IS SUPERMAN A HERO? ...
IS BATMAN A SUPERHERO?
A lighthearted article, albeit with a more serious note about the nature of heroism
My Public Disclaimer
Hey listen; I know there's a whole bunch of superhero fans out there, and many are more passionately fanatical than any evil genius or supervillain, when it comes to this subject. And a lot more knowledgeable too! So no doubt they will spot some mistakes and inconsistencies in this article. If so - my apologies; I make no guarantees about the accuracy of this report, because unfortunately I have not yet been able to verify all of the truth in an interview with the Man of Steel or the Caped Crusader. If either of those gentlemen would like to oblige, please use the Comments section at the foot of the article.
But heck, there's inconsistencies galore in the adventures of these superheroes, and nobody complains about them, so why should I care?
How to Identify a Superhero
Researching for this article proved to be something of a revelation. Throughout the ranks of the superheroes (and I never realised before writing this that there were quite so many as there are), the variety of powers really does range from none whatsoever to virtual invulnerability. Some indeed can destroy the world, the universe and everything should they wish to, while some others have powers that wouldn't cause a fluttering heart beat in a bunny rabbit. Many of them have, or originally had, just one single special power, including the Flash, as well as Storm, Cyclops, and indeed most of the X-men and women, whilst others have a range of abilities. Some have skills which only come into play under certain conditions, such as the Incredible Hulk who needs to get a teeny bit peeved before he can feel stirred to use his powers. And some need an artificial aid like Iron Man's powered armour. So what do superheroes have in common? Well very little apparently.
But most are intelligent and most of course are good role models - otherwise they'd be supervillains. Many have an alter-ego, and none have any sense of fashion. Many have at least one arch-enemy to contend with, who is brilliant enough to be a master criminal, and yet stupid enough to want to operate in the same town as our superhero. And the activities of most were first discovered by reporters working for those esteemed investigative journals which come from the publishing houses known as 'DC Comics' and 'Marvel'.
Why Superman and Batman?
In this study we will look at two polar opposites from the fantasy world of superheroes, who also happen to be the most famous of all - Superman and Batman. I say polar opposites on account of their super abilities:
Superman, as we all know, can do anything and everything. He can fly faster than a speeding bullet, he can even stop a speeding bullet, and he can also stop a crashing aeroplane, an out of control locomotive, and pretty much anything else on Earth. He can do everything, and nothing on this planet can stop him or harm him.
Batman, as I recently discovered to my shock (not being a true expert on these matters) doesn’t have any special natural abilities at all! He’s a human being. He can fall over and bruise his knee. He can get a runny nose. I could poke him in the eye and he'd go 'ouch!' Just what kind of a superhero is this?
Clearly if these two guys are both superheroes and/or heroes, then they are superheroes and/or heroes with many differences as well as similarities.
Superman, Batman and .... Spiderman? OK Spiderman, this page isn't about you, so just go away and do what you're good at - climb a wall or something
Superman and Batman - The Similarities and Differences
So what on Earth do these two have in common? Well - not Earth for a start - because one of them doesn't even come from here. But there are common traits they share. They both hide their identities behind alter egos. They both wear incredibly silly costumes and capes and they both have emblems ('S' and a bat) on their tunics. They are both good guys who do good deeds, Superman in the City of Metropolis and everywhere else, and Batman in Gotham City. The only other thing they have in common is the incredible ability to confuse even their closest friends as to their identity with the most minimal of disguises. All Superman has to do to fool everyone is call himself Clark Kent, put on a pair of glasses and act dumb. (Bear in mind his alter-ego actually works with so-called investigative journalists - incredible!!) At least Batman has to make some effort; he has to don a mask to cover his scalp. Perhaps this means that the residents of Gotham City are a few IQ points smarter than the residents of Metropolis?
Batman has a sidekick. Superman has human friends but doesn't really need a sidekick - a sidekick would only slow him down. Batman makes use of gadgets a-plenty and has his own special vehicle, the Batmobile. But Superman doesn't need gadgets or a car, because who needs a car when you can fly about a million times faster than a car can be driven? He also doesn't need weapons or armour because his strength is unlimited and he cannot be hurt. Superman's super abilities make all the difference both to his behaviour and indeed to the arguments I present on this page, and a brief resume of these abilities is given below. Hardcore enthusiasts can search elsewhere for more detailed accounts. But then again I suspect that most hardcore enthusiasts have already done so.
A fundamental difference - Superman flies through the air faster than a speeding bullet while Batman stands on something
Batman's Super Powers
None. Zero. Zilch. Nope - not even one.
Superman's Super Powers
It may come as a surprise to some to learn that the Man of Steel's powers have changed over time. In the 1930s when he first arrived here on Earth, his ability was comparatively limited. He had great strength, could run as fast as a car and jump (not fly) great distances. Pretty feeble really.
But then as if by magic (it can't really be magic if these are real powers) they gradually increased, probably because audiences demanded 'bigger and better' with each sequel. It wasn't long before Superman developed superspeed too fast to see, superstrength, supervision, superhearing and incredible intelligence. That should be superintelligence, but I like to vary my adjectives to keep my essays interesting. He also learned how to fly - superfast.
Between World War Two and the 1970s, these powers developed to unimaginable levels. He could fly faster than the speed of light, change the rotation of the Earth, and travel through time. Other qualities include X-ray vision, eyes which could project burning rays and gale force breath which can freeze. He could move whole planets with his strength, and was so invulnerable, he could even fly into a star and emerge unscathed. He was immune to everything except Kryptonite, a fairly uncommon commodity here on Earth.
Since the 1970s, some back pedalling has occurred because it became difficult to even conceive of an event which could possibly damage him, or adversaries who were worthy enough to take him on. However, most of the extreme abilities still remain including - most importantly of all for my argument in this essay - his indestructibility.
So is Batman a Superhero?
So now we come to the controversial bits, and first I'll attend to Batman. I was quite perplexed as to just why Batman is even considered a superhero. In my own naïve way, I had assumed a superhero needed superpowers, and he doesn't have any! I needed help to understand this, so just like the Dark Knight, I enlisted the aid of a sidekick to assist; not Robin, but Luke, who was the friend of a work colleague of mine. As a Batman fan, he gave me all these arguments in Batman's defence:
'He wears a costume and he keeps his real identity a secret. He has a hidden headquarters. He uses special equipment, which ranges from miniaturized devices which he keeps in his utility belt to vehicles like the batmobile and the batplane; he has the legal status of a deputy and he associates with other so-called superheroes. And he is a founding member of the Justice League of America, a team of superheroes. He often fights against individuals who qualify as super-criminals. He defends common people and will risk his life to protect the common man. He can be summoned by the police through the use of a special signaling device (the bat signal), he has special skills which he uses to fight crime, ranging from a mastery of certain fighting skills, to the use of disguises, to the mastery of certain forensic sciences, to a unique understanding of psychology of the criminal mind, and he is a very good detective. Batman also answers to a higher moral code than does the average man.'
My thanks to Catherine (the work colleague) and to Luke.
But is that really all it takes? I could put on a funny mask to hide my face - people might even approve - and if someone gave me the technology, then I could do some of the things he does. I could even get myself in shape (the most difficult task of all) and learn a few martial arts. I could be a superhero, couldn't I? But then again, I wear glasses, I'm mild-mannered, and sometimes people push me around, so maybe I already am the alter-ego of a superhero? I'll leave it there - I've already said too much.
According to Wikipedia - next to DC and Marvel, the greatest source of wisdom on superhero matters and everything else - characters like Batman who lack any super powers could be referred to as 'costumed crime fighters' or 'masked vigilantes'. But Wikipedia also states - as Luke says - that 'characters do not strictly require actual supernatural or superhuman powers or phenomena to be deemed superheroes'.
So there we have it. I am prepared to accept the definition of a superhero given here, and so I will with some reluctance accept that Batman does belong to this genre. Batman can breathe a sigh of relief (but he'd better make sure he maintains his standards).
How to be a Hero
What exactly do we mean by a hero? To answer this question, we must now take a slight detour. And for those of you who find it difficult to distinguish between reality and fantasy - this is the bit of the article to be taken seriously.
Ask a child, or even many adults, who their hero is and they’ll name some pop diva, or a film star. And I’ve grown tired of hearing journalists refer to a professional sportsman as giving a heroic performance. These people aren’t heroes. They are just doing a job of work for which they are richly rewarded! People who kick a football around are not heroes. People who write, or sing down a microphone and make millions are not heroes, and the reason it is wrong to describe them as such is because these words become devalued through over-use. Heroism is not demonstrated by playing well or trying hard, and even less so by earning a lot of money for doing so. It is demonstrated by far more worthy attributes than those.
Heroism is about acts of bravery, about self sacrifice, about mental strength in the face of incredible adversity, and possibly about the taking on of a great burden to help others. It is shown by soldiers and emergency service personnel, and maybe by charity workers or dedicated individuals who devote their lives to a worthy cause. It is shown by men like Daniel Keighran. At the time of writing, Keighran was the most recent recipient of the Victoria Cross - the Commonwealth's highest award for valour. He won the medal in Afghanistan in 2010 when he repeatedly, openly exposed himself to enemy fire in order to pinpoint the position of concealed Taliban fighters and to draw attention away from a team attending to a wounded colleague. People like that show heroism. Shall we keep the term for those who truly deserve it?
And in connection with this, there is one uncomfortable and presumably unintentional social commentry which can actually be drawn from the Superman stories and from the dual characters of Superman and his alter-ego Clark Kent. The two are exactly the same person with exactly the same nature, yet it is Superman who is respected and admired, and Clark Kent who is not. The 'human' only gains respect when he displays his special powers. That is probably close to the way it is in real life - we respect or admire those with special abilities.
But heroism is not about special abilities, or even about having any physical ability at all - it is about showing courage, fortitude, character or self-sacrifice, bringing about change whether it be on a grand scale or a very small scale.
OK. I've said my piece. Now I'll get down from my pedestal and return once more to the question of Superman and Batman - heroes or superheroes.
Australian Corporal Daniel Keighran VC. The Victoria Cross is the purple ribboned cross which can be seen on the left of the medal bar
The Conclusion of this Investigation into the Respective Claims of Batman and Superman to be Superheroes and Heroes
Well by this stage I reckon I've lost half the Batman fans and pretty much all of the Superman fans. But if there's anyone else still reading, here are my conclusions:
Whether either of these two is a superhero is really down to your interpretation of what really is the definition of a superhero. But given this is essentially a comic book term then I guess those of us in the real world have to abide by comic book definitions. By these definitions, Superman is undoubtedly a 'superhero' and so I guess is Batman.
What about plain ordinary heroes? Well if these characters existed in the real world, Batman would certainly be a hero, because as a mortal being he risks his life every time he sets out on a mission. He faces pain and death. And he is aware of the risks. By any definition, he would be a great hero. But Superman? In 90% of his activities, I would seriously question whether this guy is a hero by any useful definition of that word. More often than not he's not risking any injury whatsoever because he is completely invulnerable. For a man who can move mountains with ease, he’s also not putting in too much effort, and given that timewise he can fly to the Moon and back in a second, he’s not even inconveniencing himself in any way, shape or form. He's just doing what any normal, socially-upright person would want to do in those circumstances.
I guess of course he may be heroic on those rare occasions when he takes on equally strong fellow Kryptonians. But are there any other ways in which Superman could be regarded as a hero? Just one I would venture. He is a person who could use his power to dictate and demand total obedience, but instead he humbly chooses to serve, and in so doing he seemingly gives the lie to the old maxim that 'absolute power corrupts absolutely'. I'm sure we would all wish that to be the case. And that, in my opinion, is his most worthy characteristic of all.
There, my piece is concluded. It is of course currently published here on my own website, but when it finally receives the global recognition which it surely deserves, I will consider submitting it to an even more illustrious publishing organisation - no less than the Daily Planet itself. Because those people really should know what their journalists are getting up to behind their backs! I just hope though that when I do, it doesn’t find its way on to the desk of staff reporter Mr C. Kent, awaiting his critical evaluation. If it does, and if he takes it all too personally - well it’s been nice knowing you!
Not keen on the look of their faces - just hope they're not coming for me
I'd Love to Hear Your Comments. Thanks, Alun
Each day we go through life facing all the trials and tribulations which the world throws at us and doing the best we can to deal with them, sometimes with modest success, and sometimes with farcical failure (this essay IS being written from a personal viewpoint). We are only human, and to err is human, as is to blunder, to foul up, to be weak and feeble, and to be less use in a crisis than an ejector seat in a helicopter. Is it any wonder that for many of us, individually or as a society, we seem to be forever careering headfirst and blindfold into disaster?
But every so often, arising from the pages of comic book fiction in a city which exists on no map I’ve ever seen, a masked hero emerges to save us. And not just an ordinary hero either like - say - secret agent James Bond who has to use a Walther PPK gun. No, we are talking superheroes who never age, who arrive from nowhere to defeat the most evil of villains, before disappearing again into anonymity until the next time they are called upon, and yet who - despite having saved the world umpteen times over - still manage on occasion to incur the wrath of those in authority (come to think about it, that actually sounds exactly like James Bond!)
So who are these guys and guyesses whom we call superheroes? What makes them so great, and why do we regard them as superheroes? Should we even regard them as plain unsuper heroes? In this piece of fearless cutting edge journalism, I intend to expose these people for what they really are - the good, the bad and the ugly (and I leave it to the reader to determine which of those three epithets truly necessitates the wearing of a face mask). I will select two of them - Superman and Batman - and assess their claims. It will be a no-holds barred investigation worthy of Clark Kent, and no super power shall stand in my way.
So is Superman a Hero?
Having dealt with Batman's status rather more efficiently than either the Joker or Riddler ever did, if I may say so, what about Superman? Is he a superhero? He undoubtedly has super abilities, and he seems to have all the qualities required for superhero status, so, yes, he is. Definitively. More so than Batman and requiring no further debate from me. But more pertinently, is he a hero?
'Superhero' is a term specifically for fantasy characters, but 'hero' is a description which is applied to ordinary humans. No doubt it can also be applied to people from other planets too, but is it an epithet which should be applied to this particular individual?
Suppose I come across a 5 year old squirting a water pistol in the face of a 3 year old and making him cry, and I decide to spring into action to uphold truth, justice and the American way (or the British way in my case). I disarm the 5 year old. Am I a hero? Well maybe to the 3 year old I will be, but to objective eyes am I really? I haven’t been brave, I haven’t inconvenienced myself, and I've risked no physical harm other than a few splattered water droplets. I am not a hero. But 90% of the time Superman’s actions are as inconsequential to him, as taking a water pistol away from a 5 year old is to me.
Traditional use of the term 'heroic behaviour' is mostly applied to courageous behaviour, taking risks or acting despite personal fear. But nothing on Earth poses any threat to Superman and he feels no fear, so when he battles humans or prevents disasters here on Earth, then by this definition he is not being heroic. Another way of assessing heroism may be the degree of effort to which a person goes in order to help others. Superman is undoubtedly a nice, decent sort, but being nice and decent isn't quite enough. Does he devote as much time or effort to helping people as many charitable human beings do? Read through a list of his almost limitless powers, and consider what he could do with them if he really put his mind to it. If he felt motivated, I reckon Superman could use these special powers to solve pretty much every affliction affecting mankind! The truth is, even when saving the Earth from destruction, there's usually no real effort involved, no great self-sacrifice, no fear. So again, is there any heroism to admire?
Indeed, when I look at the Superman stories, I have to admit I kind'a root for arch villain Lex Luther instead. Because here we have an ordinary flesh and blood mortal human who by sheer genius and hard grind has risen to a position of great authority, and who has the audacity and yes - immense courage - to take on this unstoppable, almost unkillable juggernaut of an alien being whom we call Superman. If it wasn’t for his minor little peccadillo of being a morally bankrupt, ruthlessly evil and sadistic megalomaniac (for which I‘m sure we can all forgive him), Lex would be a much more motivational and inspirational character than Superman, don‘t you agree?
So things aren't looking good for Superman are they? Can he really claim to be a hero? But Man of Steel fans bear with me a little longer - the conclusion holds out just a little hope.