The Politics of Superheroes
July 14, 2004
By Pab Sungenis
"With great power comes great reponsibility."
Comic book fan-boys (and fan-girls, to be politically correct)
will recognize that quote as a bit of advice from world-wise Ben
Parker to his nephew Peter. Modern American moviegoers might recognize
it as something Cliff Robertson leaned in close to say to Tobey
Maguire. Either way, it's an aphorism which writer Stan Lee appropriated
in 1962 as the motivation of a character he created called "Spider-Man."
"[They] are a superstitious and cowardly lot, so my disguise
must be able to strike terror into their hearts! I must be a creature
of the night, black, terrible...."
A lesser known quote to the outside world, but fan-boys/girls
will probably recognize it immediately. It was written by writer
Bill Finger back in 1939 in issue number 27 of Detective Comics,
where a vigilante was born; a vigilante destined to become known
as the Bat-Man. (Today, we just call him Batman.)
Two generations, two heroes, two different styles of getting the
job done, two philosophies that couldn't be more different. Nothing
could be a more apt description of this year's Presidential race.
We don't only have Kerry vs. Bush, we have Spider-Man vs. Batman.
* * *
John Kerry was the quintessential product of the 1960's. A young
(he was only 16 when John Kennedy was elected) idealist, dreaming
of making the world a better place. Answering the call so many of
his generation chose to ignore, John Kerry enlisted in the Navy
and volunteered for service in Vietnam. He chose to follow in the
footsteps of his father, a veteran of the Army Air Corps who had
volunteered to fly in World War II, and defend American values overseas.
Disillusioned by the lies that propelled American policy in Vietnam
and by the conduct of the war, Kerry became an anti-war protestor
after his return home, seeking to prevent other such travesties.
Young Peter Parker had a similar experience. When "gifted" by
a radioactive spider's bite, Peter used his new-found talents at
first for self-aggrandizement, wealth, and fame. It was only after
his failure to use his powers to help someone else resulted in the
death of his Uncle Ben that Peter realized the error of his ways,
and began to use his powers to prevent similar crimes. Thus was
born the Amazing Spider-Man.
Both Peter and John took away the same important lesson. With
great power comes great responsibility.
In the case of Spider-Man, having incredible strength and agility,
not to mention the ability to walk up walls, means that you have
the responsibility to use that power wisely, not solely for your
In John Kerry's case, the lesson is even more important. America
does have great power; since the collapse of the Soviet Union in
the early 1990's, it's the sole remaining super-power in the world.
America has the power needed to impose our will on just about any
other nation, should we choose to exercise that power. We even have
the power to devastate the entire world should we choose to do it.
Surely having that kind of power brings with it an even greater
responsibility: to make sure that it is never used unless absolutely
necessary. Just because we have the power to make other nations
do what we want does not mean that we have the right or the authority
to. When our nation's safety is truly threatened, then is the time
to bring America's massive power to bear. To do so except in self-defense
reduces us to the status of a schoolyard bully and costs us the
respect necessary to convince other nations to come around to our
way of thinking in a peaceful, diplomatic manner.
* * *
On the other side of the equation is Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy.
Bruce was born into a world of wealth and privilege, heir to a vast
fortune. His early years saw every opportunity and luxury made available
to him. When a criminal murdered his parents, Bruce swore revenge,
and adopted a new persona, which he used to avenge the wrong done
to him by fighting criminals... but never the person who had actually
Likewise, George W. Bush was born into wealth and privilege, a
member of one of New England's wealthiest and most powerful political
families. His early years also offered every opportunity imaginable;
some even say that his family's power and influence helped keep
Bush out of the Vietnam war that John Kerry volunteered for. When
the time came for young George to enter business, his family's connections
helped keep him afloat through one failure after another.
When his father was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992, George swore
revenge and adopted a new persona to help him get revenge. The dilettante
Connecticut boy became Good-ol'-Boy George "Dubya" Bush, winning
election as Governor of Texas in 1994, despite never having held
an elective office or run a successful business before in his life.
Six years later, he took revenge upon Bill Clinton's right-hand
man, Al Gore, by defeating him for the Presidency. (Yet, he never
caught up with the man who had wronged him.)
But a more telling parallel between Bruce "Batman" Wayne and George
"Dubya" Bush can be seen in their approach to problem solving.
In the comics world, Batman is a loner. While he pretends to work
with a larger organization (the Justice League of America), he always
pursues his own interests first and foremost. When what Batman wants
and what the Justice League wants are at odds, Batman goes off and
does his thing. Dubya pretends to work with a larger organization
as well (the United Nations), but usually shrugs off their advice
and opinions to go it alone. What he considers to be his interests
are paramount, and the needs of other nations are of no concern.
Batman's methods also distinguish him from other heroes: in Batman's
world, the end justifies the means. Batman is not above breaking
the odd finger or two simply to get information about a criminal
he is tracking, even if the "informant" had nothing at all to do
with the crime in question. He gets what he wants through fear and
intimidation, and doesn't care who he has to trample to get it.
And when he finds who he's looking for, all rules go out the window.
In fact, in his very first appearance back in 1939, Batman disposed
of one of his targets by throwing him into a huge vat of acid without
showing the least little bit of concern.
George Bush's conduct of the "war on terror" smacks of the tactics
of the Batman. Bush has gotten what he's wanted as President through
fear and intimidation, trotting out puffed up "terror warnings"
whenever he wants to distract people from an inconvenient fact,
reducing the population to a cowering, simpering, pliant creature
willing to do whatever it's told.
To get information about "criminals" in Iraq, Dubya's minions performed
heinous acts of torture that make Batman's finger-breaking look
like kids playing cops-and-robbers. And when the people Bush wanted
were found, all rules went out the window. No access to courts,
no legal counsel, in some cases not even specific criminal charges.
Just throw them in a cell at Gitmo and forget about them. True,
it's not throwing people into a vat of acid, but if that's all we
can say about the compassion of the Bush Administration, it is certainly
damning with faint praise.
* * *
Batman and Spider-Man were also, as noted above, products of different
generations. Batman was born out of the fear and uncertainty of
an America that was riding out the last years of the Great Depression
and looking towards a looming war in Europe that threatened to engulf
the entire world. Likewise, even though he is younger than John
Kerry, George W. Bush is truly a product of his father's generation.
Isolated, protected from the radicalizing elements of the 1960's,
young George was raised as a carbon copy of his father, the perfect
young Connecticut gentleman of wealth and privilege.
Add to that the people that Bush has surrounded himself with; his
team is almost identical to the teams that served his father and
the previous two Republican Administrations. While George W. Bush
may technically have been the second Baby Boomer President, the
Bush Administration is truly the last gasp of the alleged "greatest
Spider-Man came out of the turbulent 1960's, when Kennedy's "New
Frontier" was inspiring untold millions to make the world a better
place, while at the same time another war was raging, that would
soon engulf all of America and prove to be a terribly divisive experience.
Spider-Man was similarly conflicted; a hero with problems. John
Kerry experienced the same internal conflict, trying to reconcile
what he was taught with how the world really works. He took away
with him valuable lessons that have shaped his actions ever since.
Two generations. Two styles. Two philosophies. Spider-Man and
Batman could not be more different. Nor, in the end, can Kerry and
Bush. But the differences between the two Presidential candidates
this year drives more than just box-office receipts and comic-book
sales figures. It could decide exactly what kind of world we live
in for the next decade: one ruled by a Dark Knight who gets what
he wants by any means necessary, or by a reluctant hero, who knows
that with great power comes great responsibility.
Pab Sungenis is a writer, comedian, nationally-syndicated radio
host, and a movie theater owner. He still doesn't know which movie
he's more eager to see: Spider-Man 2 or Batman Begins, but knows
which way he's voting.