Superman vs. Batman: The Quest for American Exceptionalism

As work on the upcoming Batman vs. Superman film continues apace, it is worth asking what is at stake in a contest between these two all-American superheroes. Superman’s roots are in Smallville as the adoptive son of a farming family, an archetypal small town American background. His powers are inseparable from his identity, an other-worldly, even divine gift that imparts to him the ability and responsibility to protect the world (which is, for all practical purposes, synonymous with America).  Though he protects his secret identity out of necessity, Superman is a journalist, hence symbolically dedicated to free speech and the uncovering of truth. His greatest enemy is Lex Luther, a villainous and amoral businessman against whom Superman implacably opposes his inherent morality. Superman, it seems, is America as it would like to see itself: inherently special, inherently moral, dedicated to truth and small-town values.

Batman, in contrast, is a fundamentally urban figure: he originates not from Smallville but from Gotham city (which is also, in its own way, a symbol for America). His powers derive not from his biology but from technological and entrepreneurial superiority; they are powers he bestows upon himself. Batman is not destined to be a superhero but instead chooses to be one. His family background is not that of a poor farmer, but a wealthy capitalist. He does not need to work for a living, since labour can be delegated to his company’s employees. He lacks the secure, moral upbringing of Superman, having lost his parents at a young age (he has, we might say, ‘issues’). His greatest concern is not truth or justice but social order. In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Batman conceals the crimes of Two-Face because he deems them too dangerous to be publicly known, taking the blame himself for Two-Face’s murder. This allows the passing of the Dent Act, designed to control crime: a reference, surely, to the Homeland Security Act of 2002. Batman’s greatest enemy is the Joker, a figure of anarchy. Batman is closer to America as it really is: its power not a birthright but the result of wealth and the willingness to employ it in pursuit of advanced weaponry, its identity not rural but urban, its investment in social order not a defence of truth but of hegemonic capitalism, its sympathies not with journalists but with the security forces (as the recent NSA revelations have shown).

If Batman is a partial recognition of the reality of America’s political position in the world, it is one which, in the very moment of recognition, reinscribes this unsettling reality as an alternative form of heroism. Batman allows the perpetuation of the myth of American exceptionalism through a strategic admission that its position is not natural but man-made, that it is not opposed to big business but on its side. This is all ok, because at the end of the day, Batman is still heroic. Ultimately, Batman vs. Superman is not a contest between the illusion and the truth about America, but between two different accounts of American exceptionalism.

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