I was recently reading a blog post detailing the author’s favourite anti-heroes. As expected, characters like Rorschach and Wolverine were near the top of the list but the author stated that he doesn’t consider Batman to be an anti-hero. The term “anti-hero” is a broad one, but generally it refers to a character who functions as a force of good but displays traits and moral ambiguity that is more typical of villains. For example, Wolverine is considered an anti-hero due to his violent methods of eliminating his enemies and character traits such as his aggressiveness and anti-social personality.
Of course it is easy to see Batman as a hero when compared to characters such as The Punisher, or more drastic examples like Alex from A Clockwork Orange. However, many anti-heroes are best presented, or fleshed out, when presented in contrast to the other characters in their universe. Wolverine’s loner tendencies are in contrast to Cyclops’s or Jean Grey’s role as leaders of the X-Men, Rorschach’s moral absolutism and anti-social persona are in contrast to Nite Owl’s morals and personality. In a sense, the term anti-hero can often be relative.
In the case of Batman, his qualities are best viewed in contrast to Superman’s. Although there are popular variations in the comics, Superman’s typical characterization makes him a symbol of light and hope. Superman’s world can be grim but it is his optimism that makes him a symbol of hope. Superman is also a figure who is less afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, being able to quickly form relationships with other heroes and present an air of compassion to civilians.
One of the best examples of this contrast is a clip from the old Batman Animated Series. We first see Superman save a child who was stuck on a transmission tower, after climbing it for a dare. After saving the child, Superman gives him a pep talk about responsibility, encouraging him to be more careful. After Batman pulls two teens from the roof of a train, he only warns them that they’ll fry if they keep playing chicken.
Both characters are heroes, and have compassion for human life, but Batman’s much colder personality generates fear instead of the admiration that Superman receives. Here we can see Superman as an archetypal “good guy”: noble, courageous, and compassionate.
Batman is also a stark contrast to Superman due to his Machiavellian tactics.BatmanvSuperman was heavily criticized for the justification it gave for Batman to want to fight Superman, but the film did touch on the paranoia that defines the character. While Superman openly tries to build relationships with other members of the Justice League, Batman uses his time to analyze their strengths and weaknesses and form contingency plans. It is a noble cause, but the betrayal of his teammate’s trust takes him out of the territory of a conventional hero. The Injustice comics demonstrate this further when Batman disables Cyborg by planting a virus on him. Cyborg later discovers the virus was created the day that he and Batman met.
Speaking of methods, Batman’s use of torture to gather information from criminals is also a sharp contrast to Superman’s. Batman may not kill, but he is willing to break teeth and bones in his pursuit of justice. Superman may end up doing the same thing when fighting an enemy, but he disproves of using these methods to interrogate criminals.
Although Batman can be seen as an anti-hero by these standards, it is also true that conceptions of what a hero are can change. I have spoken to people who see “boy scout” characters like Superman as boring characters, who lack as much complexity and depth as characters like Batman. This can then lead people to see Batman as simply a darker hero, but still a conventional hero. It was easier to label Batman as an anti-hero when he initially debuted, the shadow to Superman’s light. As time goes on and audiences become more inundated with anti-heroes in several mediums, maybe Batman can pale in comparison to his alternatives. We now have Lobo, Deadpool, Constantine, The Comedian and so on.
Batman may be an anti-hero when we compare him to more conventional heroes like Superman and The Flash, but if we go to the other end of the spectrum, does he still belong in that category?