Democratic Underground

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 own benefit.

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 wronged him.

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 generation."

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.

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