For the longest time, writers have had a fascination with what happens when Superman goes bad. A rather popular website was started partially on the basis of chronicling many of these poorly thought-out moments that were conceived in the older days of comic books - back when no one ever thought of calling the best of them 'graphic novels', because the only thing novel about them was their novelty.
Words don't express just how gauche this is.
- Courtesy of Superdickery.com -
There are a lot of reasons for this. Humans have long had a fascination for the concept of falling into evil. The most famous examples are Lucifer in Christianity and Iblis in Islam, but virtually every demon in Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism could also be seen as manifestations of this trope; reincarnation means that virtually all fell into those forms for their misdeeds. A large part of the appeal of the modern show Breaking Bad is owed to its unique conceit of entirely being about the protagonist's fall into unsympathetic evil, from banal and sympathetic directions.
We also have a fascination with moral opposites, ranging from the Anti-Christ, to the Star Trek Mirror Universe, Luke and Anakin, and the recent canonization of The Good Romney, Mitt's dad. Opposites may not necessarily attract, but they are certainly attractive to our eyes.
With Superman as one of the most recognizable and iconic symbols of good in the history of the world, it should come at no surprise that there has been an awful lot of exploration of what should happen if he went bad. Multiple critically-acclaimed pieces of work have been performed on this conceit; The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller revolves in large part around Superman as a government stooge; Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar is about the Man of Steel being raised by the historical man of steel, Josef Stalin (no really, that's what his made-up last name means); and DC's Infinite Crisis had as its Big Bad Evil Guy an immature and insane alternate reality Superboy, driven mad by an imperfect world.
DKR is actually the only time I can recall Miller not doing this to a woman.
- Courtesy of Shortpacked.com -
Frequently, I run into people who believe this represents the only interesting aspect of the character; I had a long discussion with a very anti-authoritarian friend in the Green Party wherein he frequently labeled Superman as fascist. Batman, he contended, was a better example to live by. To him, Superman is at best unnatural and boring. It's certainly a fact that Batman is - by far - the more marketable hero.
But is it the Clark Kents of the world that we need to be afraid of and the Bruce Waynes that we need to be idolizing?
While I personally find Batman to be a very interesting character, I also believe it to be troubling the way that we culturally endorse and idolize him. The problems with The Dark Knight Rises (and indeed, the entire Nolan Trilogy) as a fascist piece of work are well-known, but it's unsettling that this realization came as a shock to anyone familiar with the general character of Batman.
He's the perfect Republican self-made man. His parents left him on the small end of rich (a very minor help in the long run, as Mitt Romney can tell you! Yes, sarcasm), but the escalation of Wayne Enterprises to the largest company in the DC Universe is all on him. He's also mastered 127 martial arts (I wish I was kidding), and has the equivalent of multiple post-graduate degrees in multiple fields. He acts as Judge and Jury, rooting out problems that no one believes exists and breaking the rules to get the untouchable. His only mandate comes from himself, and it's a mandate motivated primarily by rage and sorrow, emotions which don't leave room for clarity. At least he doesn't torture when he interrogates... unless you consider being confronted in a dark alley, by a physically intimidating man, who you know only through the fearful rumors he cultivates, and then either physically assaulted or partially dropped from long heights, to be torturous.
Don't know why you might think that. And let's not really get into the endangerment of children as he indoctrinates them to act and think like he does. He's even started his own privately-run franchise of Batman, called Batman Incorporated, in which he privately funds vigilantes around the world to use the exact same techniques which he does. Whether through fiscal or physical power, Bruce Wayne is the one-stop shop for fixing every problem around the world.
The problem is not that we have fictional characters like him, or even that we find something admirable about them. There are a lot of popular fictional characters who, strictly speaking, would make society much worse if people aspired to act like them rather than like Wayne. What I find troublesome is that unlike these other characters, Batman is held up as an ideal; the negatives of his crusade are primarily painted as negatives to his own mental health, and not the problematic course that it presents to those he tries to help.
And really, what kind of world is it when guards can't enjoy chocolate? That fiend!
Meanwhile, we disparage or fear Superman in the modern climate.
Superman didn't earn his power. There's never any pretense that he did. Which is why, thirty years before Stan Lee coined the phrase, "With great power comes great responsibility," he was out there trying to save people anyway. He is the ultimate immigrant, who received little from his new home and gave so much more to it. Superman follows the law; Lex Luthor became President, and Superman didn't do anything to stop him besides give out blistering journalistic articles as Clark Kent. Because democracy. A punch in the right place can't be allowed to stop that, even when people make the wrong decision.
Superman operates on checks and balances. You think I'm kidding, but in most continuities, Bruce has a piece of Kryptonite - and Superman trusted him with it in order for people to have a way to stop Clark when he goes too far. Because he believes that absolute power corrupts absolutely. He knows he has to understand that he does not have absolute power, and that the people have to understand that, or everything goes to hell.
Not all captions are funny.