Batman: The Failed Übermensch

http://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/ 2794269061/

Writing of Batman’s original origin story in The Gospel According to Superheroes, C.K. Robertson says in his chapter “The True Übermensch: Batman as Humanistic Myth”:

The scene bears all the marks of a religious conversion, although hardly Judeo-Christian one. Absent from the boy’s prayer/pledge is any mention of God; rather, he swears by his parents’ spirits. There is no talk of forgiveness of one’s enemies or even resignation to his loss, but instead a vow to lifelong revenge. There is not even a suggestion of devoting his life to helping others, but rather a determination to wage a private war. (55)

A little later in the same chapter, Robertson continues:

In the case of any ordinary man, it might be expected that Bruce Wayne’s story would proceed to show how he joined the ranks of the police, the military, the medical establishment, or the clergy in order to make the world a better place. Such vocational choices, of course, would not fulfill his unique and, in a sense, utterly selfish vow. In fact, making a difference in the world did not seem to be important to the orphaned lad. In a statement that could easily be drawn from Nietzsche’s own pen, longtime Batman artists Dick Giordano claims: “The Batman does what he does for himself, for his needs. That society gains from his actions is incidental, an added value… but not the primary reason for his actions.” (55-56)

Of course, this expression of the character was radically changed in the era of Adam West. Responding to social criticisms of the corrupting influence of comic books, the industry changed Batman into something very different. “The ‘eerie figure of the night’ had begun to be co-opted by a religious-minded, moralistic establishment; he was becoming more likable, less intimidating. In short, the übermensch, the most dangerous man on earth, was becoming ‘all too human.’” (59)

This trend was significantly reversed in the work of Frank Miller, who returned the caped crusader to his more dark roots. In his iteration of the character, Batman becomes a true revolutionary, even defeating Superman, an icon of the establishment (to Miller anyway), in a fight, and eventually taking down a totalitarian US government.

And yet, interestingly, the most recent film adaptations of Batman, based significantly on Miller’s work, there is something of a shift back to the West version. Now, try not to laugh when you read that. I obviously grant that Christopher Nolan’s Batman is basically camp-free, and probably the best comic book-to-film adaptation ever created. But, even in the intentionally dark rendition of Batman, there is an explicit discussion about the difference between vengeance and justice, noting their focus on the private and the public good respectively, resulting in Wayne’s ultimate decision to pursue the second rather than the first. This decision is only deepened further in The Dark Knight. And it seems undeniable, then, that this is not the same übermensch Batman we were given in the origin story described above.

And this makes me wonder. Is there something about the idea of a hero devoted entirely to sating his own desire for vengeance that is actually disturbing to most people? Is that one reason why a truly vengeance-driven character like the Punisher is really not that popular, and why, despite the character’s original Nietzschean flavour, the Bat Man is always inevitably pushed back towards something more like Adam West’s version?