Apr 4, 2014

Captain America vs. Batman: Challenging Preconceptions

Warning: This post will contain spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. You've been warned.

Captain America vs. Batman
by Duy

Because of the spate of current movies, I've been hearing quite a bit of debate focused on Captain America and Batman. This isn't surprising. Batman is the most popular superhero of the last 25 years and the similarity in powers, or lack thereof, makes it easy for the comparison to come up. A couple of times, when I've said that the Captain America movies have the kind of action sequences that I look for with Batman, I'm met with "Well, Batman is realistic, and real people can't do those moves."

(By the way, not true. All you have to do is YouTube "Parkour." Or anything involving martial arts, which, you know, Batman trained for in the first movie. And also, I don't expect Batman to be doing triple somersaults or anything, but it's hard to be entertained by a Batman that people I know could beat up. Not to mention dogs.)

There are also several variations of this meme going around on Facebook.

I think it's interesting, this predilection towards Batman at the expense of someone like Captain America. I'm here to defend the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan, and you will listen!

Before we get started, I think it's important to really clarify which Batman we're talking about here. I'm not going to talk about Bat-Bale, because I promised to never talk about one of those movies due to its sheer horribleness, and also because if I have to defend Captain America against the single most incompetent and incapable Batman in the history of Batman that wasn't written as a parody, there's really no point in having this conversation. I'll be talking about modern Batman, the kind that's run around in the comics post Frank Miller, the one who was in No Man's Land and who's fought the Court of Owls. In short, the Batman that's most often been described to me as grim and gritty.

I feel like I also need to clarify which Captain America I'm talking about here, although there isn't going to be much of a difference between the movie and Cap's portrayal for most of his history. But there was a period in the 90s when Marvel wanted to amp up Cap's boy scout so much that he apparently never killed anyone in World War II, despite the fact that, you know, it was World War II and he continually ran around with a bunch of soldiers (and Bucky) with guns. That goes against Cap's portrayal for most of his history, so I'm ignoring that chunk. (I'm also ignoring Captain America from the Ultimate Universe, because he's not even close to being the same guy past the abilities, name, and costume.)

Since one of my most popular posts in recent months is this one, where I challenged some longstanding comics preconceptions, allow me to challenge the most oft-heard (by me) preconceptions about the First Avenger and the Masked Manhunter ... wait, no, grim and gritty isn't that guy.... the Darknight Detective... wait, no, that's not it either... the Caped Crusader (yes, that's it!) in the last few years.

The Preconception: Captain America is only a hero because of the Super-Soldier Serum, while Batman is a self-made hero.

Well, sure, this is true, if you choose to ignore the fact that Bruce Wayne is a genetically perfect human being to begin with and a billionaire, to boot, and that Steve Rogers was 4F, completely undernourished and without much money, growing up during the Great Depression. Steve Rogers, against all odds, odds that were there since he was born, wanted to serve his country and do no less than everyone else who wanted to do the right thing. He just wasn't, due to genetic, physical reasons, going to ever become a physical specimen.

Batman is great and all, and it's great that he could become a crimefighter on his own terms, but we're talking about a guy who was born into money, with perfect genes and all the resources he was ever going to need to fight crime. This dude owns companies, and he can afford to spend his time focusing on working out and studying and perfecting his methods. If the Waynes weren't wealthy and Bruce had to work a 9 to 5 job to make ends meet, he'd probably still be a crimefighter, but would he have been as effective? No, probably not.

But if Steve Rogers had Bruce Wayne's genetics, he'd have still been in the war. He may not have been a supersoldier, but then again, he may have. It's true in the comics, but the first movie does a good job of pointing this out — Steve Rogers isn't the perfect specimen for the Super Soldier Serum because of what he is or isn't physically capable of. He's the perfect specimen for the Super Soldier Serum because of who he is as a person.

If there's one thing the 2011 movie made clear, it's this: Steve Rogers was a hero long before the military pumped him up with the serum. He was already standing up to the bullies even when he had nothing on his side — not money, not physical ability, nothing — and I'll take that over Batman any day.

Speaking of which...

The Preconception: Captain America is a goody-two-shoes, while Batman is a badass.

I don't really see this at all. Batman is a badass on a very superficial level. He wears black and he has a lot of cool lines and he treats his friends and loved ones like soldiers to be ordered around, pushed away when he feels it's right and brought back in when he feels it's right. And sometimes, sometimes, you get genuine emotion out of him, which just goes to show how immature he really is at heart.
(And before the Bat-brigade comes down on me for saying that, I'm just going to point out that both Michael Chabon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and David Mazzucchelli in his afterword to Batman: Year One posit that Batman stopped growing up after his parents were killed, which is partly why he befriends young boys.)

Captain America, though, takes the time to build his relationships with his friends, choosing to lead by example and inspiring them. Let's take a look at some of them.

Here he is, commanding Thor, and all without being an asshole about it like Batman would be to Superman.

Here's Iron Man:


Actually, yeah, leave it to Spider-Man to screw up my point.

And in terms of leadership, that's actually badass. Captain America will kick your ass and inspire everyone else to kick it with him. When Cap hijacks SHIELD's audio system and gives a speech in The Winter Soldier, you want to fight with him. He's awesome.

A couple of other things. People have made the point that Batman will never kill and that he believes in redemption. And that's great, until you realize that one of the people he fights is the Joker, who is incapable of changing and therefore incapable of redemption, and whose very existence means innocent people will eventually die, since no correctional facility has ever held the Joker for a significant period of time.  On the other hand, Steve was in a war. He'll do what he has to and cross a line he doesn't want to cross, if it means people will live.

(Before anyone says anything about Man of Steel, I'm just going to point out that I've said several times that the problem wasn't the actual fact of Superman killing Zod, but more in how it was done and the circumstances surrounding it. Zack Snyder is a terrible director.)

The best example of Cap doing what needs to be done is when he's fighting the vampire Baron Blood, and even then he's trying not to kill him, until he notices the sun going down and his hand is forced.

That's it. He knew what he had to do and he did it. He didn't revel in it, he didn't let himself get taken over by guilt; he did what needed to be done to make sure that no one else was going to die, and he didn't do it indiscriminately. He only did it when he realized there was no other resort.

Finally, there's the whole preparedness factor. The argument goes that Batman is a badass because he's always prepared and has already won a fight before it's even started. The funny thing to me is that in my experience, this praise also comes from people who dislike Superman for being too powerful and therefore not giving much in the way of thrills and suspense. But you can put Superman in situations where he might lose, by putting him up against threats bigger and more powerful than him. When one of the big payoffs to a landmark Batman story in recent years is that Batman is always prepared and had been ready for all the crap the Club of Villains put him through for the entirety of a story — an elaborate sting, really — then okay, it highlights his preparedness and intelligence, but also highlights how far away the character is from the realm of genuine suspense.

On the other hand, Captain America doesn't overprepare. He's the world's greatest fighter and the world's greatest tactician, so you know he can get out of anything. And yes, maybe that's just as lacking in suspense as Batman being overprepared, so maybe narratively it's a similar problem, but you know what? I think that's significantly more badass. Being able to handle things as they come is more impressive and cooler than knowing exactly how you're going to handle something before that thing even happens.

And speaking of which...

The Preconception: Batman would beat Captain America in a fight because Batman would be prepared and cheat.

This argument is ridiculous, because it's not like everyone Cap fights doesn't prepare and cheat. And you can't really turn that argument around, because Cap is more tactically sound and a better fighter than anyone in Batman's rogues' gallery. Cap's a better fighter than Batman — he is the peak of human ability, after all, and not to mention, he's basically the god of courage and fighting.

Batman can cheat all he wants, but even he knows Cap would beat him, and with just one weapon too, while Batman is holding a billion weapons at once.

Writer Kurt Busiek pretty much considered this a win for Cap. I always
thought this was the closest thing Batman could come to surrendering.

So, to sum up: Captain America overcame odds he was born with, while Batman had the odds on his side (he even had a parental figure right away to help him adjust). Captain America will cross lines he doesn't want to cross to save innocents, while Batman will refuse to cross those lines even if it means innocents will suffer in the future. Batman prepares to a foolproof extent for any situation, in such a way that the odds are on his side, as they have been all his life, while Captain America walks into any situation prepared to improvise, knowing he can handle whatever comes his way. Batman leads by fear, damaging his friendships and alienating his loved ones, while Captain America leads by inspiration and example. Captain America is a fairly well-balanced person, while Batman is kinda nuts. Batman needs a whole arsenal of weapons, while Captain America only ever needs one.

So yeah, I'd rather get trained by Captain America. I'd rather go into battle with Captain America. I'd rather be Captain America.  And it wouldn't even be close.*

*If we're gonna use the Bronze Age Batman or the Animated Series Batman, it would be close. But Cap would still win. And if we were to use the Adam West Batman... okay, Adam West Batman would probably win.** But by a hair, and only because I could really use Bat-Shark Repellent.

**It also helps that Adam West has had the one truly great Batman movie to exist to date. 

Some stories used in this column are:


LaMar said...

I've always thought that "cheating=victory" was not only incorrect, but a horrible coconut to not think about how things would actually go. It's the same as people saying The Authority would be at the JLA because they have no problem killing. The JLA face threats that are trying to blow their asses off several times a week, it's not an automatic L for anybody just because the opposite view is extreme.
Also, I get goosebumps when I see that Hercules page you posted.

Jeremy said...

I'm just about done with these tired fanboy battles of *blank* vs *blank*, but I just have to say something about Batman not inspiring anybody and that he's just some dark gloomy asshole. In Morrison's run, not only is there an entire Club of Heroes dedicated in his honor, but Batman Inc is all about all the various people Batman has inspired to stand up against evil and fight for justice. He's not Superman in the inspirational level, but he's not just some brooding unlikable loner either.

Duy Tano said...

True, Batman does inspire from afar. It's when you're actually close to him that makes the difference.

And I understand your exhaustion at fanboy battles! I don't do them often, and frankly they're hard to actually do, since you have to define which ones you're actually talking about. But sometimes, like now, they're fun to write and have a bit of fun with.

Paul C said...

Hard to argue with most of what you've written here. I think the reason I prefer Batman is because he's such a dysfunctional manchild and a bit of an arse. I like your point about killing the Joker. I like how in Dark Knight Returns Miller presents Batman's inability to kil the Jokerl not as a noble choice but a psychological block, a proper weakness.

T Jay said...

This article is cancer.

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