Superhero movies have, over the course of seventy-odd years, blown up like a balloon. With each stage of development, from serials to television to early blockbusters to post-9/11 tentpoles, the budgets and special effects have steadily evolved, and with them the desire to take the subject matter seriously. Thirty-five years passed between the first Batman serial and the first Christopher Reeve Superman, and another thirty-five years passed between that film and Man of Steel. There’s a little bit of symmetry between the early serials and the multi-film “cinematic universes” of today, but for the most part they come from different worlds. Watching the films in order is a way of bringing these worlds together.
There’s a pendulum effect with these movies, each new one reacting against the ones that came before in order to distinguish itself. In the case of Batman, the swing can be pretty dramatic. As the critic Steven Greydanus recently pointed out on Twitter, Batman has been subjected to a wide range of interpretations over the years, while Superman has maintained a consistent image. The latter is not terribly unlike Mickey Mouse in that way. Both of them had sharper edges when they first got started, but over time their personas got sanded down to make them more reliable as mascots. So while the tone of a Batman story can be serious tragedy or campy fun (although it’s been nearly twenty years since the latter), Superman is expected to be a little square no matter what.
The title of this post, drawn from newspaper headlines seen in the 1978 Superman and 1989 Batman, illustrates the difference. Batman, the winged freak, is “relatable,” a misunderstood, frightening figure who makes his own “powers.” Superman is just a source of awe, which is boring. Everybody loves Batman, but the response to Superman is polarized: either you idealize him, or you’d like to see the big dope suffer. I’ve been in both camps, myself. This polarization reached a fever pitch in the last couple weeks surrounding the release of a little movie. It’s been sort of sad to watch the battle lines drawn, with people on both sides puffing themselves up, accusing their opponents of bringing too much baggage and not assessing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice fairly. As every single Superman film of this century has dully emphasized, there’s a religious component here. Does the film respect the “canon,” or does it take an iconic hero and portray him as less than noble? This all reminds me of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and the fact that many evangelical Christians were upset about the title character’s homicidal tendencies in that film. Either Aronofsky or Zack Snyder could point to some element of “tradition” to justify their choices, but the backlash clearly has the aroma of veneration to it. Directors of superhero films these days like to compare their subjects to mythology. In short, we’ve come a long way from “BAM! POW!”, and it might be nice to see the pendulum swing back that way.
As I suggested, I’m in no-man’s-land on the subject of Batman v Superman — the movie itself, and also the conflict between the characters, both of whom I love. It’s not what I’d call a good movie, but it isn’t so bad that I can’t think of compelling reasons to see it again, either. Warner Bros. and DC Comics are a very different animal from Disney and Marvel, so their attempts to mimic the Marvel Cinematic Universe are a shuddering disaster. On the other hand, Warner has a long history of giving its directors free rein to follow their hearts. It’s incredible that Joel Schumacher’s version of Batman exists, even if those films don’t exactly work. Marvel was able to get a huge head start on its ambitious “Avengers Phase One” project because DC was happy to let Christopher Nolan work out his self-contained Batman trilogy. If Batman v Superman were a bit more coherent, a bit less self-important, and maybe altogether less fascist, it might have been widely praised as an alternative to the Marvel films. Then again, without the incoherence, self-importance, and fascism, it might not have been such an alternative after all.
Where do we go from here? I can only speak for myself with any certainty. Having loved (some of) these movies since childhood, I was pleased to find out during my retrospective that I can still enjoy them and even articulate better reasons for doing so. Superman II and Batman Forever took rather precipitous falls in my estimation, and my other favorites diminished slightly, but this was no epiphany of putting “childish things” away. Richard Donner’s Superman, Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight are all still very important to me. I can see their flaws better now, but that just makes my recognition of what they do right all the more joyful.
Admittedly, my idea of “doing things right” includes putting Superman on a pedestal, allowing him to be hokey but fundamentally decent. Batman changes with the times, a barometer of the national mood. The Marvel heroes, such as Spider-Man, are persecuted and recognizably flawed human beings. If Superman becomes more like the characters who followed him, something is lost. Something is definitely lost when filmmakers get so caught up with what they can do — using the world’s biggest toy box to make Important Statements About Politics And Theology — that they never ask what they should do. Maybe we’re taking this stuff too seriously; maybe fanciful stories ought to develop over centuries before they start getting treated as mythology; maybe we’ve empowered the nerds for long enough. It’s healthy to remember that these characters run around in capes. They wear briefs on the outside of their tights. Sometimes Batman dances. I can’t hold my nose up at any of that, though. Superman and Batman are still incredibly cool. They have fascinating, heartrending backstories. As American culture has progressed from one extreme to the other, I reiterate that I prefer the balance. It’s no surprise that such a balance was struck in the middle of this history, forty years after Superman’s comic-book debut and then fifty years after Batman’s. Surely it’s a coincidence that these movies were also the ones I grew up with and loved before I could say why. A coincidence, I tell you! It’s a funny world we live in.
My rankings of all twenty Batman and Superman films can be found on Letterboxd.