Batman, Superman, and the Literary Use of Superheroes

Batman v SupermanWith Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice continuing to perform well in theaters, it is worth asking why it received negative responses from American comic book fans, despite being one of the most anticipated comic book movies in recent memory. Batman v Superman’s financial success comes despite a 71% drop in ticket sales between its first and second Fridays at the box office. Drops that large are rare, even for superhero movies. This decline highlights a word-of-mouth reaction that has spread among comic book fans: this is a character-driven movie that gets the characters wrong.

Isaac Cates addresses the deceptive complexity of superhero comic book stories in his American Literature essay, “On the Literary Use of Superheroes; or, Batman and Superman Fistfight in Heaven” (volume 83, issue 4):

To understand the work that superheroes do both within and outside their genre, it is necessary to understand the dense symbolic freight they carry—for the knowledgeable readers for whom these stories are written—by virtue of their decades of preceding stories and associations. This density of meaning is rarely made explicit, but through the accretion of memorable moments . . . these allegorically charged characters can be placed in combination or conflict in order to act out psychological, moral, or political claims.

Cates holds Batman and Superman up as a prime example. When Batman and Superman fight (as they have several times), the context is more important than the question of who will win. While each character may be portrayed in a variety of ways and still be recognizable, any conflicts between them need to make sense in light of the “density of meaning” that has built up around them over fifty years.

When Zack Snyder puts Ben Affleck in a suit of armor that is adapted directly from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, he is drawing attention to a story rife with commentary on Reagan-era America, a story in which Batman and Superman have been friends for decades, Superman’s patriotism has become misguided, and Batman refuses to compromise his principles for politics. But Snyder discards that context for a very different story, one replete with post-9/11 symbolism, in which Batman and Superman don’t know each other and have little reason to be enemies. Visual references to Miller’s comic appear throughout Snyder’s film. But in Miller’s Reagan-era comic, Batman and Superman fight because Superman is beholden to the government. In Snyder’s movie, they fight because he isn’t. Such differences will have a significant effect on how audiences perceive the characters’ authenticity.

Cates’s essay goes beyond Batman and Superman to discuss several superhero comics that have used allusions and references to layer social commentary into their stories, including Watchmen, Kingdom Come, Jimmy Corrigan, and David Boring. A reference can be a powerful thing, and while Batman v Superman may be one of the most successful superhero films of all time in terms of global ticket sales, some of its creative decisions will likely be a sore spot with comic book fans for some time to come.

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