Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Batman or Spiderman?

When I was in my early teens, I fell for Superman.

Comics were banned by Mum, who encouraged "proper books." I expect she worried about the cost too. As they were banned, I enjoyed the occasional sneaky look at Bunty or, later, Jackie but I didn't always see the point, even though I looked at an old Girl annual again and again. Then the woman downstairs gave Mum a pile of comics for my brother, and it would have been rude to say no.

First of all, I looked at the English comics and was rather taken with Roy of the Rovers. Ididn't understand the rules of football but there was something in Roy's determination that gripped me. I'm sorry I didn't continue following his adventures. Compared to the predictability and childishness of The Four Marys in Bunty, Roy's life was uncertain and adult. He had a real job and suffered the risks of injury, unemployment and defeat. While the Four Marys lived secure lives, demonstrating their tolerance by including a scholarship girl in their number, Roy faced real anxieties in his touching attachment to Melchester Rovers.

But I was seduced away from Roy by the glamour of Superman. Or perhaps I fell for Superman's alter ego - the quiet, bespectacled, slightly clumsy Clark Kent. I don't think I knew who Superman was before I opened the first comic, and I was entranced by the shy outsider who could change costume in a convenient telephone box and defend "truth, justice and the American way."

By my late teens, I thought I'd grown out of superheroes. I'd even stopped watching repeats of Adam West as Batman, though I once caught a delightful episode in which the cowboy villains hid in the opera house and found themselves perfectly disguised by a production of Puccini's Golden Girl of the West. I was persuaded to watch Superman 3, which was a delight, but chiefly because of its lightness and humour. I left comic books and superheroes behind.

I hadn't registered what superheroes had in common - not just superpowers but super-damage. They were all orphaned outsiders, despised by the people around them. Even their super powers were a kind of damage, pushing them into danger, isolating them and causing prejudice. This is explored at its most extreme in The X-Men, which I discovered through the movie.

By 2000, superheroes were popular in cinema and my children were the right age to see the films. I rediscovered my love for superheroes, but now it was their vulnerability that moved me. As political debate was reshaped and often skewed by the events of 9/11, the cinema offered a choice between Spiderman and Batman.

Spiderman was young, poor and unglamorous, forced to design and launder his own superhero costume. He tried to save the world - or at least the people near him - while studying and working as a pizza delivery man. Attempts to save the world got in the way of his work, studies and love. The films explored New York so inclusively that the Twin Towers were digitally removed between the first cut and release - to avoid distressing the audience. But it was impossible to see the films without thinking of 9/11. The questions they raised - of responsibility, vengeance, love and guilt - seemed part of the new anxiety. And, as Spiderman, Tobey Maguire was the personification of anxiety, inadequate to the demands of a complex world but always doing slightly more than seemed possible.

Batman Begins was more plainly a post 9/11 film. Watching it for the first time, I began to wonder if the film was a piece of length anti-eastern, authoritarian propaganda. It wasn't. In the end, within the terms of the superhero genre, it was far more complex - and the casting of Christian Bale as Batman prevented the usual unthinking blend of admiration and sympathy for the super-hero. Christian Bale's record in films, from Empire of the Sun to American Psycho, ensures that audiences' first instinct is mistrust. This is a complex Batman in a difficult Gotham City - a film even darker than the one created by Tim Burton.

Like Spiderman, Batman has had a painful childhood. But, as Bruce Wayne, he is wealthy, powerful and adult. While Spiderman works, Batman cultivates his playboy image, aided by his devoted butler, Alfred. He can commission the gadgets he needs for his bat-identity. He can afford a batmobile.

I expect I'll watch the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, if I get a chance. I've been gripped by the trailer and feel the familiar unease. It's the same team as Batman Begins. But I'd like to return to Spiderman. I wish I'd found an excuse - or time and money - to see Spiderman 3.


quakerdave said...

Spiderman, Batman, Ironman (now making a long-overdue comback), Captain America. Those were my guys when I went through my comic book phase back in the day. A phase I am now re-entering, thanks to my manga-loving son. Just bought the first volume of "Hellboy" and will soon acquire a massive Ironman collection with the original stories.

Midlife crisi, I suppose, but who cares. I still love this stuff.

quakerdave said...

Actually, I think of these as very moral, very deep, very human tales. There's a lot of good, deep stuff going on in many of these books, much more appealing than what passes for a lot of "literature" these days.

Kathz said...

I think superhero stories can be an excellent way of exploring political questions of moral complexity - and that many leave interpretation to the reader, which can give rise to deep conversations.