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Batman v. Spider-Man

Which is the greater hero?

Dec 31, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 16 • By TRAVIS D. SMITH
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Batman’s nature as an avatar of modern rational control tends toward an unbounded extreme. He possesses one of the most powerful computers in the world, kept hidden in his cave for his exclusive personal use. He invents and always has ready at hand gadgets and concoctions for every possible purpose. The most famous of these remains “shark repellent Bat-spray,” although it’s often forgotten that he stores it alongside barracuda, manta-ray, and whale repellents, inside the Batcopter, of all places—you know, just in case. (I trust that jellyfish, moray-eel, and giant-seahorse repellents sit on an unseen shelf.) Batman retains samples of Kryptonite in anticipation of the day he must destroy Superman, his best friend. Just as the Pentagon prepares plans for invading and occupying allies like Canada, Batman devises secret strategies for decisively defeating his fellow Justice League members. To call them his “Super Friends,” as the Saturday morning cartoon did, is rather imprecise. The self-appointed Guardians of the Universe created the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps to bring peace and order to the cosmos, making them Batman’s rivals in principle. Unlike Batman, they proceed in bright daylight; like Batman’s, their job is never done. One major storyline recently delved into Batman’s control-freak inclinations by having him launch satellite technology into orbit that would allow him to monitor and potentially combat all superhuman activity worldwide, good and bad alike. In the current series Batman Incorporated, he looks to overcome the problem of being just one man by franchising an international team of Batmen. This obsessive behavior is completely unlike Spider-Man’s habit of going out on patrol whenever he finds the time.


Reservations about technology are at the heart of Spider-Man’s story. Peter Parker gains the proportional strength and agility of a spider when a high-tech experiment goes awry. His webshooters and spider-tracers are products of his own ingenuity. His rogue’s gallery, by contrast, comprises a testament to the dangers inherent in modern technological science given the myriad ways it can be misused and lead to unintended consequences. With few exceptions, Spidey’s foes can be categorized as either (i) good guys who were transformed into villains (or ordinary thugs who were made much worse) by technological mishaps or unexpected side-effects (e.g., Doctor Octopus, Electro, Green Goblin, Lizard, Morbius, and Sandman; Venom, too, indirectly), or (ii) crooks who specifically invented, obtained, or otherwise employ technology for the sake of doing wrong or becoming worse (e.g., Beetle, Chameleon, Hobgoblin, Jackal, Mysterio, Rhino, Scorpion, Shocker, and Vulture; Kraven is the noteworthy exception). The young Peter Parker is corrupted by the culture around him no less than any other young man. His first instinct is to use his newfound powers in a selfish, though harmless, manner: He plans to make it big in showbiz for the sake of supporting his family. But after he internalizes Uncle Ben’s message, Spider-Man stands out as a marvel precisely because he is both the victim of science gone wrong and a manufacturer of technological wonders, yet neither makes a monster of him—if we set aside that brief period he had six arms.

Modern society, marked, if not defined, by our devotion to technological science and premised principally on theories of rights, explicitly rejects classical ideas that emphasize virtuous character and duties that transcend individual will. Assessing all relationships in terms of power, defending subjective rights as absolutes, and replacing interpersonal duties with collective responsibilities, preferring the indirect benefactions of impersonal institutionalized mechanisms, modernity is a breeding ground for tyrannical souls and a recipe for tyrannical regimes. It is in this light that Spider-Man can help us to see that modernity’s capacity to turn out relatively well depends on habits and ideas that precede it.

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