People hate Superman. That’s the message of the recently released trailer for Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which disembodied voices express their anxieties about the Man of Steel. “We’re talking about an alien whose very existence challenges our own sense of priority in the universe,” one says, while another shouts, “This is our planet!” And then there’s the big finish with Batman whispering, presumably to Superman, “Tell me, do you bleed? You will.”
Batman making Superman bleed is familiar territory to comics fans. One of the most iconic battles in superhero comicdom appears in Frank Miller’s comic book miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, where Batman thumps the tar out of the supposedly invincible Kryptonian. Superman has super-strength, super-speed, and super-everything else, but, as comics blogger Richard Cook has pointed out, Batman has the greatest power of all: “popularity.” (The last Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, grossed nearly $450 million in the U.S., versus less than $300 million for 2013’s Man of Steel.)
So why does everyone love Batman and hate Superman? There’s no great mystery about it.
Superman is boring and irritating precisely because he’s all-powerful. Miller states this clearly in The Dark Knight Returns. When Batman is punching Superman, he thinks to himself, “still talking … keep talking Clark. You’ve always known just what to say. ‘Yes’ … you always say yes … to anyone with a badge … or a flag.” Superman is so overwhelming, he’s the structure of power itself. As such, all his power ends up symbolizing not virile resistance but servility to the bureaucratic status quo. Superman is a “false god,” as the graffito in the Batman v. Superman trailer declares—which is to say, he’s false precisely because he’s a God.
Everyone loves Batman, meanwhile, because American pop culture’s archetypal hero is, in fact, the flawed and gritty antihero—a lone badass fighting the forces of injustice and corruption against impossible odds. Batman is a scourge of the underworld, skulking just outside the law, his fists clenched in anger. But Superman? He’s so super that there’s nothing exceptional about him. Instead he looks like The Man, the avatar of a staid unjust system.
But Superman isn’t only that. Paradoxically, he’s also the quintessential outsider—literally an alien from another planet. “Go home, go home, go home,” a crowd chants in the Batman v Superman trailer. In this scenario, Superman hate is driven by anti-immigration, rather than anti-establishment, sentiment. Meanwhile, Batman, as Bruce Wayne, is the one percent; the lone badass turns out to be the embodiment of capitalist hierarchy. As one Twitter user wrote after seeing the Batman v Superman trailer:
Sure let’s cheer on the billionaire as he beats down the poor farm guy who grew up feeling othered. God I hate this whole thing so much.
— Shades of Limelight (@CertainshadesL) April 17, 2015
The fact that Superman can be hated for being both The Man and the alien is the unavoidable flipside of creator Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original assimilationist fantasy. Siegel and Shuster were working-class Jewish kids in a still very anti-Semitic America when they created their first Superman stories in the late 1930s. Superman was a dream that the Jewish stereotype of the nebbish Clark Kent could turn into a perfect white symbol of “truth, justice, and the American way” (as the 1950s Superman television show put it).
Fascist ideology of the ’30s positioned Jews as evil supervillains, all-powerful plotters against whom the brave Germans fought for purity. Superman turned that stereotype inside out. The all-powerful alien was now the good guy, raised in the American heartland, exemplifying American values. Siegel and Shuster, comics scholar Chris Gavaler has argued, may have been partially inspired by KKK pulp fiction like The Clansman, from which superheroes borrowed “costumes, masked identities, codenames, emblems … while reversing the Klan’s political aims.” The result is “a contradiction”—a Jewish anti-fascist reversal of fascism.
This explains why superheroes, many of them created by Jews, can often seem to uneasily mimic Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda. The X-Men, for instance, are discriminated minorities with fearsome power—a hated, oppressed underclass who could easily wipe out the majority if they felt like it. Similarly, Superman is the unfamiliar outsider possessed of near-mystical powers. This duality allows the marginalized to be interpreted as the real establishment and the real danger, an interpretation that aligns with post-9/11 America. The United States is the lone superpower—the lone Superman, if you prefer—on Earth, but we tend to present ourselves as under assault, in constant danger from distant militias and shadowy elements. The narrative that they’re more powerful than us justifies any military excesses. We’re the lone underdog badass multi-billionaire; out there is the overwhelmingly powerful alien other, against whom we grittily struggle.
But Batman v Superman suggests that fear of an alien superbeing is not just an excuse for violence and international intervention. It’s a pleasure in itself. Superheroes may be empowerment fantasies, but they’re disempowerment fantasies too. It’s just as fun to imagine the strong becoming weak as it is the other way around. With just a bit of ingenuity, you can locate the dangerous Superman anywhere, which means you can hit whoever you want and feel good about it.