Some of you might have heard that there’s a little movie out called “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Unequivocally, Batman and Superman are the two crown jewels of the DC catalog. Both have captained multiple versions of their own franchises, and are as ingrained in U.S. pop culture as much as Zeus and Odysseus would have been to the Ancient Greeks. And that’s a good place to start as we dissect their characters and discuss the storytelling lessons from the mythos of Batman and Superman.
The movie version of Superman has been largely a variation of the hero’s journey, specifically focused on Christian symbolism. While the Donner/Lester films were less obvious about it, Superman is the personification of the struggle between the dual identities of Kal-El (God) and Clark Kent (man).
Sent by his father from the heavens to Earth, young Kal-El performs miracles like kicking a football into oblivion and racing a speeding train. He journeys to the Fortress of Solitude (Jesus spent 40 days and nights in the desert) to complete his education as the Last Son of Krypton, and heads to Metropolis and the Daily Planet. Apparently, the Fortress has quite the journalism school.
Unable to make much of an impression with his human identity, Kal-El unleashes his powers to save Lois from a helicopter accident and reveal himself to humanity, connecting more with his god-like half to the worshipping populace. The Kryptonian beloved as savior is beholden to the responsibility of his power…the human is free to do as he pleases but struggles to relate. This dichotomy lies at the heart of Superman’s narrative.
Superman violates his biological father’s directive and uses his powers to alter time and save Lois. In “Superman II,” he has the opportunity to leave behind his alien roots and fit in with the rest of the world by sacrificing his powers for his love. But the transgression of his father’s wishes had consequences, as the nuclear bomb that would have caused Lois’ death instead released General Zod and his fellow Kryptonian prison-mates upon the Earth. Unable to truly forsake his heritage, he regains his powers to defeat Zod but lose Lois forever.
In “Superman Returns,” the parallels to Christ are intensified. He gets stabbed in the side, and after throwing the Kryptonite island into space (OK, so maybe that isn’t in the Bible), spreads out his arms in a pose similar to a crucified Jesus, and falls to earth, where he lays in a coma for three days before returning to life.
“Man of Steel” truly sends the comparison over the top. Along with a retelling of his origin story, Kal-El faces a plot from a group of the only remaining Kryptonians led by Zod. Kal-El, sacrificing himself, agrees to turn himself over to Zod in exchange for protecting the Earth from annihilation. Playing the Devil, Zod asks for Kal-El’s help in the creation of a new Krypton on the planet Earth. Kal-El rejects Zod’s temptation, and ultimately flies into the depths of the Earth (Hell) to stop Zod’s scheme and save humanity. Unfortunately, during the great battle with Zod, he also levels Metropolis and is forced to essentially murder Zod to stop him.
Bruce Wayne, another orphan with a dual identity, was shaped by witnessing the murder of his wealthy parents. In “Batman” and “Batman Returns,” Gotham City’s macabre nights serve as nightmares that Bruce’s ego battles. Batman is defined by his villains, each of his opponents (the Joker, the Penguin, and Catwoman) representing different shades of his bruised psyche.
The Joker personifies the inability to reconcile a world that would allow good people like the Waynes to be gunned down in a random fashion (both figuratively and literally). Defacing fine art and killing people through combinations of chemicals infused into personal products such as makeup, deodorant, and hairspray, the Joker threatens societal norms. Batman must battle the Joker to find the stability he craves and restore his belief in Gotham.
Catwoman/Selena Kyle is the anger, the lashing out against the pain from his parents’ deaths. She wantonly destroys the city, seeking out revenge against a crime boss who created her through an attempted murder (a parallel story to Batman). Bruce’s romance with Selena reveals his temptations to give into his rage but must ultimately reject it and her Catwoman half.
The Penguin symbolizes his relationship with both his affluence and upscale society. Like Bruce, the Penguin was born into wealth but was rejected by it from his physical deformities. Batman also feels segregated from the well-to-do, not because of their rejection of him but rather of their indifference to helping the city become a place where kids won’t have to see their parents die in front of them.
The Christopher Nolan series shifts Batman into a world much closer to our own. His version of Bruce Wayne is a lost soul, searching for meaning in his life after almost killing his parents’ murderer in cold blood. In an effort to learn more about criminal psychology, he flees his world to end up in a Chinese prison camp, where he dismantles attackers anonymously. Ra’s al Ghul offers him a purpose, to hone his skills and take on larger problems instead of beating up bad guys one at a time. When confronted with killing for justice, however, Bruce Wayne meets his limit and understands that his newfound power must have boundaries that cannot be crossed.
That tenet gets put to the ultimate test when he has to face down the Joker. “The Dark Knight” is largely a meditation on terrorism, and dealing with opposition that you don’t understand. Batman is clearly willing to choose security and safety over personal liberty, co-opting the cell phones of Gotham City to find the Joker and foil his scheme. But he also clearly believes in the goodness of humanity, trusting that the ferries who house common-folk and criminals won’t destroy each other.
Seeing Harvey Dent’s descent into Two-Face, seeing the best of Gotham succumb to the darkness, forces Bruce to question his choices. Only when his mother’s pearls are stolen does Bruce Wayne emerge from his self-inflicted malaise. Re-energized, Bruce gets back into Wayne Enterprises to jump start an abandoned fusion project to provide Gotham with free energy. A plot by Bane and Talia al Ghul strips Bruce of everything he possesses, including his freedom, his friends, and his health, but his indomitable spirit perseveres. Finally having given everything he has, Bruce is able to shed Batman and move on to a “normal” life.
So where does this leave Bats and the Big Blue Boy Scout for “Batman v. Superman?” On one side there is a being of incredible power that has proven to be reckless and willing to kill, even if for the good of humanity. On the other side, someone who has extreme paranoia, a deep distrust of power in the wrong hands, and an unbreakable code of not killing. Let’s just say that these current versions of the characters were built for friction, even when fighting on the same team