Saturday, January 3, 2015

Superman, Batman, The Generation Gap, and Interpretation


To say that my father and I do not get along well is an understatement. Although I do love him dearly, I think we both know that we have enough differences in thinking that staying in the same house for extended periods becomes a lesson in attitudinal endurance.

I've always thought about how to illustrate the big differences we have in the way we think (which is more important than opinions, as it turns out), and hilariously, the best way to illustrate our differences – and, I realized the big generation gap between the Internet and non-Internet generations – is in how we think about Superman.

Over dinner, we talked about the concept of superheroes, about how the very concept of superheroes was ridiculous, particularly if it were Superman.

"I think that Batman having any chance at all of winning – heck, planning anything – is already compromised by all of Superman's abilities," my dad started by saying. "Seriously, he is a physical god. Batman is just some rich guy with a lot of technology. The moment he even tries to think of a plan, Superman must have thought about it with his super brain!"

" But," I countered, "That's not in his power set. Superman may think fast, but Batman is known for unpredictability. Yes, in many scenarios, he will no doubt turn into bloody gristle, but there is a percentage that he won't, simply because he may have planned for something that even Superman did not expect."

Dad suddenly explodes: "Superman is BETTER THAN ANY HUMAN BEING. It's by virtue of what he is!" He gives me the look that if I counter him, then I am stupid.

I could have told him: Superman is a malleable piece of writer's clay. He is only as good as the writer makes him, and his power set has only recently been codified (relatively speaking). Batman, on the other hand, is the extreme example of codification for a character, if you think about it, with a nearly-fully formed and stable character since the mid-70s (for the current character version). That was why for me, if you take Batman and Superman with the current power sets and characteristics, Batman would have a chance of winning. And it wouldn't be a slim one.

And there's the difference: My dad's generation (or many of them, from the anguished and humorous tales from my other friends about their own fathers) works off what they know and on certain absolutes. Their paradigm is their experience, and if there are changes, they stick by what was first told to them. My dad would never accept the evolution of Superman's powers and characters from his day – and his day was the time when Superman had abilities that were dished out as the story was needed, creating the impression of a physical god.

On the other hand, I grew up in a situation where people were aware that data and knowledge are amorphous – that the rules of physics could change, that fictional characters were at the mercy of publishing house directives and writers. In other words, my generation does not work with hard-line absolutes, only with rules at play when the situation happens. We can cleanly accept that paradigms can change from moment to moment. It's a reflection of how the Internet has affected the body of knowledge, I think, and how it has signaled a divide in the cultures between generations.

And so: Batman winning against Superman? I would say it depends on which generation is setting the stage. And, for good or bad, that applies to many things that are a conflict point for the different generations alive today.

Photo: "Batman vs. Superman," JD Hancock, Flickr.Com