Both Superman and Batman are orphaned by their worlds, collapsing under the weight of poor management from the previous generation. The failures of the fathers leave the responsibility for a better world in the hands of their sons. One is born to humble beginnings, natural superiority, with his past light years behind him. The other is raised in an empty paradise of materialism, consumed by trauma. But if both of these origin stories create heroes as some form of PTSD, then why are Batman and Superman always positioned against each other? The simple answer is fan service: make the fans squee with delight as the media plays out childish arguments for an audience who will hand money to see a director play with their toys for them on a screen. The more complex answer is that these characters fundamentally represent opposing real world ideologies for how to fix a problematic world.
Gotham City, the domain of the Dark Knight, is government failure. Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman starts off with an affluent family getting lost through a bad part of town. At each turn, they’re accosted by a prostitute soliciting a young boy, a poor man asking for a dollar, and finally two armed robbers. This family is not the Wayne family but made to echo the tragic backstory of the hero with three objectives. The first is to establish Batman’s mission to make a world where no one suffers his personal childhood trauma. The second is to retell the Wayne family tragedy using a litany of social problems to firmly place blame on urban decay. The third is to establish Batman as the good guy for stopping the robbers. It would be faster to just have the family make a wrong turn and find themselves in front of a gun (as it’s usually done), but the film takes the time to set up the argument: blaming the government’s inability to correct its social problems for the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne. This is a move to position Batman’s mission as compensating for and fixing a corrupt and dangerous government.
This seems like a stretch until you consider that in Frank Miller’s Batman Year One Batman’s biggest antagonists are the corrupt police forces and the broken municipal establishment. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is about foiling The Penguin whose scheme shows that our leaders are elected based upon who can manipulate the media the best, rather than virtue or policy. Ultimately, Batman responds by privatizing crime fighting because the government is too broken to do it for itself. In his essay “Holding Out for a Hero: Reaganism, Comic Book Vigilantes, and Captain America,” Mike S. Dubose says, “In The Dark Knight Returns, (http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/Batman:_The_Dark_Knight_Returns) Batman is seen as a hero by those who would typically fit the stereotype of conservative/Republican. Many of his supporters are tired of the crime which runs rampant through Gotham City… Along with the distrust of authority, those who see Batman as a savior also stress individual rights.”
Batman represents the libertarian ideal, or a benign libertarianism. He’s a self-made übermensch who makes the world a better place because he is wealthy. Bruce Wayne would actually become less capable of saving Gotham if he had less money, an argument against taxes or at least taxing the rich. When Batman perches at the edge of a building like a gargoyle, it’s a metaphor for the wealthy guardian class watching over the peons below. Outside of being Batman, Bruce Wayne is constantly seen as one of the few people not actively ruining Gotham. He’s creating jobs and charitable foundations and making new technologies. This is how conservatives who buy into the prosperity gospel see rich people, as divinely endowed beneficiaries come to save humanity better than any messiah ever could.
Batman as a franchise always takes shots at the rich, so then how does this work? To answer this we need to address The Joker Question: “Is the Batman just like the Joker?” Superficially, Batman and Joker work outside of the law, are violent, and cause mayhem on Gotham streets. On a deeper level, this is a question about execution of power and morality. Batman is not restricted by the law, but he does restrict himself with his own moral codes. Batman is the idealist argument that the free market would regulate itself and ultimately choose to do the right thing as the right thing is in its best interests. On the other hand, the Joker and similar villains have little or no moral restrictions. They abuse their power to the fullest fulfillment of their whimsy. They kill civilians and their own loyal henchmen. The villains in Batman are a vision of libertarianism from the historical understanding that, in terms of game theory, the ultimate goal of capitalism is slavery. If it cannot achieve slavery through restrictions, then its goal is to otherwise get as close to maximum labor output with minimum costs. It doesn’t matter whether that slavery is achieved through automation (robot slaves), child labor, keeping wages and benefits low, or outsourcing to a country that allows (near) slavery. The famous argument that the villains exist because of Batman is therefore saying that as people strive for the liberties of a free market, they create powers for those who wish to abuse it.
This is where Superman comes in. Superman has lofty origins, but Clark Kent has a humble upbringing and a perspective that comes with it. “Superman” is the superlative of masculinity, while “Kent” is an outdated pronunciation for a vulgar term meaning a woman’s genitals. This duality is one of his greatest powers: the Man of Steel is the most compassionate, self-sacrificing Justice League member. Created in The Great Depression by two teenagers worrying about whether they’ll be able to work after high school, the Kryptonian came into being as the fulfillment of a fantasy that the oppressed could have some power over their lot in life, or at least someone would come and punish the oppressors for the sake of social justice. In short, Superman is a liberal. In Action Comics #1 Superman is called the “…champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!” In Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels a History of Comic Art, Roger Sabin calls the earliest version of Superman a “super-social worker…reflecting the liberal idealism of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Drunks, wife-batterers and gamblers received his attention, while in one famous tale a mine-owner who obliges miners to labour in dangerous conditions is compelled by Superman to experience those conditions himself.” Metropolis’ guardian is far from willing to let business be business. In Action Comics #2 (http://www.dccomics.com/graphic-novels/superman-in-the-forties), Superman kidnaps the president of a munitions company and forces him to fight in the war the company president helped engineer for the sake of sales. Superman stalks the CEO, bullying him with his super strength to give up on selling weapons at the expense of human lives, effectively shutting down a major corporation because it was fundamentally opposed to Superman’s ethics. Despite being from the last century, this echoes the fears that President Obama will take away guns and shut down gun manufacturers.
This is why Superman and Batman are always at war with each other. In most cases Superman regards Batman with respect and understanding despite their differences. As a liberal, Superman believes in the right to differing beliefs as long as those beliefs do not spell disaster for the innocent. Batman, however, regards Superman as the greatest potential threat to the planet, and he’s not wrong. As the way libertarians look at big government, Batman fears that Superman is a naïve, foolish Boy Scout who may grow corrupt and too powerful to stop. In Dwayne McDuffie’s Justice League Doom, Batman says, “I’ve studied every Justice League member, past and present, and created contingency plans to neutralize [the members] if that should ever become necessary.” While Batman is strictly anti-gun, he believes in the spirit of the 2nd Amendment: the need to be ready when a benign power turns oppressive.
So now that we know that they fight because of the political philosophies that they represent, does anyone win on an allegorical level? On a literal level we would be talking about super powers or the earlier mentioned contingency plans, but which ideal does DC side with? It might seem evident that Metropolis is a much safer place to live in than Gotham City, and so therefore liberal ideals make the better society. But that brings up a question as to why DC would make Metropolis so clean; that goes against narrative ideas of conflict. Shouldn’t every hero’s city be a Gotham?
Actually while both Gotham and Metropolis are cities of crime, the tone of each setting is based upon the nature of the crime. To the libertarian, the villains are the criminals below, who resort to violent crime and the corrupt politicians who feed their wallets as the community dies. Hence why Batman is the gargoyle representing the guardian class who will save the country with trickledown economics. In Batman Year One, Commissioner Gordon rides a train into town thinking, “Train’s no way to come to Gotham…in an airplane, from above, all you’d see are the streets and buildings. Fool you into thinking it’s civilized.” This is juxtaposed with Bruce Wayne’s thoughts on entering Gotham by plane, “I should have taken the train. I should be closer. I should see the enemy.”
However, in Superman, evil comes from above. Lex Luthor reigns terror from a skyscraper when not in The White House. Mr. Mxyzptlk comes from the 5th dimension. Other villains like Darkseid, Brainiac, and Zod come from space. Just like with Batman, these villains represent the worst outcome of our alien hero. So Metropolis doesn’t need to look grimy since liberals do not see victims of a failed society to be the villains. They look up the socioeconomic pyramid for that.
In the pilot of Batman Beyond and in The Dark Knight Returns we see the anxiety of an aging Batman and a concern of whether Batman will survive the death of Bruce Wayne. We aren’t left with a sense of hope or accomplishment that a lifetime of Wayne being Batman has had any positive effect on Gotham, showing true inability to sustain the ideals of libertarianism. In an episode of Justice League Unlimited called “A Better World,” we see an alternate timeline where the Justice League becomes the authoritarian Justice Lords, led by Superman on a quest to avenge the death of the Flash, showing the grim dangers of allowing a liberal government too much power. It’s hard to say that there is a definite winner in the DC universe, but there will always be Batman versus Superman.