Jonathan V. Last penned a paean to the Batman earlier this year in The Weekly Standard, making the case for understanding the Caped Crusader as the hero of the modern liberal order against illiberal threats, including and especially those that emerge from within modernity itself (“A One-Man Department of Justice,” August 13, 2012). Last is right to argue that modernity needs restraining. He is mistaken in thinking that this is a job for Batman.
Batman seems rather to incarnate the willful modern project to end suffering by using reason to gain mastery over all things. Batman wages war against disorder in the cosmos as represented by the microcosm of Gotham City, a chaotic polis just this side of the state of nature. In Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy, Batman’s monomaniacal impulse is best captured in The Dark Knight, when we learn that Bruce Wayne has turned every cell phone in the city into a sonar device so as to spy on everyone everywhere. Acutely sensitive to man’s vulnerability and insecurity after seeing, as a boy, his parents brutally murdered, Batman believes innocent people need protectors because they can’t—or won’t—protect themselves. He uses his mastery of human psychology to solve crimes and apprehend criminals in a fashion that exemplifies the twin maxims that fear is the passion to be reckoned upon and it is better to be feared than loved.
With all due respect to Batman, there is another four-color character who represents an ideal that is nobler and yet more accessible: Spider-Man, who turned 50 this year, having debuted in August 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15. Spider-Man, I would argue, represents a reflection on the shortcomings of modernity, suggesting that it must be supplemented and supported by premodern wisdom and virtues—such as those articulated in the classical philosophical and biblical traditions—lest modern principles race to ruinous extremes. Whereas the rational order that the modern technological project aims to bring into being would absolve individuals of personal and interpersonal obligations, responsibility is the central theme of Peter Parker’s story. His costumed career is guided by the lesson learned from his Uncle Ben: that “with great power there must also come great responsibility.” Still, however great the responsibility that Spider-Man assumes, he does not make the mistake of seeking to impress a rational, moral order upon the universe. Spider-Man’s motto as it is translated into practice is more moderate and less meddlesome. The Webslinger comes to the rescue of people in dire distress, but he does not save them the trouble of taking responsibility for themselves. (Granted, Batman is not a bossy busybody in practice either, but only because crime-fighting keeps him occupied enough on a nightly basis. He would be more proactive in the prevention of all evil if only he could work it into his schedule.)
Like Spider-Man, Batman does not kill his adversaries. But whereas Spider-Man simply webs his baddies, leaving them hanging upside-down from streetlamps until the cops can cart them off, Batman sends his villains to Arkham Asylum, an institution meant to heal the mind and transform character and so is premised on the possibility that even the most dangerous people can be made well and whole through science. Since he has to keep resending them there, however, Batman’s belief that every problem and every person might be fixed through human effort is not fact-based but faith-based.
The essential difference between Spider-Man and Batman can be detected in their styles: Spidey’s banter is full of quips and gags, while Batman is always grim and gritty. That Batman’s archnemesis is the Joker is fitting. One who believes that suffering can be abolished through determined human effort has little patience for jokes. To him, humor is an affront. Comedy mocks the vanity of visions of rational control. The person who can joke amidst a confrontation with evil, like the quick-witted Spider-Man, must be reconciled to the permanent imperfections of a corrupted world populated by fallen creatures.