of World War 2 and Vietnam. We wanted to believe we could be better, and Superman was a symbol of that longing.

Then, in 1992, Superman died. As explained in the video in the hyperlink, DC was trying to make Superman relevant again. For some reason, the ideals of Superman had lost their allure. Cue the world’s greatest detective.

Batman is dark. Like, seriously dark. The Killing Joke in 1988 is a perfect example of that. Batman doesn’t fight for the happy return of ideals once lost because Batman’s past is filled with just as much suffering and strife as his present. Batman fights to keep his head above the water. There is an apathy, an unfeelingness, to his brand of justice as he resorts to scare tactics and bullying to dole it out. There is no hope in Batman, just the certainty that criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot, and that we are in an unending war against them.

Society today is deeply cynical. Possibly more cynical than we’ve ever been before. We suffer a deluge of horrors every day in the form of our news media coverage, and this oversaturation of atrocities has dulled our reaction to it. We are desensitized and demoralized. As much as we might think that we are more compassionate, our apathy and laziness reduces any idealism into a status update or a meme. We still recognize that the world is a terrible place, but there is no hope anymore. No wishful thinking of better days to come, just a melancholic acceptance of the state of the world. We idealize Batman because he maintains his Sisyphean battle against the ills of the world, but we embrace his mythology because of its recognition of the ultimate invariability of it.

Today, Batman is successful because he is as brutal and miserable as the world believes itself to be. We also haven’t had a good Superman movie since Christopher Reeve because now we’re trying to turn the boy scout into the dark knight, which is like trying to fit a square peg into a bat-shaped hole. So now we must ask ourselves, will a renascent Superman rekindle humanity’s hope for the future, or must we wait for a cultural revolution before we get a good Superman movie again?

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