Friday, May 29, 2009

Superhero Decadence: Vanity

The world of the superhero is awash in eccentricity and excess. I suppose it's only natural to indulge in a little theatricality if your chosen profession is fighting evil in close-fitting costumes composed of spandex and leather. In spite of this it seems that, on occasion, a superhero can take things a wee bit too far.

This is especially true in the case of superhero vanity. It seems like the moment a superhero decides they will use their unique abilities and resources for the good of mankind, they then select a name and a symbol for themselves. And shortly afterwards, the superhero goes around plastering this name and symbol over everything they own. In some cases, it seems like the superheroes concerned are building a brand and increasing their own marketability by the manner in which they promote their heroic image.

Professor Xavier has "x"s all over his home and his students. Granted, these "x"s also refer to the "x-factor" in the genes of mutants, but I'm sure Xavier gets a certain degree of pleasure when he realizes that his last initial is emblazoned across Emma Frost's chest. Not to mention belts, guns, costumes, communicators, and an entire series of supersonic jets. The Fantastic Four use their special digit to stamp their flying car and (sometimes) even the building they live in.

The worst offender by far is Batman. Bruce Wayne created symbol of a dark knight defender whose mere presence would strike fear into the hearts of criminals. And then he integrated that symbol into every element of his crime-fighting arsenal. The bat-suit with its flowing cape and chest insignia letting you know just who you're dealing with. There's the batarang which can be thrown from long distances and left behind at a crime scene. The batmobile can be seen streaking through the night. Everything he uses is shaped like a bat. He even gave Commissioner Gordon a spot light marked with his symbol to shine in the night sky. The implicit purpose of all of this is to build the Batman mythos and give criminals the impression that he is everywhere. And though I still believe it to be incredibly arrogant to make everything you use shaped like bats, it's possible that doing so will deter criminals from engaging in illegal behavior by leaving behind these calling cards to show the consequences of committing crimes in Gotham City.
But then there's the Bat-plane.

Who even sees this vain aerodynamic monstrosity? Have you tried looking for a plane going Mach 3 while looking in between tall buildings? It's certainly not the most salient object in the night sky. And who exactly is deterred by a bat shaped airplane at 20,000 feet? Villainous 747 pilots and ill-tempered pigeons? No, the Bat-Plane is a sheer exercise in vanity. Any other shaped aircraft work just as well (or better) and would not require the needless expense of matching the design of a 6-million dollar vehicle to the little symbol you drew on your bat-chest. True, as a rich playboy, he's already the picture of excess, but why not buy a more maneuverable Apache helicopter from army surplus and use the leftover money to install more motion detectors and reinforced doors in Arkham Asylum?

So, regarding the Bat-plane, its utility is questionable but its ability to satisfy Bruce Wayne's personal bat fetish is undeniable.


Phaedrus said...

"And though I still believe it to be incredibly arrogant to make everything you use shaped like bats, it's possible that doing so will deter criminals from engaging in illegal behavior by leaving behind these calling cards to show the consequences of committing crimes in Gotham City."

Since crime in Gotham never seems to decrease, but always increase in frequency and intensity, it seems like batman's obsession has the opposite effect, no? In fact, isn't that the essence of the Joker's assesment of batman: that his very vanity draws the weird and psychotic criminal element to Gotham and leads them to commit evil deeds. Perhaps batman would have more success eliminating crime by retiring.

Norman said...

Phaedrus makes an erroneous counterfactual comparison here, since the key comparison is not between Gotham before and after, but Gotham now with Batman and Gotham if Batman had not been present. It seems quite possible that the psychotic element would be reduced, but would Gotham really be any better off totally governed by mob bosses? The econometric truism still holds: treatment effect is hard to do.

Also, this may be a bit out of the spirit of the blog, but... the comic creators *are* trying to build a brand, aren't they? Especially in the 50's - 70's, that's pretty much what comics did.

kmitcham said...

Perhaps the absurdity of the batplane is a signalling mechanism akin to peacock's tails: I have enough crime-fighting resources to make a plane this stupid, clearly I am fit enough to stop your dastardly deeds.

Rain King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rain King said...

Batman may be striving his best to maintain a distinction between himself and the police, or from any vigilante (ie: discount brands/products). His albeit ridiculous obsession with bat imagery does indeed offer an effective brand identification. We can always be assured that work that bears the bat signal is up to a certain standard.

Perhaps the specific shape of the bat plane has undiscovered cloaking properties?

Additionally, I contest the suggestion that an Apache helicopter would adequately replace a supersonic fighter, especially since a large part of Batman's utility is arriving before the police, often while the crime is still in progress.

Phaedrus said...

Norman, I think it is open to debate whether Gotham and its citizens would prefer, or be "better off" (however that is defined) with low-level crime of the corruption/vice variety and no batman, or a decrease in low level crime but an increase in psychopathic criminals engaging in repeated plots to kill/destory/harm large amounts of Gotham's citizens and property due to batman's presence. In any event, Gotham always seems to have a large amount of both types of crime despite the efforts of batman, but, let's face it, that's because a world where batman and his methods were effective in reducing overall crime would lead to boring comic stories.

kman said...

First of all - great blog. You guys are doing an awesome job.

About Batman: You gotta remember Bruce Wayne is a business man. Of course he'll try to build a brand because that's how his businesses have succeeded before. Don't expect him to change the formula now. Is it excessive? Well no. You don't see him buying ads or air time on TV, do you?

MrDave2176 said...

Contrast Batman to Iron-Man. Batman has bat-themed everything, but Iron-Man doesn't buy especially color-coordinated vehicles (not that he needs them with being able to fly and all) and gizmos with his Iron-Man Logo on it.

Tony Stark does, however use Iron-Man to promote his company Stark Enterprises by (initially in the comics at least) pretending that Iron Man is an employee.

I suppose that ROI is important for any bajillionaire industrialist.

Anonymous said...

Although it was in the 60's, and I'm not sure if it would count as canon..... but the 60's tv show did show Batman using a "Bat-thermos", or it may have been the batman movie, but either way, why in the heck would Bruce Wayne bother with creating a thermos to hold soup that had a bat symbol on it? That is just going completely overboard.

Scott said...

Of course it's totally to promote the Bat-brand or identity. On the other hand, I'm not sure we should assume that the Batplane is ineffective in this regard. I seem to recall that it can fly perfectly well at subsonic speeds, and even has VTOL capability so it can hover directly over criminals about to get their butts bat-whupped, casting a really gigantic batlike shadow. I bet that would not only sear awareness of the Bat-brand into your average criminal's head, it would be more than a little intimidating to boot.

Certainly a lot more intimidating than the Whirly Bat.

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The Bat in everything is as you call it, plain vanity, he is extremely self centered and that is shown on the way he (at least in some movies) is not willing to share his space with Robin, eventually he gave in, perhaps in a extend of branch type of business.

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