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.
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.
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.