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Dr Julian Ferraro is a lecturer at the Department of English. His main research interests are twentieth-century, and contemporary writing and film, pictorial narratives, seventeenth and eighteenth-century writing.
“This week sees the worldwide release of Batman v Superman, in which the latest movie incarnations of DC Comics’ best-known superheroes go-cape-to-cape for the first time on the big screen.
“In the course of an interview with Ben Affleck – the current gravel-voiced actor under Batman’s cowl – the comedian and chat show host Jimmy Kimmel suggested that ‘to see Batman fight Superman…it’s unsettling…it challenges everything you’ve ever believed’.
“And yet – quite apart from the precedent of Frank Miller’s 1986 comic, The Dark Knight Returns, on which the new film draws heavily – Superman and Batman have been at odds with one another since the Caped Crusader first appeared alongside the Man of Steel on American news-stands in May 1939. That Batman holds up a dark mirror to Superman is apparent in the way his origin story reflects that of the orphaned son of Krypton.
Like day and night
“In June 1938 Action Comics Number 1 introduced Superman in the following terms: ‘As a distant planet was destroyed by old age, a scientist placed his infant son within a hastily devised space-ship, launching it toward Earth!’ Less than a year later, Detective Comics Number 27 offered the ‘Legend of the Batman’ by way of deliberately bathetic contrast: ‘One night some fifteen years ago, Thomas Wayne, his wife and his son were walking home from a movie . . .’
“While Superman’s story is part of a tradition of out-of-this-world science fiction, Batman belongs to the world we’re forced to recognize around us. The heroes fashioned from these beginnings are like day and night.
“The alien baby who lands on Earth and grows up as super-powered Clark Kent reaches out to all mankind: ‘So was created . . . Superman! Champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!’ While the terror and shock of the murder of his parents drives the young Bruce Wayne deep within himself: ‘And thus is born this weird figure of the dark . . . this avenger of evil. The Batman.’
Super-ego v the id
“A key part of the appeal of these iconic characters is their susceptibility to symbolic interpretation. In Freudian terms, Superman might be taken to embody the rational, civilized control of the super-ego, while Batman figures the hidden, primitive urges of the id.
“Politically, Superman’s Metropolis embodies a version of the city of tomorrow that is almost utopian, while Batman’s Gotham presents a Gothic-tinged dystopia burdened by the failures of the past – ideological cityscapes that perfectly mirror their respective heroes.
“The beauty of the DC extended universe is the way in which Batman and Gotham City, originally conceived as a dark, all too human counterpoint, can be brought into direct, and shuddering conflict with Superman and his shining Metropolis.
“The resulting questions – about the competing calls of truth, justice (and the American way); of using a god-like power to help those in need, or a single-minded obsession to avenge evil – extend far beyond the ‘Kapows!’ of costumed superheroes.”
For all the theorizing about the right and wrong ways of achieving something for ‘the greater good’, a thread that appears time and time again in superhero/anti-hero narratives to add depth and dimension to the universal scenario of goodies vs baddies played out for time immemorial by children discovering their own humanity (be it fantasy or reality), I suspect that the real reason behind the excitement for ‘Dawn of Justice’ is ultimately seeing two well known and well loved characters* clashing; I mean, in a straight up scrap how the hell can Batman even begin to contemplate fighting Supes, unless the Dark Knight has some Kryptonian weapon to counter the Man of Steel’s blatant advantages? Of course, if you read the comics you’ll probably already know.
But I guess the draw of all such franchised movies (and there are lots now) is the power of nostalgia for those of a certain age (just seeing such stars of our childhood appearing together is very exciting) and alternately, the adventure of discovery of well crafted characters, for younger viewers.
Don’t get me started though on (for good or bad) the appearances of Wonder Woman and Aquaman’s in the film. Or how Marvel simply blows DC out of the water with their intertwined cinematic universe in which I expect Captain America: Civil War to be a much better watch (in spite of the ‘heroes duking it out in a car park’ feel of its trailer) than Superman vs Batman – if only for an actual Marvel take on the lost jewel in their crown, Spider-Man, or the comedy they carefully weave into their stories.
I should shut up now though as I’ll still be queuing to see both team-up movies. And Suicide Squad. And the Justice League. And the Infinity Wars. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. And Star Wars Episode VIII. Etc. Etc.!!!
*And you’ve effectively covered why these are such popular characters given their histories, personalities and how they use their abilities.
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