Monday, March 26, 2012

Bat-theater and Super-Circus

Comparisons of Batman and Superman are a staple of “comic book literary analysis”. While only the comicscenti can consider, say, the measureless variety of the glory of VIBE, almost anyone who lives within a 100 miles of toilet paper can talk about some of the differences between Batman and Superman.

And about 50 percent of them DO. If I had dollar for every time I’ve read a newspaper article explain that Batman is the archetype for all non-“powered” heroes and Superman the archetype for all “powered” heroes, and every time someone has shared with me the “Gotham=NYC by day/Metropolis=NYC by night” observation, I’d be using the interest my fortune generated to run a personal MegaMillions lottery, every week.

Still, just as “every issue is someone’s first”, every person must discover the Batman/Superman dichotomy for himself, and so it’s an issue that always bears re-examination. My observation today certainly stems from all the regular contrasts between the two World’s Finest, but it’s still one I’ve never heard anyone make in quite this form:

Batman is the theater;

Superman is the circus.

Batman’s professional theatricality is well-known. His origin included pondering what costume he should wear for a frightening appearance. His “disappearing act”, that he uses on even his closest allies. The needlessly dramatic Bat-Signal. As Ra’s Al-Ghul says in the current Batman film trilogy, “I see you took my advice about theatricality a bit... literally!" Batman is a stage performer, waiting in the wings, timing his entrances, and even taking a bow. Like any actor, he is essentially a regular person, who makes himself extraordinary through his dramatic role in a plot, usually as the protagonist against an equally threatening antagonist. And, just like the theater, a Batman story is generally a night-time affair. Anyone else remember where Bruce's parents were right before they were killed...?

If Batman is theatrical, then Superman is circensic (that’s “circus-y” for you less Latinate types). It’s no coincidence that his costume is based on that of a contemporary circus performer; Superman is, at his most basic, a circus strong-man.

He can lift things that you cannot. Like the magic mentalist, he can “see through solid walls”. Like the aerialist, he can fly through the air with the greatest of ease. Although, Superman wears a costume, he’s not wearing to scare you or even to impress you; he’s wearing it to signal “I’m working now.” Like the circus performer, Superman’s attraction is really just What He Can Do That You Can’t. He is NOT an ordinary person, and his extraordinary deeds don’t really require a plot at all. Not surprising, then, that the Superman’s ringmasters – writers – often don’t feel a strong need to build a plot around him; some breezy persiflage that draws attention to the incredibility of what he’s about to do is sometimes all you’ll get. That’s a lot harder for the “directors” of Batman’s plays to get away with.

Like Batman, Batman’s villains lurk in the wings of Gotham preparing to make a dramatic entrance, followed by a quick exit, lest the curtain fall on them at the Act’s end. As characters, they are not aware of the audience, only of the other actors in the play. Most of what Batman does isn’t seen by the citizens of Gotham, just by us from beyond the Fourth Wall. Most of what Superman does IS seen by the public; that’s almost the point. Superman foes, they usually just burst into the center ring of Metropolis (or high above it), in broad daylight. They are well aware of their audience: the gawking spectators below, yelling, “Look! Up in the sky!”

And the Man of Steel, with little other prologue needed, leaps into the ring to accomplish the superhero equivalent of bending the steel bar, pulling the locomotive with his teeth, or lifting the elephant.

Since the only thing required for his act is a
Great Feat That Needs Accomplished, the ringmaster often does away with even an antagonist for Superman. He’s just as likely to be dealing with a natural disaster or technological accident as with a real “villain”. That almost never happens with Batman; people don’t watch theater to see actors fight forest fires, they want to see characters in personal and ideological conflict with one another. Small wonder that Superman’s villains are generally considered less developed, motivated, and compelling than Batman’s.

I have mentioned in a previous post that in the Fleischer cartoon, Superman never talks; he is man of Action, just like a circus performer. Batman, however, as a stage actor, needs to talk; heck, what do you think Robin was really for? To give Batman someone to talk to about the plot.

Superman’s supporting cast includes, essentially, other ring-performers (Supergirl,-dog,-monkey,-horse, -cat,-boy) and “ringmasters” (that is, reporters, whose job is mostly to point at other people doing stuff: “Hey, look! Another great Superman story for the front page!”). Batman’s supporting cast includes a former actor (Alfred) and the police’s media frontman (Gordon). And…

Robin, the Boy Wonder. Which helps us realize why Dick Grayson, circus aerialist, was the glue that held the World’s Finest team together. Dick Grayson is the intersection of Batman’s theatrical approach and Superman’s circensic approach. And in fact numerous comic book stories have made the point that Robin/Nightwing is kind of the intellectual offspring of both Batman and Superman’s approach to things. If the New52’s Dick Grayson could be written always with that in mind, combining the best of both world’s finest, Nightwing could become a breakout star of the reboot.


Bryan L said...

Ah. I wondered where you were going with this, and then you paid it off. Well done, sir.

I'm particularly impressed by your analysis of the depth of the Bat-villains vs. the Super-villains, followed by your tie-in of the Super menagerie.

I also think there's some ground to be explored with the demise of circuses as entertainment, while theater is still an ongoing art form (even if only through television). Batman seems to endure essentially unchanged, while Superman requires periodic reboots to reframe him for a new era (see 52 for an example -- Batman's continuity survives, while Superman's doesn't).

SallyP said...

As usual, Scipio, I am left dumbfounded by the brilliance of your arguments. Plus,I had never really thought about it before...probably too mesmerized by Hal's behind.

But it makes SENSE, by Golly!

Anonymous said...

I know you are DC_FOR_LIFE, but someone now needs to do the same for Spiderman vs Captain America. :)

Scipio said...

Byran: Glad you felt so!
Sally: Thanks! I think it would have been obvious to earlier generations than ours; but we just take so much about the characters for granted that we miss these things.
Anonymous: Who...? ;-)

Speaking of Superman foes, while the iconic Brainiac is certainly a must-have, I thought Milton Fine, Carnival Mentalist gone mad, was a perfect for Super-strongman.

Nathan Hall said...

This holds up in other media as well. Consider how natural Superman looks at the circus here:

And how awkwardly he takes to the stage here:

Whereas Batman's stage show seems more interesting and less dangerous than Spider-man's:

But at the circus, he just looks silly:

ronald said...

>>>what do you think Robin was really for? To give Batman someone to talk to about the plot

Fortunately they didn't decide to just have him talk to his PLANE like Hillman's Airboy did.

After kid sidekick and "funny fat friend," a close runner-up in golden age sidekicks was the inexplicably sentient talking parrot. Air Wave (Larry Jordan) and Madam Fatal, among others, were accompanied by such parrots.

tad said...

I've forgotten -- is one of Alfred's origins that he's a retired actor? Because it would certainly fit. He's not just Batman's butler, he's his dresser. The relationship with Bruce is pretty much exactly the same as two old lovies hashing over the night's performance in the dressing room afterward.

Nicely analyzed, Scip. You have found a very snappy way to look at the contrast between the two heroes.

tad said...

Oh, lest any of your readers think I'm making some weird homophobic comment, "lovies" is British theatrical slang for theatre-folk. See the Tom Courtenay movie "The Dresser" to see an example.

Scipio said...

Yes, Tad; Alfred's original origin is that he was an actor who gave up the theater at the request of his father Jarvis (the Wayne's former butler).

Despite changes to Alfred over the years, they mention it every once in a while. And, yeah, Alfred is very much Bruce's 'dresser', before and after every 'performance' as Batman, isn't he?

Dan the Turk said...

"Gotham=NYC by day/Metropolis=NYC by night"

Surely you mean the other way round?

And in an extension of your analysis, what would the Green Lantern be? Vaudeville?

Scipio said...

LOL, indeed I did.

GL as vaudeville, LMAO! There's certainly plenty of slapstick!

dimenno said...

Bravo! I very recently independently came to the same conclusion, after reading Barrere and Leland's 1895 book "Dictionary of Slang, Cant and Jargon".