Superman vs. Batman, Law vs. Justice

I sometimes find it interesting how one thought leads to others. I just finished watching The X-Files: I Want to Believe after going through the entire series for the first time. Afterwards I read a bit about it and found Roger Ebert's comparison of it to The Dark Knight with both having themes of morality. This lead me to thinking about my favorite superhero, Batman, which lead to the comparison of Batman and the most popular superhero, Superman.

Don't you find it interesting that these two archetypes were found so early in comic book history? Superman was created in 1938[1], Batman in '39[2], and are the first two superheroes to be created. Every superhero in the last 80 years is descended from these two. Yes, Batman is descended from Superman, but other than the fact that they're both superheroes who dress in costumes and fight the bad guys, there isn't much similarity between the two.

Superman is the hope of what we could be. Powerful, helpful, kind, but most of all, lawful. Superman has a respect for and dedication to the law. He respects the elected officials and believes in their representation of the citizens. Superman, to me, has always represented the established power structure (especially in The Dark Knight Returns), and in most of the mythology, actively supports it and is actively supported by it.

Batman, on the other hand, has little regard for law. He's much more interested in justice, and I think this is a main reason for my attraction to his character rather than Superman's. While there are other interesting aspects of Batman's character that I think raise him above Superman (his lack of powers, his tragedy, the reversal of true identities), it's his pursuit of justice that is the most compelling.

Law is (ostensibly) easy to define. Look it up in the law books and you know what the law is. Justice is more subjective. Just read Plato's The Republic to see how difficult it is to define. It seems to be one of those things that we only know when we see it (or it's absence).

Knowing that law and justice can be at odds, we only need to turn to Plato again and read The Apology, his account of the trial of Socrates, where the citizens of Athens (in a democracy, no less) sentenced Socrates to death, or the New Testament's account of the trial of Jesus and his crucifixion, both lawful, but unjust, acts. Even today, reading Boing Boing or Slashdot (or Fark, for that matter) we get common stories of the use of law to commit injustice.

I'm unsure of the modern solution to these dichotomies (well, adherence to Constitutional limits would be a nice start), and this isn't intended to propose one. It's just a starting point for thought. The ideal is law supporting justice, and I can hope that we generally approach the ideal. But when law and justice are at odds, should we simply shake our heads at the injustice or is some more concrete action required?



1. Superman. (2012, June 13). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02:21, June 15, 2012, from;oldid=497341132

2. Batman. (2012, June 12). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02:23, June 15, 2012, from;oldid=497149404

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