Superheroes offer insight into the psychology behind how people deal with loss and trauma.
Fans often compare superheroes and argue who would win in a fistfight and, while it may be fun, it’s not really productive as far as real-world application goes. So I decided to take it a step further and analyze two of the most popular comic book characters – Batman and Superman – and do a comparative analysis of their psychology.
The two of them are literally day and night and will help illustrate different mentalities and outlooks on life, challenges, and improvement. They come from different worlds, have different drives, and deal with same issues in different ways.
Let’s crack some heads and see what we come out with.
AKA: Man of Steel, Big Blue Boy Scout, Last Son of Krypton
Superman was one of the first superheroes ever created and debuted way back in 1938. He became such a popular figure that I’m sure everybody is familiar with his backstory: a small boy is shipped to Earth in a rocket moments before his home planet Krypton explodes.
He is found and raised by the Kent family in Smallville and adopts a persona of Clark Kent after moving to Metropolis to become a journalist for The Daily Planet.
Superman is known as the hero of the day because his superpowers are derived from the energy of the sun and he can only be harmed physically when exposed to radiation (usually by kryptonite). So the question becomes – can Superman’s qualities be applied to our everyday lives?
Superman is widely seen as a positive influence and a role-model. Besides the “no killing” rule most superheroes implement, he is noted for being extremely kind-hearted and positive, even bordering on gullible. This presumably stems from his need to be accepted, as he is from another planet, and all of his life he has tried extremely hard to fit in with rest of us – regular people.
This is the basic drive behind Superman’s actions: he just wants to be ordinary.
Despite being a god-like creature, he puts in a lot of effort to appeal to everyday citizens, so you can often see doing mundane things such as literally saving a cat from a tree. This is why he seems like such a positive force in the world and always tries to see the best in people.
But, at the same time, this deeply rooted insecurity is why he gets screwed over so many times and why his greatest enemy is Lex Luthor, a person with no superpowers. Since it’s easy to appear to Superman’s basic drive, it’s easy to manipulate him and he often doesn’t realize it until it’s too late.
All of his actions come from the need to be accepted as an outsider and, while I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this, Superman doesn’t really showcase any suggestions on how to actually achieve this in any normal or healthy way.
Now, let’s move to our next contender.
AKA: Caped Crusader, Dark Knight, World’s Greatest Detective
In 1939, a year after Superman’s debut, DC Comics introduced a very different type of a character. Batman is not only much darker and more grounded in reality, but his backstory became arguably the most popular origin story of all time.
Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents murdered by a random mugger as a child and swears an oath of vengeance against criminals. He travels the world in pursuit of various teachers to help him become the pinnacle of human existence, both physically and mentally. He returns to Gotham city pretending to be a billionaire playboy and fights crime as Batman, a persona inspired by his greatest fear.
As Superman is considered a “hero of the day”, Batman may very well be considered a hero of the night. His guise is inspired by a demon-like creature, he operates exclusively during the night, and often uses darkness to his advantage.
In addition, his basic drive and motivation come from a dark place. In his own words:
I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman!
Psychologically speaking, Batman has a plethora of unhealthy issues, but he still manages to influence so many people in real life. Putting the batsuit, the bat gadgets, and ridiculous villains aside, it all boils down to this – dealing with a tragedy.
Bruce Wayne took a situation that would break most people and turned it into motivation to become something better. While other characters also use family deaths as their prime motivation for violent acts, Batman isn’t just fueled by blind rage and notions of revenge against a specific mugger.
Most fictional heroes or villains are born from tragedy, and they almost exclusively use their already existing knowledge and skills in a different manner, be it for vengeance, mayhem, or sense of justice.
Before downing the cowl of the Batman, Bruce Wayne spent more than a decade perfecting himself in almost every conceivable way. He didn’t just grab a stick and start beating every street thug he would come across; instead, he practiced self-control, meditation, and consciousness. While his actions are very emotionally-driven, and while he is known to be stubborn and destructive, his life decisions are lead by a general feeling of powerlessness.
Batman was powerless to help his parents, so never wants to feel powerless again.
Take a look at Batman’s skillset: Physical prowess. Martial arts. Detective skills. Strategical thinking. Genius-level intellect.
He wants to make sure that in any given situation, he can have the upper hand. While he is driven by rage and anger derived from his parent’s murder, he rarely acts as a hothead. He often faces superior opponents, smarter or stronger than him (namely Superman), but even then he manages to come out on top due to his impressive skill set.
It is said that Batman can beat anyone, no matter how powerful, given enough preparation time. That is because he analyzes his opponents, exploits their weakness, and uses strategical attacks to maximize his efforts.
SON OF KRYPTON VS BAT OF GOTHAM
Both Batman and Superman suffered tragic losses as children. Both of them were disconnected from their loved ones in a brutal way, but both of them had an opportunity to resume a semi-normal life; Superman through his adopted parents and Batman through his wealth and the support of Alfred.
However, both of them reacted very differently to virtually the same circumstances. Superman decided to become more optimistic, appreciate what he has, and make an effort to help the people around him. As previously stated, he aims to live modestly, within the people, because he ultimately just wants to blend in and be like everybody else – ordinary.
Batman, on the other hand, decided to push people away from him. Instead of focusing on developing relationships and living within the people, he extracted himself from society in order to improve himself the best way he can. He rejected rules and limits, both real and perceived, and pushed himself toward becoming something more than a regular man – he wants to be extraordinary.
Superman definitely took a healthier path in dealing with his tragedy, but people cannot really relate to his troubles.It’s courage to take the bullet for someone when you know it might kill you, not when you know it can’t. Would you call someone a hero for walking through traffic over a crosswalk with no cars in sight?
Of course not. But if a person dives into moving traffic to save somebody from getting run over, that shows guts, because their safety and a happy outcome are not guaranteed.
While most superheroes possess unnatural physical abilities, Superman isn’t as relatable for other reasons, primarily because – he’s binary. His world functions in black or white. Everything is either good or evil. He either has all the power of none of it, and his powers and weaknesses come from a single source.And the real world doesn’t function that way.
The real world doesn’t function that way.
In the popular Injustice storyline, Joker exploits Superman’s weaknesses to trick him into killing his wife and unborn son and triggering a nuclear explosion that destroys Metropolis. This tragedy pushes Superman over the edge, so he kills Joker by ripping his hand through Joker’s chest and soon after becomes a worldwide dictator. While it makes for an amazing story, it does highlight Superman’s binary functionality: he’s either all good or all bad. He’s either gullible or ruthless. Hero or a villain.
On the other hand, Batman shows us the entirety of gray areas that we as humans experience. His initial sadness turns into anger which pushes him to perfect himself and adopt his greatest fear as a symbol to help those in need. He isn’t inherently good or inherently bad, but everything in between. He saves people by beating criminals with his bare hands. He stops violence by using violence and often uses threats and intimidation tactics to scare his opponents.
If Clark wanted to, he could use his superspeed and squish me into the cement. But I know how he thinks. Even more than the Kryptonite, he’s got one big weakness. Deep down, Clark’s essentially a good person… and deep down, I’m not.
Batman is relatable not because of being rich or crazy, but because he took a tragical moment – something which would break most people – and used it to achieve something extraordinary. Instead of breaking down and becoming a shell of a man, he thrived to become something more than a man.
He could have used his wealth to not work a day in his life, to be an actual billionaire playboy, burying his grief in alcohol and beautiful woman (as I’m sure most men in his situation would). Instead, he decided to put himself in positions that would only cause him harm and pain. He dedicated his life to being miserable in order to prevent what happened to him happening to someone else.
Batman could’ve had the most leisure life imaginable but chose one of the most painful ones.
Superman is known as the “man of steel” due to his inherent prowess. In the same light, it can be said that Batman has a “mind of steel” because of the skills he acquired. Batman stated that he only has one power: he never gives up.
And I believe that is what is most relatable and formidable about the character. Everybody goes through bad things in life and everybody has to deal with tragedy, sooner or later. Batman is an example of how you can use something bad to become something great.
In a fight-to-the-death scenario, Superman would definitely win. But as Luke McKinney put it in his article on Cracked:
Supporting Superman because he’d win is like supporting a nuclear warhead because it would beat your smartphone – of course it would, but which is more interesting? Which would you rather spend time with? Which has options beyond “soar in and just flatten everything instantly”?
Which is why Batman has won every battle against Superman in comics and movies. And, I believe, why he won this psychological battle as well.