Superman and Batman. They go together like peanut butter and vigilante justice, but these two famous friends are so much more than that. Both the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel have been with us for three-quarters of a century. Their rise and falls have been indicators of our own culture and history, and they have even affected our world as much as our world has affected them. Superman’s optimism and heroics are often contrasted by Batman’s anti-establishment trust and darker overtures. Each has their place in our cultural pantheon, and each rises in popularity during different times of public opinion and events.
Reign of the Superman
Clark Kent is the All-American boy. He is the modest and loving farm-boy who just wants to do right in the world. He wears a colorful costume, not so much to hide his identity, but to give us a symbol of hope. Superman is the person we all want to be, all-powerful, but also all-good. So, it is probably no surprise that the Man of Steel’s fame started way back in 1938, when the Depression era America was starting to relish the effects of the New Deal. It was a time when everyday Americans were starting to hope for something better, something that they created themselves, like a small boy from Kansas leaving his farm to become something greater and bigger. Superman was born in the era of the Depression, created by the sons of immigrants hoping for a better world.
Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s Superman enjoyed his golden heyday. With a comic strip that ran continuously from 1939 to 1966, and the Adventures of Superman radio show, which enjoyed an 11 year run, from 1940 to 1951, the Man of Steel was never far from the public’s imagination. It was in these two mediums where a lot of the Superman’s most famous tropes and cast were developed, Lex Luthor, Kryptonite, Daily Planet, Metropolis, etc. From 1941 to 1943, Fleischer Studios and later Famous Studios produced animated Superman features. In 1948, Columbia Pictures came out with a 15-part Superman live-action serial, followed by a second one in 1950. George Reeves took over the role in 1951 with Superman and the Mole Men. In 1952, he continued the roll into the Adventures of Superman TV show, which ran until 1958.
Culturally, this make sense. America, starting in the 1940’s, was looking for a hero who embodied our better angels. Superman started his career by punching Nazis, but after the war the United States was left as one of two superpowers in the world. We wanted to see ourselves the way we saw Superman, powerful but as a force for good. Also, with the American economy booming after the war we had a lot of opportunities as a society to be optimistic. Those kinds of feelings lend themselves to a hero like Superman, who stands for truth and justice. Even George Reeves believed in the hope that Superman offered. After being cast in the role Reeves quit smoking, because he was afraid children might see him on the street and try to emulate his behavior. Yes, the early days of comic heroes were good for Superman. The same, however, is not necessarily true for Bruce Wayne.
The Darkest Knight
In 1939 and in response to the popularity of Superman, Action Comics wanted more superheroes, and Bob Kane and Bill finger answered that call with the first Bat-Man comic book. The anti0thesis of Superman in every way, Batman was colored in gray and black. He was a vigilante without superpowers. He was a detective and his comics got pretty violent at times. His stories were darker than that of his colorful counterpart. This was not the golden age of Batman, though. The Dark Knight’s first comic strip did not debut until 1943 and only lasted until 1946. There was a Batman serial created in 1943, which was notable for (1) its inclusion of Robin -who had been introduced by Action Comics in 1940- and for (2) its uncomfortably racist overtones. A second serial was not made again until 1949.
During this time Batman enjoyed enough popularity to become a household name -in thanks to his two serials- but he never reached the heights of popularity that Superman did. Batman’s popularity didn’t really peak until the 1960’s. Hippies, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, civil rights, and all sorts of social problems exploded to the forefront of our national consciousness. The time of the rule-following Superman was over. No longer did we see ourselves as the all-power and all-good nation we once did. No longer were people feeling good and hopeful about the future. Into this fray, entered Adam West who donned the cape and cowl in the now famous Batman television show, and exploded the name of Batman all over the counter-culture.
The Batman portrayed by West was not the dark gritty caped crusader of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, nor the one we know today. This TV version was a knowingly campy mockery of all the tropes of the dark knight and his rogues gallery. It was a formula that not only entertained children, but adults during a time when American society had lost faith in the ideals of the American Way. It was a perversion of Batman, and yet it was also a faithful direction for the character. Ultimately, Batman is a foil for Superman who represents more establishment values and systems, and the same could still be said about the Adam West version. The wackiness of the show illustrated the absurdity of superheroes and their moral superiority and authority -and by extension that of the American government. These ideals -though played down for a younger audience- also bled over into the campy fun of 1973’s Super Friends cartoon.
On Donner, On Burton
Superman, never fully left the American cultural pantheon, though he was dormant in popular culture for a decade or two. He resurfaced in 1978, with Richard Donner’s Superman. It was a movie that leaned fully and sincerely into the tropes and hopefulness of the Man of Steel. Christopher Reeves came to embody Superman for a generation of people, and the movie itself kicked off a revival of Superman for people of all ages. The 1980’s were coming and a so was a New Morning in America. The Cold War was starting to cool down, the Oil Crisis was ended, and Ronald Regan would soon be peddling a new sort of hope for the country. Change seemed to be on the winds and America was waking up to new possibilities. It was a time ripe for people to believe that a man really could fly.
Of course ten years later, that hope was already beginning to wane… Bruce Wayne. Despite more material wealth, unemployment in the 1980’s had never been steady, and the decadence of that era did not affect everyone equally. In 1986, Frank Miller published the Dark Knight Returns, a comic book which served to criticize the American Dream, cast doubts on the pristine image of Superman, and reintroduce the world to a dark and gritty Batman. It was a land mark event, which directly led to Tim Burton’s 1989 movie, Batman. The movie brought the idea of a dark and brooding caped crusader back into mainstream cultural awareness and kicked off a 90’s anti-hero craze in the comic world. Even to this day it still influences how we see Batman.
Unfortunately, both the Batman and Superman movies led to some fairly sub-par sequels in later years, -Ice to meet you!- but perhaps those are the inevitability of success. While Batman began to dominate in the grunge and generation-X-ish times of the 1990’s, Superman moved to the small screen, with Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in 1993, and later with Smallville in 2001. Both these shows are notable, because they deviate from how we normally look at Superman. No longer were we concerned with the Man of Steel, but instead we began to examine Clark Kent and his relationships with those around him. In a way, it was a revisiting of how we looked at Superman. In the 1990’s America was the world’s only superpower. So what does a nation do when it still wants to claim that it is good and hopeful, and yet it is also solely powerful? It examines itself through the eyes of the everyday mild-mannered citizen. Essentially, we started to associate not with Superman -who was godly- but Clark who was a man trying to figure out what to do with that godliness
The Disappearance of Superheroes
In 1992, Batman: The Animated Series debuted. it was followed by The New Batman Adventures, Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, Batman Beyond, and more. Batman TAS, is by far a classic and perhaps one of the most formative cartoons of the Millennial generation. It was a vehicle to sell to toys, but it also blended classic quality Batman storytelling with beautiful animation and excitement. It, along with the Superman TAS set teh high-watermark standard for superhero storytelling -and especially Superman/Batman storytelling- which DC has been hard pressed to match, even to this day… Perhaps we are a little biased.
Batman’s quality continued into the Nolan movies, starting in 2005 with Batman Begins, and disregarding Dark Knight Rises, because Nolan phoned that one in. In 2006, Brandon Routh was recast as the Christopher Reeves version of Superman, and despite it being a faithful recreation it did not go over too well. People were not looking for that kind of movie in the wake of 9/11. Maybe it was terrorism, or modern day cynicism, or stomach indigestion, but in the mid-aughts, Superman could not keep up with the caped crusader. Batman was the clear winner in a society who had again begun to distrust their government, with Nolan’s movies touching on issues of surveillance, unending Middle Eastern wars, and what it means to do the right thing in a mad world.
This set the stage for our modern day DC dilemma. Batman, became the standard for DC and in 2013, -and mostly in response to some other comic book company’s movie franchises- Warner Bros. released the Man of Steel, but featuring a version of Superman who was less perfect, less colorful, and less good. He was more Batman than Superman, and despite DC following up with movies titled Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Just Another Washed Out Hero Flick, and Justice League of Mediocrity, the DC universe, Superman, and Batman have never been the same. We could go on… and we have… but the biggest take away is that both the Dark Knight and the Last Son of Krypton are at low points in cinema, but maybe they are just victims of their own success.
DC is doing great things on the small screen. Their cartoon movies are always done with quality, and shows such as Arrow, Flash, Black Lightning, and even Supergirl have a sincere fan base. What those things have in common is that Batman and Superman only ever mentioned in reference or given parts as cameos. In the case of Supergirl, the show has given us possibly he best Superman featured on big or small screens in the last two decades. That is because he can exist as a supporting character without having to carry all the weight of our expectations, while still fulfilling all the needs of a complex main character.
We have reached a time where Superman and Batman work better as reference points instead of characters. Maybe the two big boys have become so mythologically ingrained in society that no one can do them justice any longer. They are like Greek gods, who are best used in stories as supporting characters. Superman and Batman have become ideals we know inside and out. They have become standards of our culture, reflecting our good and bad times, and we each have or own ideas of who and what they should be. They will never go away completely, but perhaps we really do need a break from their stories… for a bit. After all, it has been 80 years.