Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"Relatable" characters - Superman vs. Batman

Last week, during my post about Zack Snyder's Superman, there was a comment made that I feel deserves further examination. Carlos mentioned that he's never really gotten into the character, saying "I feel much more separated from him because he does things no one else can whereas there is some semblance of reality or connection with Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark and Peter Parker." I personally disagree with that, as all of the characters cited above have such extraordinary abilities that it's a little silly to argue that a guy endowed with all the powers of a spider is somehow less ridiculous than a super-strong alien who flies.

But I want to use this to make a point that's a bit adjacent from Carlos' argument. I've heard the argument before from many comic fans that the reason that they find Batman cooler than Superman is that Batman is "more relatable" and "more realistic." That's an argument I've always found quite dumb, particularly from a standpoint of characterization and psychology.

When writing a character, do you define that character solely by their job? If you've never been in a hospital, do you feel that you wouldn't know how to write a character arc for someone who happens to be a doctor? If you've never worked in law enforcement, does that mean you are incapable of writing about a guy who works as a cop? Is his psychology somehow alien to you because of what he does?

Speaking only in terms of character, lets take a look at Superman vs. Batman.


- grows up in middle America on a farm in a rural community

- two parents, middle class to lower-middle class

- spends most of his childhood believing he's a "normal" human. Most tellings don't have him learn of his alien heritage until he's 16-18.

- After exploring his powers, goes to work as a reporter. 9-5 job among the other working class.

- lives in an apartment on par with middle-class status.

- Has a small group of close friends and working relationships who are "normal" civilians.

- Is generally shown to have a healthy romantic relationship with Lois Lane.


- the children of millionaires in a metropolitan city.

- orphaned at age 8-10 when his parents are brutally murdered before him. In most tellings, his childhood is said to have ended at that moment, and that "Bruce" died that night too, to be replaced by "Batman."

- shown to be an obsessive, driven loner.

- raised by the family butler, one of the few strong "civilian" relationships he has.

- through massive physical training he becomes something of a cross between the world's greatest ninja, the world's greatest gymnast and the world's greatest all-around athlete.

- on top of that, he studies criminology to a level that would put him on par with the most highly trained CSI lab techs AND a modern day Sherlock Holmes.

I note the last two because in order to achieve what he does, Batman has to devote a great deal of study to his craft, much like the dedication a concert pianist or a brain surgeon must show. Superman's powers simply turn on, so I see them as less of an element of his actual characterization.

So on a personal level, who do you relate to more? The middle-American guy who works a day job and gets along well with his co-workers, or the antisocial psychotic billionaire/Olympic-level ninja/insanely gifted detective who finds it difficult to connect emotionally to anyone?

I'm not saying Batman isn't an interesting character, but no way in HELL is he "relatable." When you read a Sherlock Holmes story, who do you relate to more? Holmes or Dr. Watson? Looking at DC's stable of characters, I'd be hard-pressed to find a hero less relatable than Bruce Wayne, save for perhaps Wonder Woman.

With everything Batman has achieved to be who he is, he's as much science fiction as a Kryptonian visitor from another planet. The comics have even carried this to even further ridiculous extremes. In the 90s, Grant Morrison had a tendency to write Batman as a cross between a Mary Sue and a deus ex machina. There was seemingly no enemy he couldn't beat by out-thinking. It got to such ridiculous levels that any internet debate about Batman versus another character seemed to end with Bat loyalists arguing that Batman would beat anyone so long as he had enough "planning time."

I recall when a cover depicting Wonder Woman with her booted foot atop a beaten Batman's head was released. Outraged Batfans argued that the idiot writer didn't know what he was doing because there was no way that Wonder Woman (depicted at the time to be second only to Superman in strength and speed, and with fewer weaknesses) could ever beat Batman.

I bring that up mostly to mention that even in comics continuity, Batman is developed in a way that makes him far more than human. The only way he's more human than Superman is physically. But when writing characters, the physical is often the least important aspect. You need to understand how they think, what they feel, what their desires are, what their relationships are.

Batman more relatable than Superman? Only if you don't give the matter an iota of thought. Don't mistake what a character does for who he is. When writing, that's an easy path to a one-dimensional character.


  1. I think you bring up valid points and I won't argue against them because I agree with each example given.

    I still, however, do find Batman more relatable to me than Superman. Whether or not Batman achieves much through unrealistic measures of training, intelligence or agility is mostly moot because we should be able to agree that all superheroes achieve much through extraordinary measures - acquired, learned or innately.

    How I see it - and I do warn that I can only base this on film and animated episodes - is that Superman's personal dilemma isn't something I care for much. And this could be related to my ignorance of the character, but I'm not sure I can even tell you what his dilemma is besides stopping bad guys from killing people (a justifiable act in it's own right, of course). Whereas with Batman, I've always felt connected to his witnessing his parent's death, to being an individual responsible for a large corporation but being largely incapable of caring or understanding himself.

    I don't mean it to say that Superman is not relatable at all. Or that one is ultimately more relatable than the other, but the way the Superman character has been written in film and in cartoons has left me little reason to care to relate. (I should note I have also never watched Smallville but will someday in the not so near future).

  2. Superman is unbeatable and that's why we don't really care about what happens to him.

  3. I would like to add one thing and I hope it actually helps push this full circle with Bitter feeling that Superman is Clark Kent. I tend to agree here, though I don't think anyone has really captured that.

    When I break down both Superman and Batman I mention Superman Manof Steel fighting enemies as opposed to Batman Bruce Wayne fighting personal demons. It's unfair, but I do that becausethe things I do find relatable in Superman come from him being Clark Kent. Yet, Superman gets more face time (an obvious decision for any writer) and it seems that he no longer embraces those human traits or faults. Good Superman for me (especially in the films) is when he interacts with Lois Lane. We get that bit of Clark Kent which is relatable. With Batman, I feel that his everyday is the same internal conflict whether he wears a cape or not. That seamless storytelling is something I wish I could see more of in Superman. Though based on comments from last week, not many agree.

  4. I just like people with flaws and Superman is almost perfect, and that's why I prefer my shadier heroes.

    And why couldn't Wonder Woman beat Batman? Because she's a woman? WTF. She has superpowers for heaven's sake, and he doesn't. She grew up in a warrior culture and he grew up with a damn silver spoon in his mouth. Fie on that theory, I say! Fie!

  5. I don't think either character is inherently more relatable. Depends on the person, but just as importantly, depends on the writer. I think a big reason Batman is more popular has to do with the editors. Batman was given the chance to be darker. Explore his faults. Whereas Superman is always the Boy Scout. It's like comparing Star Trek: The Next Generation to Battlestar Galactica. Roddenberry made a future where many of humanity's flaws were fixed. In Galactica Larson and Moore gave us the opposite. Which one had more drama?

    Plus Batman has the best villain gallery of any comic book character. Can you name four Superman villains?

  6. i don't have a horse in this fight.
    though the logic in your defense of superman seems particularly faulty. "relatable" is defined, in your posts, as "less exotic." superman's upbringing was far more familiar than batman's, therefore he was more "relatable." but to follow that logic means that katherine heigel's character in that new stupid fucking baby movie would is more relatable than mark zuckerberg or ben affleck from the town, because we don't know that many billionaires or bank-robbers.
    you can find plenty of humanity in outlandish circumstances, no? isn't the whole point of "relating" based on the fact that we're all different, separate entities? if we're all the same, why even bother to relate? wouldn't a writer's job then, is to find that common thread in the most unfamiliar circumstances?
    but like I've said before, I don't give a shit about either superman or batman's relatability. they were both fun to me as a kid because I was in awe of their powers, and really it was a bummer to see their struggle or whatever because that wasn't what made them interesting. though, after a while, every petty thief in metropolis seemed to have acquired a kryptonite, and batman's villains kept on losing but getting away, promising hells to pay. the compromise of their power for "more drama" or whatever was what killed the simple joys for me, as a kid.

  7. I generally agree with this. I've always preferred treatments of Superman that emphasise his humanity. I don't even like the costume and symbol to be Kryptonian - it's a 1930s circus strongman costume with the capital letter S, and actual Kryptionians should be baffled by it. On the other hand, the passage of time makes the original concept less and less relatable. Growing up on a working farm and getting a secure job in print journalism is about as bizarre today as being Batman.

  8. Howdy,
    Long time no post. This is a VERY interesting topic as I've long debated about the Superman mythos.

    The reason I think Supes takes it on the chin so to speak is because unlike every other superhero he can only be killed by one thing in the right circumstances which makes creating a villain NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE.

    Other than Superman: Doomsday, he's never even been hurt.

    That's where the relatability comes in. Though it's more so angusih that there is no suspense unless there's Kryptonite.

    Batman, Iron Man, Spiderman can all be killed by a hard-working villain with a good array of weapons.

    It's like Thor in the Marvel world. You can't kill a "God." Even the Hulk can be killed if you try hard enough but Thor... not so simple.

    It'll be interesting to see the villains intro'd for Thor - if he continues beyond one stand alone movie.

    And if Zach Snyder even breathes the words Lex Luthor I'll kill him.

  9. It's so simple it's laughable. Superman has such a vast array of powers, that when you really think about it, no one would EVER be able to get kryptonite to him. Like I remember I read a comic once where Lex locks him into a room and punches him with kryptonite gloves. WTF? Superman has superspeed, the moment those gloves were shown superman should just blast them with eye lasers.

    Batman is also an underdog. I think you aren't fully grasping Batmans money situation. Ok he's rich. So what! The guy had a sever traumatic experience with his parents dying in front of him when he was young. In real life no one would bat an eye at him spending the rest of his life away from humanity living a lavish life afraid of people. What does he do though? He busts his ass to physical and mental human perfection to fight the crime that took his family. Obsessed? Yeah. But a tremendous self-sacrifice? Yes as well. Superman was born with those powers, he didn't have to work for it. So in comic book world. Superman is the rich kid. No matter how long he volunteered and worked in the peace corps.

    Also, Batman rolls with the Justice League. A whole squad of superheroes with superpowers. Does he complain? No. Does he ever doubt himself? Yes. But does he continously bust his ass to do the best he can? Hell yeah. Batman is the human potential we all feel we have in ourselves if we dedicate our lives to something.

  10. Heh.... it really is true. If you want to get people commenting start a "Comic Character A is better than Comic Character B" thread.

    Just to stir the pot:

    The "Nothing can hurt Superman" argument is another one I'm weary of, particularly from comic book fans. Batman might be "human" but rarely does anything hurt him either. The way the writers treat him, he might as well be invincible because it's rare he's ever at a disadvantage. The only truly notable physical defeat in Batman's history was when his back was broken, which is about even with Superman's loss to Doomsday.

    And Supes has taken on plenty of physical threats over the years, so it's not like Doomsday's the first guy to pose a physical challenge. This goes back to the arguement that Superman needs tougher rogues, but he's had plenty of tough rogues in the comics. The problem is that too few of them have really translated into mainstream consciousness.

    Putting aside Lex, you've got Parasite, Metallo, Maxima, the Cyborg Superman, Bizarro, the Eradicator, Mongul, Zod, Non and Ursa - each of whom can pose a physical threat to him. A few of those have become allies in recent years, but he doesn't have a shortage of powerhouses. Brainiac isn't much of a pushover either, nor is Darkseid or any of the New Gods (when they were still around.)

    The problem is that the movies and TV shows haven't made much use of those rogues. Adventures of Superman usually had him fighting gangsters. Lois & Clark kept the threats fairly street-level too, and the movies were mostly Lex, the three Kryptonian villains and Nuclear Man.

    And unfortunately, he's still saddled with weaker rogues like Prankster and Toyman - both of whom are quite lame.

    I'll just ask "Who says that a villain has to be capable of killing Superman in order to keep the suspense alive?" You can't hurt him physically, but you better believe you can hurt him emotionally by hurting those around him. It's part of why the Metropolis battle against Zod works so well - those four can pretty much toss each other around all day, but if Superman doesn't use his head, they'll end up trashing the city and everyone in it. You don't need to be able to hurt him for there to big action and mortal peril.

    But now we've drifted somewhat from the relatability issue.

    P.S. I don't follow the Thor mythos, but I somewhat agree about the challenge that particular movie faces.

  11. I'm so over Superman vs. Batman. What I want to know is where do people stand on Mighty Mouse vs. Underdog?

  12. Super-speed (includes ability to speed-read with almost(?) perfect recall)
    Can fly
    Super hearing, vision, and smell.
    Lasers shoot out of his eyes.
    X-Ray Vision
    Can apparently turn back time
    Amnesia Kiss

    Superman is the Jesus character but can kick-ass. Other than that I can relate to this near-invincible alien.

  13. No the ultimate reason he fails, is he gets out of every situation by just being superman. Like take the last superman movie. He has to push a giant kryptonite island, a whole fucking island made of kryptonite, his only weakness into space, and how does he do it? By just supermaning it real hard. His whole character is Deus Ex Machina.

  14. but I don't really believe that a hero needs vulnerability to be interesting - I think the Western story paradigm is a linear one, where a vulnerable hero goes on a journey to grow and change. But there's also an Eastern paradigm, where stories come from the fable tradition - the hero does not change, but instead, reveal himself to the audience (or the story reveals its central theme through a series of scenes) and really, myths and superheroes often come from this paradigm.

    What's fascinating about superman to a child is also what's fascinating about Godzilla. There's just something very exhilarating about an unstoppable force, and the writer just needs to find enough creative and zany ways to demonstrate the power of this force - it is why we watch those robot cartoons, There Will be Blood, or Ferris Bueller. The two paradigms may not be mutually exclusive at all times, resulting in very different beliefs (some might think T-800 Ferris Bueller and Marty McFly have arcs; others do not).

    I think ultimately, the more contemporary writers become obsessed with the idea of having the same type of arc for every superhero, the more boring everything will become. I think the whole revival of the Superman franchise is misguided, but if they're going to do it, at least not miss the point by so much.

  15. @arch FTMFW!


    Even taking it emotionally batman still wins. It's true batman seems to have invulnerability because his only serious injury was the back break. But judging by that every comic book character has nigh invulnerability. Spider-man, wolverine, cyclops, the flash, wonder woman, captain america, all these characters only really have one point in their series so far when they are seriously injured or severly damaged.

    The difference between batman and superman is two-fold in this respect. Batman shows more damage consistently on his person and as the story goes along("I sprained my ankle, I'll have to get away from this fight through the sewers") that affects how the story plays out. Also, there is always the threat of sever damage to batman at ANY time. In any superman battle the advantage is always the same, "Oh let me bring out the kryptonite". A gangster could have some gunman in hiding, ra's al ghul could sprint at him with a sword, it could be a trap joker set to blow the building, there is drama in the potential chaos baby. God I sound like joker now.

    The greatest flaw to any drama in a superman story is superman himself.

    some stuff doesn't even make sense. look at archdukezeb point. Just because superman is near kryptonite lex is able to beat him then stab him with a kryptonite blade. You mean to tell me that superman can then lift the entire kryptonite island into the atmosphere? And it didn't weaken him the whole time? Also, wouldn't he kind of notice as he flew to the krypto nation what it was made of? I mean going to cheese quake makes me feel weaker every step I take, I'm sure flying towards it would make me sputter in the air.

    The only way for superman to be caught by anything is to be superdumb. And we have bizzaro for that.

  16. Okay, the "kryptonite" island thing is possibly the most misunderstood point in the entire film. It's pretty clearly shown on screen that the island itself is laced with kryptonite, not made entirely FROM it.

    If there's one thing that I don't think anyone would dispute, it's that the makers of Superman Returns know Superman the Movie well... perhaps a little too well. In STM, look at Superman's immediate reaction to a grapefruit-sized chunk of kryptonite. He doesn't even know what he's looking at and his reaction is immediate from just a few feet away.

    In Returns, he not only lands on the island, but he doesn't suffer any major pain until Lex punches him a couple minutes after he lands. That's enough visual proof for me that while kryptonite is clearly part of the island, there's very little of it on the surface - OR the intensity of this manufactured kryptonite is somehow less than the real McCoy.

    You say it's a mistake that he doesn't fall from exposure just by getting close to the island. I say it's a clue. And it's backed up by the fact that the element itself is only visible in small pieces and cracks in that scene.

    Also note that despite being weakened by the exposure, he still survives a fall that should have killed any normal man - and he's not even maimed. That also seems like a pretty big hint that the kryptonite may be causing him pain, may be weakening him, but the radiation isn't intense enough to cancel out his powers altogether.

    Lifting the island brings in some other factors. First, this time he knows the exposure is coming. Both other times we've seen him hit with kryptonite it's been a surprise sucker-punch, a kick to the balls. That gives him the chance to steel himself.

    Second, he recharges himself in the sun first so he's at peak power. Third, he dives BELOW the island, picking it up by the mantle below it. This puts some extra distance between him and the still-growing island. Sure, the ocean mantle itself isn't enough to block the radiation entirely, but the distance and the fact the radiation has to pass through it certainly reduces the output.

    At that point, Superman just needs the extra earth to hold together long enough for him to get out into the atmosphere. As we see, not only is the "barrier" breaking apart while he lifts it, but the kryptonite keeps growing, getting closer to him even as his protection fades. I can buy him being able to keep it together long enough to shove the kryptonite-laced island out under those circumstances.

    Even though the radiation has got to be getting strong by the time he's in space, I don't have a problem with him digging deep and finding those last power reserves needed to get the job done. It's not all that different from Rocky taking a pounding and refusing to get down even as his body must be screaming at him to drop.

  17. Comics fans find Batman more relatable because they're loners who tend to value brains over raw strength.

    Also, Superman is a classical hero. He's a good guy in every sense of the word. Batman has a dark side. He's tempted to cross the line, and that struggle within him makes him human to us.

    I don't think either character is more relatable than the other, but I can understand both sides of the argument.


    Yeah yeah I realize it's not completely made from Kyrptonite but look at 00:37. That's a shit ton of kryptonite an inch from his face and he's still at the base of the cloud layer. That mean's he's got a few more miles straight up to break the Earth's gravitational pull. So really he has no weaknesses. The one thing that can defeat him is right in his face and he overcomes by supermaning it real hard.

    That's the thing in stories most of the time. You want to make it seem like the bad guys are more powerful in some way or other than the good guy.

    I mean superman is like making a movie bout Tyson in his prime having to beat an evil grade school Karate class. The battle is so lopsided you want to root for the bad guys.

  19. I'm a little late to this discussion, but I agree with joeverkill. I will say that I suspect that people who find Superman unrelatable may only have a surface familiarity with him, ie. his depiction in movies and tv. I think Superman's a great character with a ton of humanity, and so is Batman... it's funny that you mention Grant Morrison (I love how he writes Batman, but you're right about how ridiculous his 90s/JLA Batman was - not necessarily a bad thing, but in many ways he really is as invulnerable and 'powerful' as any other superhero), because his All-Star Superman really teases out a lot of that humanity for me. I'm surprised Hollywood hasn't tapped GM to do a superhero movie yet, considering how definitive (if a little 'out there') many of his depictions of iconic characters have been.

  20. It's amazing to me how people can answer a post and miss the point almost entirely.
    It's even more amazing how people with limited knowledge of something, think they can form a full fledged opinion on that thing.
    Many of the posts here show how little most of you REALLY know about Superman. Not the Movies or TV shows, but the true character in his truest form found in comics and animation.
    As for this misunderstanding of the word and meaning of relatable, it's really simple...
    If you:
    1. Suffered intense psycho trauma as a youth...
    2.Were left with a billion dollar bank account...
    3. Were born with genius level IQ...
    4. Were born physically perfect,gifted in all things physical...
    5. Were trained by Ninja, Monks, Lady Shiva, all the world's greatest fighters...
    6. Can master anything you learn...
    7.Are a master CSI,criminologist/Detective...
    8. Have the drive and focus of a celestial/enlightened being...
    9. Gifted with convenient invulnerability because you're the "God damn (insert name here)"...
    Unless you have had those experiences or have experience with any of those things, you couldn't relate to Bats'. Plain and simple.
    I, on the other hand have had experience with all except the trauma part and my drive is near perfect...I tend to procrastinate.
    Yes, Bats' works very hard. Many of us do. Be it at or passions or our jobs but, that alone is not really enough to relate to an entire person fictional or otherwise.
    Most of the posts here amount to "I like him because he looks cool, has stuff and works hard. I wanna be like that too because I have little imagination."
    Lets be real here, BSR gave very clear and concise explanations as to how and why he came to his conclusion. He even sited examples of instances that prove his points. That's the name of the game here. If your knowledge of the character amounts to Movies and TV shows, you don't really have a leg to stand on in this discussion.
    Batman appeals to many of you on a surface level. I get that. But if you read more, read outside of your comfort level and explore what makes these characters who they are, you will be better equipped to form a real opinion on either character.
    Superman IS most of us at his core. He just matured waaaaaaaaaaay past us after puberty. He struggles with the fact that he CANNOT let loose on earthly threats. It would go against the laws of the world he has made his duty to protect. Now if Darkseid or Imperex or Henshaw were to attack...the gloves come off almost entirely.
    And considering Supes Died before(even if it was only for a short time) it proves he CAN be beaten(Not just by Kryptonite either.).
    Don't just settle for what comes easy at first glance.
    Venture outside of your usual comfort zone a little for a change.
    It can be surprisingly fun.
    In this case it'll give you info for discussions like this.