Is Superman a hero? Is Batman a Superhero?
This is meant to be a not very serious article, but there is also a more serious personal viewpoint about the nature of heroism, towards the end
Each day we go through life facing the trials and tribulations which the world throws at us and doing the best we can to deal with them, sometimes with modest success, often with farcical failure (this whole essay IS a personal viewpoint after all). 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, it seems that either individually or as a society, we are forever careering headfirst and blindfold into disaster?
But every so often, rising 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 secret agent James Bond who has to use a Walther PPK gun. No, we are talking superheroes who never age, who arrive from nowhere, defeat the most evil of villains, and disappear 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, doesn't that sound quite a lot like James Bond?)
So who are these guys and guyesses, what makes them so great, and why do we regard them as superheroes? Should we even regard them as heroes? In this piece of 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 powers shall stand in my way.
Hey listen; there's a whole bunch of superhero fans out there, and many are more passionately fanatical than any evil genius or supervillain. And a lot more knowledgeable about their subject too. So no doubt they'll spot some mistakes and inconsistencies in my article. If so - apologies; I make no guarantees about the accuracy of this report, because unfortunately I have not yet been able to to verify the truth in an interview with the Man of Steel or the Caped Crusader. If either Superman or Batman would like to contribute, please use the Comments section at the foot of the article.
But heck, there's inconsistencies galore in the adventures of the superheroes, and nobody complains about them!
How to Identify a Superhero
Researching superheroes for this article was a revelation. Throughout the ranks of the superheroes (and I never realised 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 have abilities that wouldn't cause a raised 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-(wo)men, while others have a variety of powers. Some have abilities which only come into play under certain conditions, such as the Incredible Hulk who needs to get a little bit peeved before he can feel stirred to use his powers. 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 wouldn't they?) 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 stay 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. Presumably he can catch a cold and 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 Superman and Batman are both superheroes and/or heroes, then they are superheroes and/or heroes with many differences as well as similarities.
Superman's Super Powers
It may come as a surprise to some 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.
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 every good writer including Clark Kent and me likes to vary his adjectives. He also learned how to fly (superfast).
Between WW2 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. He could move whole planets with his strength, and was so invulnerable, he could even fly into a star and emerge undamaged. He was immune to everything except Kryptonite, an uncommon commodity here on Earth. Other qualities include X-ray vision, eyes which could project burning rays and gale force breath which can freeze.
Since the 1970s, some back pedalling has occurred because it became difficult to even conceive of events which could possibly damage him, or adversaries worthy enough to take him on. However, most of the extreme abilities still remain including (most importantly of all for my argument) his indestructibility.
Batman's Super Powers
None. Zero. Zilch. Nope - not even one.
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 this planet. 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' or 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 (bear in mind his alter-ego works with so-called investigative journalists!!) is call himself Clark Kent, put on a pair of glasses and act dumb. At least Batman has to make some effort; he has to don a mask to cover his eyes. Does this mean that the residents of Gotham City are a few IQ points smarter than 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 his own special vehicle, the Batmobile. But Superman doesn't need gadgets or a car - 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 to the arguments I present on this page. A brief resume of the history of these powers is given in the blue box here, but for an authoritative account of his superpowers through the ages read: 'Superman Through the Ages!'
So is Batman a Superhero?
I was quite perplexed as to just why Batman is considered a superhero. In my own naïve way, I had assumed a superhero needed superpowers. So like the Dark Knight, I enlisted the aid of a sidekick to assist; Luke, who is the boyfriend of a work colleague of mine and a Batman fan, 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 and to Luke.
But is that really all it takes? I could put on a funny mask to hide my face (that may even meet with a chorus of approval), and if someone gave me the technology, then I could do some of the things he does. I could even get myself in shape - for me, 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 cannot possibly reveal.
According to Wikipedia - next to DC and Marvel, the greatest source of wisdom on superhero matters and everything else - characters without super powers could be referred to as 'costumed crime fighters' or 'masked vigilantes'. But Wikipedia also says - as Luke says - that 'characters do not strictly require actual supernatural or superhuman powers or phenomena to be deemed superheroes'.
So there we are. I am prepared to accept the definition of a superhero given here, and so I will accept with reluctance that Batman does belong to this genre. Batman can breathe a sigh of relief (but he'd better make sure he maintains his standards).
So is Superman a Hero?
Having dealt with Batman (a lot more efficiently than the Joker, or Riddler if I may say so), what about Superman? Is he a superhero? He certainly has super abilities, and he seems to have all the qualities required for superhero status, so, yes, he is. Definitively. But much more pertinently, is he a hero?
'Superhero' is a term specifically for fantasy characters, but 'hero' is a term which is applied to ordinary humans. No doubt it can be applied to people from other planets too, but should it 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 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? I haven’t been brave, I haven’t inconvenienced myself, and I risked no physical harm other than a few splattered water droplets. I’m not a hero. But 90% of the time Superman’s actions are as inconsequential to him as taking a water pistol off a 5 year old.
Traditionally by heroic behaviour we mean 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, 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 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 wanted to. 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 great fear. In those circumstances there's not much to admire.
Indeed, in the Superman stories, I have to admit I kind'a root for Lex Luther instead. Here we have an ordinary flesh and blood mortal human who by sheer genius and hard work has risen to a position of great authority, and who has the audacity and yes - immense courage - to take on this unstoppable, almost unkillable alien being. 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 sympathetic character than Superman, don‘t you agree?
So things aren't looking good for Superman are they? But Man of Steel fans bear with me a little longer - the 'Conclusion' holds out just a little hope.
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 who find it a bit difficult to distinguish reality from fantasy - this is the only part of the whole article to be taken seriously.
Ask a child, or even many adults, who their hero is and they’ll name some pop diva, or an acting megastar. 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. The reason it is wrong to describe them as such is because these words become devalued through over-use. Heroism is not demonstrated just by playing well or trying hard, and even less so by earning a lot of money for a job of work. 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’s shown by soldiers and emergency service personnel, and sometimes by charity workers or dedicated individuals who devote their lives to a worthy cause. It's shown by men like Daniel Keighran. At the time of writing, Keighran is 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 and 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 a wounded colleague. People like that show heroism. Let's keep the term for those who truly deserve it.
And in connection with this, there is one uncomfortable and presumably unintentional social comment which can actually be taken from the Superman stories and the dual characters of Superman and Clark Kent. The two are the same person with 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 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 ability at all - it is about showing courage, fortitude, character or self-sacrifice, to bring about change whether it be on a grand scale or a very small scale.
OK. I've said my piece so now I'll get down from my pedestal and return once more to questions of Superman and Batman.
The Conclusion of this In- depth Investigation into the Respective Claims of Batman and Superman to be regarded as 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 is my conclusion:
Whether either is a superhero is down to your interpretation of what constitutes a superhero. But given this is essentially a comic book term then I guess those of us in the other - real - world have to go by comic book definitions. Superman therefore is undoubtedly a 'superhero' and so I guess is Batman. (I have to say 'yes', because one day I might have to face Luke again).
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 totally invulnerable. For a man who can move mountains with ease, he’s also not putting in much effort, and given that timewise he can fly to the Moon and back in a second, he’s not 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 when he takes on fellow Kryptonians, when he is putting himself at risk. But are there any other ways in which Superman could be regarded as a hero? Just one. He's 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 is his most worthy characteristic.
There, my piece is concluded. It will currently be published on the HubPages web site, but when it receives the global recognition which it surely deserves, I'm thinking of submitting it to an even more illustrious publishing organisation - nothing less than the Daily Planet itself. 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 C. Kent, awaiting his critical evaluation. If it does, and if he takes it personally - well it’s been nice knowing you all!
Additional Super References For Those Who Just Don't Want To Take My Word For It!
- Superhero - Wikipedia
- Superheroes, Villains, Teams and Superpowers - Superhero Database
- Most Powerful Superheroes - Entertainment Scene 360
- Single Power Superheroes - Tvtropes
- Superman's Powers and Abilities - Superman Wiki
- Batman - Wikipedia
- Is Batman a SUPER Hero? - StackExchange Science Fiction & Fantasy Debate
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