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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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When I teach introductory classes in political theory, I am grateful for the example that Spider-Man provides of Glaucon’s model of “the man of perfect justice” from Book II of The Republic, one who always does the right thing (in terms of complying with conventional morality) even though he always earns a reputation for doing the wrong thing. Nobody who would wield great power intending to work on behalf of justice can avoid earning a bad reputation. Spider-Man is sure to be accused of being an accomplice in any bank robbery he thwarts. The headlines of the Daily Bugle regularly prompt readers to ask themselves whether he is a “Threat or Menace?” Nevertheless, Peter chooses to keep up the good fight. The language of “choice,” however, falls short here. Whereas Bruce decides to become a costumed agent of vengeance, acting on an internal compulsion, Peter regards what he does not so much as a choice but as a responsibility, a duty he must meet irrespective of his preferences and desires. This accords with the classical notion that virtue is demanded of us by our very nature; it is not something that anyone can opt in or out of indifferently.

It is often said that unlike Superman, Wonder Woman, and other superheroes, Batman has no superhuman powers. But when you consider the life he leads in and out of costume—the monetary and technological means at his disposal, his training in umpteen martial arts disciplines to the highest degree of proficiency, his mindboggling skills as The World’s Greatest Detective, plus his uncanny ability to disappear like a ninja and his apparent lack of a need to sleep—Bruce Wayne is so extraordinary as to be beyond emulation by any actual human being. (That said, as a society, we might contrive to construct a regime that resembles him.) Peter Parker is, on the other hand, written as someone so familiar and ordinary that despite his sensational abilities he remains believably human. “Use the gifts you’re given to the best of your ability to do good in the world” may be a tall order, but Spider-Man’s example remains universally comprehensible and inspirational.

Unlike Bruce, Peter is so short on funds that he has to sell photographs of himself in action to the Bugle, knowing that the tabloid will invariably use them to portray him negatively—a sort of self-flagellation—yet his relative poverty does not interfere with his capacity to act rightly. In seeing something of themselves in the humble Peter Parker, readers are supposed to realize that all human beings have great power. I am reminded of Montaigne’s observation in On Physiognomy, “We are richer than we think, each one of us. Yet we are schooled for borrowing and begging!” It might be less difficult to see just how powerful we all are by considering how easily any of us can do great harm. The point is that we all have more power than we care to recognize to be a positive force in the lives of those around us, even if only in ordinary ways in everyday affairs. Modern society obscures this from us, because in learning to live and let live we have become isolated, weak, and fearful, desperate for a savior in this world. The state steps in to fill that void, growing into a pervasive agent of benevolence. Add to that the contemporary insistence on thinking globally, a crippling perspective from which to sense what good any one of us might accomplish. Batman has his attention trained on the city as a whole—a metaphor for the whole world. That world is, by his lights, populated predominantly by fragile, interchangeable victims in need of an awe-inspiring protector.

Spider-Man understands that it is not abstract conceptions of the world that matter most, but individual lives. His ethics point toward excellence of character, which is an extreme of sorts, but it does not require a rebellion against nature that aims to establish dominion over it. However great Spider-Man’s responsibility is, it remains recognizably human, whereas Batman’s undertaking is utopian in scope and inhuman in its implementation. Conscientious people can imagine imitating Peter Parker, though the material and reputational costs quickly dissuade them, but only a masochist would want to live like Bruce Wayne. Sure, he is admired by the ladies, mainly disreputable types like Catwoman, vacuous debutantes, and sundry glitterati, but he can’t love any of them back—not simply because they aren’t as lovable as Gwen and Mary Jane, but because the pursuit of perfect justice, understood as systemic rational order, leaves no room for love. Indeed, it is at odds with it.

Given that Spider-Man’s ethical ideal is of an upright, stalwart, long-suffering man who faces his travails with dignity and integrity, I cannot help but wonder if the premodern roots of his character are not better located in Jerusalem than Athens. Uncle Ben’s ethic of responsibility certainly calls to mind Luke 12:48, where it is declared, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” Spider-Man’s origin story brings to mind a Gospel passage just a few verses before that one: “And this know, that if the good man of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through” (Luke 12:39). There’s something Christian-sounding about Spider-Man’s “friendly neighborhood” sobriquet. He comes to the rescue of any and all people indiscriminately, implying that he treats every person in the world as his neighbor. He will even rescue his enemies from mortal danger.

Any student of Publius or Tocqueville who believes that America is the pinnacle of modernity thanks to its responsible citizenry, formed by a founding that included an endeavor to preserve and restore some of our premodern inheritances, tempering modernity’s impulses and imperatives, should agree that Spider-Man, not Batman, is the greater hero. The ethical reflections of the ancients emphasized the fundamental importance of good character as noble in itself and essential to human flourishing. The moral theories of the moderns recommend virtues redefined instrumentally, as useful to peaceable coexistence and the acquisition of power and plenty, for the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. Spider-Man’s ethics make sense only in light of the former view; Batman’s can be explained in terms of the latter. Spider-Man struggles to live the life of a decent person, day in, day out, in a permanently screwed-up world. It’s an effort worthy of greater esteem and imitation than the mad resolution to force the world into a rational shape through good intentions, the manipulation of fear, and technological might.

Travis D. Smith is an associate professor of political science at Concordia University in Montreal.


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