Batman vs Superman, Seriously
Recently, Alex Parker tackled the question“Is Batman a Fascist”? ?
The piece sparked some interesting debate. One comment in particular caught my eye.
“You could even make the argument that Batman is the antifascist opposing Superman in some stories. Even sometimes where Superman isn’t fascist, but Batman thinks he is.”
This got me thinking.
Setting superheroes aside for a minute, I’ve never heard an adequate working definition of the word “fascism”. Have you? Sure, we’ve all heard the dry and wordy economic definition, but not the in-plain-English everyday one. What does it really mean when Alex asks if Batman’s a fascist? What does a fascist act like, anyway? What do they want? How do they behave? What inherent qualities does a fascist possess?
Is encountering fascism like pornograpny, indefinable, but you know it when you see it?
This is a good topic to discuss, I think, because the word “fascist” is having a moment. Fascism has crawled out from under its rock to bask in the sun. Somebody’s calling somebody else a fascist every other minute it feels like.
Yet I suspect many people are in the same boat as I am and don’t quite know what the word fascist truly means. It is the rare person who calls for a full and open return to fascist economic policy as defined by Webster’s and few of us would agree on what the physical embodiment of term really entails, yet the epitaph is bandied about with surprising frequency. “Fascist” seems to have devolved into a handy slur people use when one person wants to use force – usually, but not always the force of law – to accomplish some goal that the other person disagrees with. If the two people agree on the goal and agree that force and/or government is required to achieve it, then that isn’t considered fascism, it’s democracy, right?
So I did a little digging in some of my books to see if any older use of the word fit with the way it’s being used here in 2019. And I got a hit. The definition of fascism that makes the most sense to me is author Richard Maybury’s. In his book “World War 1: The Rest of the Story and How it Affects You Today” he defines fascism as “doing whatever appears necessary”. To paraphrase, fascism is simply the willingness to do whatever works in any particular moment.
There’s something about that pithy definition that just feels true to me. Whatever works. Without morals, without qualms, without exceptions. Whatever Fearless Leader (even if Fearless Leader is the Many, instead of the One) perceives as a Good Thing, that is the course of action fascism pursues, using any means necessary. If Fearless Leader has mostly noble goals and uses force judiciously, sparingly, this could make for a livable-with, even possibly positive situation for a lot of people – provided they’re one of the Many. If the Many go along with the Good Thing (because they approve of it) without putting up much of a fuss, the means that are necessary will remain fairly minor and mostly benign and again, this could be a livable-with, even possibly good situation for the majority.
As for the minority, well, if they’re Actual Bad Guys, then who cares about their rights and freedoms, anyway?
We’ll call this Good Fascism.
Please understand, I’m not defending fascism, I’m simply pointing out that light-touch fascism with widely-approved-of-and-uncontroversial intentions behind it, used only or mainly against people that are Actual Bad Guys, is something a whole lot of people are totally on board with. Maybe even you yourself, Dear Reader. Because many people – even good people with pure hearts and noble intentions – like Good Fascism. Many people, if not most of us pesky buggers, want Good Fascism, at least on some level. These people crave a world in which government officials and law enforcement are Good Fascists – they do what needs doing regardless of what them goldurn bureaucratic rules say. Because they’re the Good Guys, we can trust them to only do Good Things that only affect the Actual Bad Guys.
Batman and Superman are pretty much the epitome of using force – mostly judiciously – to accomplish a noble goal. We the audience don’t care if they bend or even break a few rules along the way because we trust them to do the Good Thing in the end. Batman and Superman can do what is right without having to follow those pedantic police procedures and worrying about civil rights and checks and balances and paperwork and dotting i’s and crossing t’s like we mere mortals have to do. Both Batman and Superman are by Maybury’s definition, fascist. They do whatever works. But they’re Good Fascists because they use force judiciously* and in service to the sense of morality that most of us ascribe to. They limit themselves to the capture of Actual Bad Guys. If anything, we get frustrated with these limits sometimes because they don’t go far enough for our liking. Which probably is why we demand ever-grittier reboots.
If enough of us agree with the goal and agree that force is required to accomplish that goal, then it isn’t fascism, it’s democracy. Right?
I used to prefer Marvel Comics to DC because the powers between good and evil were more evenly balanced. I found it more realistic to see Magneto going up against Charles Xavier, for instance, because neither of their powers were really off the charts amazeballs, than to see Superman going up against, well, just about anyone short of an inconveniently located hunk of kryptonite. Magneto and his mutant followers are also believably at risk from the machinations of humans whereas Superman decidedly isn’t. Superman was a stupid character because he was overpowered and undefeatable. Since humans would never stand a chance against him if he went rogue, Superman also has to be thoroughly pure and invariably good – which can, at times, most times, be interpreted on the page as stiff, old fashioned, or dull. Batman has much the same problem only instead of freezing breath and bulletproof skin he has a cool car and a supercomputer, and angst instead of a spitcurl.
But over the course of time I’ve come to realize that what I once thought a bug, is actually a feature. Because Superman is so superpowered, Superman stories are really an exploration of when – and if – great power should be used. Because Batman has invasive technology and power that exists outside of the legal system, Batman becomes an investigation into similar moral dilemmas – what are the applications? The limitations? Is misusing great power to achieve a noble goal ever justified? Where is the line? Is there one?
I believe Superman and Batman are meant to roughly represent the military and law enforcement, respectively. Only by personifying them, fictionalizing their exploits, can we get an up-close-and-personal look at what it really means for us little people to be coexisting alongside a being that wields that kind of power. And what’s more, since we relate to Superman and Batman on a personal level, it makes us consider, even if only subconsciously, that the military and law enforcement are made up of people, and as such are subject to human foibles and failings. We relate to Batman and Superman so strongly because we ourselves desire the ability to use such a power in the service of our own morality, and struggle with the implications of that.
Beings wielding great power are all good if they’re good, but what if they’re not?
Heroes, of course, don’t exist in a vacuum. To have a superhero, you must have a supervillain to challenge him or her. For the most part, DC villains are not even playing in the same league as the DC heroes are. “Watch out, I have an umbrella!” “I refuse to my name backwards! Oh crap, I just did.” And do we really need BOTH a Joker and a Riddler?
Marvel villains have much more believable motives than DC villains do, and I’d even call that one of the most important aspects of the Marvel style – that sometimes the Actual Bad Guys are really more of the Actual Shades Of Gray Guys. And that’s awesome, I love that about Marvel. Thanos, Killmonger, Magneto, Doc Oc – thought-provoking bad guys with intriguing motivations. But even though the villains are so delightfully complex, I find the Marvel heroes a little one dimensional compared to the DC heroes. Their angst and their struggle not to overuse their powers feel kind of phoned in – in no small part because they have to use every weapon at their disposal to defeat villains who are roughly their equals in strength. The Marvel heroes have to be willing to cross every line because if they don’t the equally-tough bad guys will win. So there’s rarely that same close examination of the “should I” behind using power – it’s much more commonly an “I should” situation.
In the Marvel Universe, with great power comes great responsibility – to use that power. It’s always implied, if not stated outright that the right thing is doing whatever it takes to defeat bad guys. Hydra must be stopped. The Sentinels must be stopped. Thanos must be stopped. We’ll worry about questions of ethics later, after the world is saved. Because the Marvel Universe is practically always one finger snap away from destruction, all means are justified, and so the questions DC wrangles with are never even asked. Oftentimes the Marvel heroes DO overuse, misuse, and abuse their powers and neither they nor the little people around them, ever face any real consequences for that, in no small part because everyone is busy gearing up for the next threat.
Thus Marvel, while certainly philosophically illuminating in many ways, is overall less an exploration of when and how power should be used than DC is. I mean seriously, if Tony Stark existed in real life he would be the scariest mo-fo on Planet Earth because he is just plain not that good compared to the straight-up uncorrupted purity of Superman. He has money, power, good looks, and a robotic suit that can blow stuff up. Any one of those things would corrupt absolutely and Tony Stark is 57/58ths of the way there before he becomes Iron Man. I trust Clark Kent with phenomenal cosmic power. I don’t trust Tony Stark with an open bottle of vodka – or my teenage daughter either. Tony Stark may be a more entertaining character to watch, but he’s a lot less informative about the tempting nature of power because he’s never ~really~ put into any situation where he is truly conflicted as to whether or not to use it. Superman has to make that decision every minute of every day and he can never allow himself to slip even for a moment.
Who watches the watchers? That’s what DC is really about. Who watches the watchers and what might it mean if the people who hold the power are not deserving of it? If they were weak? If they were angry? If they were compromised by substance abuse or anger issues or blackmail or some other type of personal weakness? We understand on some level that if anyone who wasn’t Batman and Superman had their abilities, if someone who lacked their purity, their sense of purpose, their self-control, their humanity was given such powers, we little people would be royally screwed. These are practically all-powerful beings we’re talking about here. And yet we HAVE given our fellow humans these powers, just en masse rather than individually. In a book we call them Superman and Batman, in the real world we call them the Army and the police force. What does it mean if the Good Guys’ definition of “good” deviates from our own? What would the implications of that be? (The fine people of DC even made a whole comic about the concept called Watchmen which you should read even if you don’t like comics.)
Nutshell version, I think Superman and Batman are not only fascist, they are fascist by design. They’re fascist because the whole entire point of the characters is to investigate the tempting and slippery nature of fascism through art. I don’t think either Superman or Batman, the characters, believes themselves to be fascist (which is, of course, true of 99% of all modern fascists). And as Pinky said, it’s entirely likely they see each other as being fascist. But they keep on doing what works, and in the DC universe, what works is for them to coexist in their mutual fascisms most of the time.
Batman and Superman use their great power to do things we like them to do, the things they – and we – feel are necessary. We don’t particularly care that they are fascists. After all, in the hands of a noble superhero whose goodness we can take as a given, fascism doesn’t really even seem that bad. In the hands of someone we can trust with that kind of power, fascism can seem like a pretty darn good way to get rid of the Actual Bad Guys. Batman and Superman are pretty much a window into the mind of Good Fascism.
Some are probably shocked by my juxtaposition of “good” with “fascism”. Yet we admit and acknowledge that socialism can be enacted for good or evil depending on who is running the show (are we Venezuela or Sweden?). We admit and acknowledge that capitalism can have good or evil results (even I, a hardcore libertarian, find the late-stage capitalism that surrounds us to be just about insufferable). But no one wants to admit that fascism in the service of goodness and morality and truth and justice and getting the Actual Bad Guys might look really really good not only from the outside, but even from the inside.
That’s why it’s so freaking dangerous. If fascism wasn’t appealing – far beyond nationalism, far beyond making the trains run on time – people wouldn’t keep trying it.
So if “doing what works” is a working definition of fascism, and an affinity for “doing what works” makes Batman fascist, and Superman fascist, what does that mean for us poor old everyday humans, caught between them and the Actually Bad megalomaniacs like Lex Luthor and Ra’s Al Ghul? What stops Batman and Superman from teaming up and bringing humans to heel, anyway?
Each other, for starters.
Batman and Superman stand in opposition to each other. Even just knowing the other guy is out there, watching, judging, willing to take a stand if the other guy’s fascist tendencies get out of control. And that, I suspect, is really the best way to stop Bad Fascism in real life. An array of Good Fascists with roughly equal, somewhat balanced powers coexisting, all watching each other warily, constantly monitoring the situation, taking each other’s pulse looking for sinister rhythms, challenging every overreach and misstep.
The DC problem very likely may require the Marvel Solution. Stopping an overpowered superhero by relying on a chunk of poisonous rock may work in a comic book, but in the real world it may require the creation of several other similarly overpowered superheroes and setting them up to counterbalance each other – a patchwork quilt of Good Fascists covering the small and powerless as we sleep. We may not have supervillains in the real world, but we have Kim Jong Un’s and Saddam Husseins
But the fly in our Good Fascist ointment is that we must accept the possibility that good people can behave in bad ways. Very few people are Superman. Far more people are Tony Stark. Fallible. Corruptible. We have to accept this and design our power structures accordingly. Most people have this naive viewpoint where there are good people and then bad people and ne’er the twain shall meet. They believe there are fascists and antifascists and even though they sure do seem an awful lot alike sometimes, somehow one of them is bad and the other is less bad, or something, maybe? They’re like the pot and the kettle; both black, but let’s call one of them red, white, and blue instead and it’s all good. The naive among us continually call for the Tony Starks of the world to be handed more and more power to do more and more things with less and less checks upon them.
In reality there are no Supermen. Everyone has a secret fascist streak. At the end of the day, we believe in doing whatever works to accomplish the goals that we think are good and right. Most of us are fully ok with making other people get on board with our morality even if we have to bully them into it. Even if we have to use the law to make them. Even for things that are really pretty silly and inconsequential like baking cakes or posting the 10 Commandments on a wall, a whole lot of people think it’s totally ok to use the force of law to make people do something or look at something or prevent them from doing something or looking at something. Even when one’s moral compass is steering true, doing whatever works even if you’re doing it in the service of Truth, Justice, and the American Way is still fascism.
*That’s why it was so shocking for some Superman fans when Superman kills Zod in the movie “Man of Steel” because Superman does not kill. And killing, except for in self-defense, is not a judicious use of force.
Photo by R4vi