You can learn a lot about an era by examining its heroes. Americans of a previous age sainted men like Washington and Lincoln for their unassailable virtue. Historically we’ve preferred our idols to appear unblemished, because this used to be possible.
Embellishing the reputation of a man was easier before information travelled at the speed of electricity. It took so long for every American to learn about George Washington’s cherry tree confession that attempting to undo that image is something that could only have been accomplished after his death.
And nobody likes anybody who tears somebody apart at their funeral.
By the 1900′s radio and print had made vast amounts of news available to the common man, and protecting a heroic person meant actively suppressing the truth about them. The problem was that scandal sold newspapers, and by the time the Great Depression arrived, America was forced to accept that the men they idealized were often charming, self-centered, philandering alcoholics.
So we began inventing the heroes we needed.
When comic books arrived as a diversion in the 1930′s, America desperately needed something beyond “the funnies”. We needed something to believe in. In 1938 Siegel & Shuster gave the public what they didn’t know they were looking for: the story of an immigrant alien who came to the land of opportunity and used his power and virtue to protect average citizens from corruption.
While Superman may have been fiction, he was also a fantasy that other “outsiders” could relate to: he possessed the power and strength that they wanted.
From the 1940′s patriotism of Captain America to the 1960′s cultural revolution of the The X-Men, each superhero represents the idealism of the age that they were created in. Which brings me to the unassailable king of comic book heroes: Batman.
While it can be argued that Superman is America’s best known superhero, Superman can’t touch Batman in the category that really matters in America, and that’s cash. To date, America has spent $518,116,559 to watch 4 Superman films, while Batman has generated $1,449,683,452 over the course of 7 films.
The Dark Knight has lapped the Man of Steel by nearly a billion dollars, and that gap is about to widen significantly with this weekends release of “The Dark Knight Rises”. It doesn’t help to argue that Superman has less films that Batman, because doing so actually tips the scales further in favor of Gotham.
Hollywood doesn’t produce movies that America doesn’t want to see, and no less than 4 Superman movies have been cancelled since 1994, including 1996′s “Superman Lives” featuring Nicolas Cage, J.J. Abrams’ “Superman Flyby”, and 2004′s “Batman Vs. Superman” featuring Christian Bale and wait for it… Josh Hartnett.
So why have American audiences largely forsaken Superman in favor of Batman?
I’d suggest that it has to do with complex morality tale entrenched in the Batman narrative. Batman has never been a paragon of virtue. Even before the comics revealed his emotionally tormented and spiritually disturbed psyche, Batman lived as a vigilante- plying his trade in the shadowland between crime and punishment. While much of what Bruce Wayne accomplishes as Batman could be considered morally correct, it’s also often illegal.
We like to believe that breaking the rules is wrong for other people but O.K. for us.
Batman made his debut in 1939 and is very much a product of the age in which he was born. Batman largely adresses a fantasy question that depression era poor often pondered: “What if a rich man took a stand for the people oppressed by organized crime?”
He’d have to wear a mask,
He’d have to finance his operation himself,
He’d have to keep up the appearance of a playboy,
He’d have to have contacts inside the corrupt government,
and he’d have to be a terrorist.
Batman is the American Zorro or Robin Hood.
Early Batman was much more vigilante than philanthropist. While giving him an orphan as a sidekick was an attempt to differentiate him from the lawless men he pursues, he still operates shell corporations to launder the money he spends defeating other money-laundering, shell-corporation, tycoons.
Batman is our exception to the rule that absolute authority and inexhaustible wealth corrupt us.
It’s a fantasy that we desperately want to believe is possible. Not only do most Americans not have superpowers, but we also want to be wealthy and powerful. We believe that we would use our power and wealth for good. We want to believe that the law exists for the bad people and we aren’t bad… which is why we always appeal to our motives when confronted.
“The Dark Knight Rises” is the final film of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, a series that differs from the others because it hasn’t merely probed the damaged mind of a “wealthy industrialist, philanthropist, byciclist” it’s questioned how long a person can keep up a masquerade before succumbing to the death of character that inevitably ensues.
How long can someone survive the charade of secretly doing good by openly doing bad?
This film series has never been solely about entertainment. It’s always been about the complex human act of self-justification. Exploring this territory and confronting us with the actuality that exists at the end of our fantasies is what has made The Dark Knight Trilogy significantly more compelling than the standard comic book fare… even if we don’t like where it takes us.
Our great American fantasy comes to its bitter-end this weekend, and we’ll most likely be discussing it for the rest of the Summer. Amidst the hype, let’s not forget that what really ends with this finale is our ability to believe that innocence is determined by our intentions.
It’s the death of our dream.
And nobody likes anybody who tears something apart at its funeral.
A new Superman film: Man of Steel is set for 2013.