Two of America’s most recognizable heroes are heading for a showdown, and it’s a fight most of us are implicated in.
The trailer for next year’s geekiest movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, leaked onto the internet this morning. Loosely based on Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (which brought “dark” and “gritty” to the comic book mainstream), the movie sees Batman being enlisted to contain Superman, whose power strikes fear into the heart of the world around him.
Why is the idea of Superman and Batman beating each other up so compelling?
The two characters have a deep connection, and not just because the creation and publication of one kicked off a trend that led to the creation and publication of the other. In 1996’s Kingdom Come, Superman succinctly described their bond.
“That’s the one thing we’ve always had in common. It’s what made us what we are. More than anyone in the world, when you scratch everything else away from Batman, you’re left with someone who doesn’t want to see anybody die,” he says.
Despite this, writers have always recognized that a fundamental incompatibility exists between them, and has since their very first introductions: Superman acts out of concern for the victimized to promote their interest and well-being in the world while Batman acts out of anger toward the victimizers, working primarily to assert his will upon the world and bring it into line with his concept of well-being.
Superman was introduced on his first page as a “champion of the oppressed…sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.” Those actions are a fundamental expression of his identity, an inalienable product of who he is. Lara and the Kryptonian scientist Jor-El loved him enough to help him break away from their planet, giving him a chance at life. The farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent raised him in a way that left him intimate with humility and human frailty. Combine those with the confidence that comes with knowing that great power is a simple fact of his anthropology, and Superman can't help but position himself alongside society’s powerless. Crime will always find him because he loves its victims.
Batman, on the other hand, does not act in response to people he loves. He acts in response to people he hates. At heart, he is still a child overwhelmed by loss and obsessed with lashing back against those that inflicted it upon him. Bruce Wayne (a name cobbled together by his writers so as to leave the reader with a fragrance of colonialism) created the Batman identity and fights crime in his home city so that he can re-shape the world as he sees fit. He was first introduced to readers as fighting a “lone battle against the evil forces of society,” and fighting that battle has always been the measure by which the character has justified his own existence.
For any Christian who cares enough about social justice to be reading the Sojourners website, this raises a compelling series of questions: Are you working to make the world more just because you are confident that your Father loves the victims of injustice? Because your King voluntarily shared the plight of the humble? Because you know that the Spirit will make all things new and you want to be a part of giving people a foretaste of that now? Or are you pursuing justice because you’re afraid of what the world will look like if you don’t? Because you can’t see your own value if you aren't "fighting the good fight?"
It’s easy to react to injustice like Batman. Natural, even. I live on Capitol Hill and I work in downtown Washington, D.C., I spend all day every day walking through a sea of people who moved here because they fear the world might be condemned to social and moral entropy and, like Batman, they are entrenched in an enclave of like-minded warriors, focused on thwarting the people they see riding that disconcerting wave.
But Christians have the privilege and responsibility of reacting differently. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had to concoct a fantastic series of events to come up with a character like Superman, but the qualities they instinctively felt were necessary are telling: The recipient of great love. The beneficiary of a cosmic rescue. Taught to value the humble. And given a deep assurance of great power.
Though I see Batman every day, I don't think I believe in Batman. But the deeper I dive into the Christian faith, the more I realize that I just may believe in Superman.