Like a lot of kids, I grew up wanting to be Batman. I was the right age to catch Batman: the Animated Series fresh as it aired on weekdays and Saturday mornings. My parents bought me Batman Returns toys without watching Batman Returns (which thank goodness, that movie’s messed up). My grandma noted my infatuation and taped Batman ’66 episodes as they re-ran on daytime TV, while I was at school. She, my grandpa, and I watched them together.
I quickly transitioned from TV and toys into comics. And while my mom might’ve hoped Catholic schooling would teach me to live by Jesus’s principles, my personal philosophy is much more Mantle of the Bat than Bible-based.
“The victory is in the preparation.”
“Death is powerless against you if you leave a legacy of good behind.”
“All men have limits. They learn what they are and learn not to exceed them. I ignore mine.”
That applicability is Batman’s greatest strength. Strip away the over-the-top violence, the millions of dollars, and the cape and cowl, and you’ll find Batman’s core principles are achievable in daily life. With the proper amount of training, discipline, and money, anyone could be Batman. Absent those things, we can all still try to better the world around us like he does.
But behind the grit, the determination, and the code, the things that keep someone like me coming back to Batman well past childhood and into my rapidly-approaching 30s, there’s a certain nihilism that becomes more and more apparent, making aspects of the character less and less appealing.
Imagine shaping your entire life around the desire to create a world where crime never happened, or was never necessary. To fight so damn hard for what you believe in that you lose your identity inside a symbol and a costume.
And then imagine knowing that, no matter how hard you fight, you can never win.
That’s the tragic truth of Batman. No matter how many times he wins, in the larger scheme of things, he has to lose. If he didn’t, there’d be no more Batman. And while that constant failure is, at least in part, a narrative construct, it’s also an unalterable truth of Batman’s world, which both he and his writers recognize. No matter how hard Batman fights, he’s still just a man with a bat on his chest. And no matter how many people that bat inspires, the fact that Batman’s still out there wearing it, night after night, reinforces the fact that his mission isn’t, and likely never will be, over.
The bat stands for fighting the good fight, knowing every time that no matter how much you do, there will always be more evil waiting out there. At this point in time, particularly, there’s something depressing about that “truth”.
The ‘S’, however, stands for hope. Hope that one day, the fight will end, because it will no longer be necessary.
Call it naïveté. Call it wishful thinking. Call it becoming a sap. But as I get older, there’s something reassuring about a hero like Superman who says, no, we can make the world better. Who says, not only is the fight worthwhile on its own merits, not only is it necessary, but eventually it will actually pay off. That better world you wanted? The good things you do will create it.
Pessimism is easy. Optimism is harder. And while anyone can think and act like Batman, it’s incredibly more difficult to think and act like Superman.
The characters themselves know this truth. It’s why any Batman-Superman story worth its salt will take the time to show you, somewhere, that Batman looks up to Superman. Tom King, Clay Mann, and co. did a superb job of showing this in their recent Superfriends story, comparing and contrasting the two heroes’ lives and styles. At the end of the day, Batman recognizes that Superman does something he cannot. Clark doesn’t just believe he’s a stopgap. He believes that someday, he won’t be necessary.
Batman, of all people, wants to believe that’s true.Batman is the hero I look up to. But Superman is the hero Batman looks up to. As I get older, I can see why.
It’s because, stupid as it sounds, the ‘S’ stands for hope. And hope is something all of us, even Batman, need.