Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nerd Rage #5: Superman/Batman, Protector/Defender

So I had an interesting take on the superhero character that I had been meaning to share with people for a number of months but it wasn’t until today that I came up with a  phrase to articulate it properly.  In order to talk about this idea we need to be on the same page about Superman and Batman.
World's Finest et cetera et cetera
Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as early as 1933 (Or some early proto version anyway) but it wouldn’t be until 1938 that the character appeared in comic book form.  Though he was not the first superhero character he became the defining example and was the archetype that many writers and artists based their own creations on: a hero with powers beyond those of the average person chooses to use them to serve humanity, usually in the form of fighting vicious criminals or other post-human threats that normal law officers aren’t able to deal with.  So if we agree that Superman is the archetype then Batman is likely the first major, or at least most popular, deconstruction.
Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939 Batman was in many ways Superman’s perfect superhero opposite.  While Superman was an alien with many superhuman powers Batman s a normal human but the best representation of human potential (Both physically and mentally).  While Superman was raised by normal farmers and picked up Midwest sensibilities growing up Batman came from wealth and lived in luxury for his whole life while a the same time having lost his parents at an early age.   However I feel the two have since come to represent the two main archetype that the vast majority of superheroes fall under.  Both characters are two sides of the same coin, one dark and the other light though this distinction wouldn’t be fully fleshed out for a while in the comic industry.  Today both are clearly defined not only in these two but most characters in just about every company that publishes superhero comics.  I call them “The Protector” and “The Defender
Actually there’s likely a third archetype but I’m getting a head of myself.
Superman is the Protector.  What defines him the most is his need not only to help as many people as he can but to also be a symbol of hope to the masses.  As such the Protector must always be aware of how his actions are interpreted by those he serves.  In Superman’s case, being so strong, he must be extra concerned about being seen as an all powerful menace or even a monstrous being who wishes to control the lives of the average person (Lex Luthor’s main motivation is that he misunderstands Superman in this regard).  He shows constant good will to help this perception and ultimately is seen as a clear cut “good guy.”  Because he doesn’t want to be feared he never (Or at least “rarely”) blurs the line between hero and villain because the moment he does he risks his ability to give his community, his country, mankind, etc. the hope he wanted to instill.  There is a strong sense of optimism associated with this archetype.
Batman is the Defender.  Like the Protector he too wants to help others but unlike his lighter counterpart he either doesn’t care or at least isn’t concerned that much about his own public image.  He wants to defend people for the horrors that threaten them and will do so with more abandon than the Protector.  It doesn’t matter to him if people hate or fear him, or ever acknowledges that he exists, so long as they’re safe.  He can be seen as similarly villainous as those he fights but as he’s less concerned about giving hope and more concerned about bringing evil doers to justice he is comfortable with that perception.  While he doesn’t cross the line between hero and villain he does come close enough to it to be tempted to do so.   He’s the Protector’s cynical twin.
Both of these archetypes are equally valid, neither one being better or worse than the other.  Although you might have a preference it doesn’t mean the other isn’t still as important.  Damn near every superhero since the 1940s have followed one or the other.
Here’s a few traits of both.  This is obviously not a complete list but it should give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
The Protector
For legal reasons I must refer to this person as "SHAZAM!"
It's neither his name nor do I care to call him such
-Is usually well liked and trusted by citizens.  She makes public appearances, she knows the mayor, she kisses babies.  The more powerful they are the more necessary this is since the general public would be utterly terrified of a being that could, if she wanted to, destroy their cities with little effort if she didn’t make efforts to appease them
-Usually works with authorities much for the same reason as above.  He may be an agent of the government but usually it’s more like he wants to show good faith by working within the system.   Similarly he is more likely to go by the letter of the law so he is not seen as considering himself to be above it
-Won’t use lethal force unless absolutely no other option presents itself and even then still maybe not.  In fact often the Protector will likely even go to great lengths to make sure that even murderous criminals survive encounters for a fair trial, even at the cost of her own life.  In Superman’s own words “The world doesn’t need a Superman who kills”
-Is usually optimistic about the world to the point that they sincerely believe in concepts like “forgiveness” and “second chances”, although this usually does not extend to beings they considered to be true evil and beyond redemption.  Some Protectors are more cynical about this however and need definitive proof that the person in question truly wants to change and even then may still be suspicious
-Can be someone who views the world in Black and White/Right and Wrong but usually they understand the concept of “grey morality”.  They simply choose not to live in the that area
-Often the most powerful heroes fall into this.  Though the really scary characters are the really power ones who don’t (CoughcoughTheSentrycoughcough).  Anyway this tends to make a lot of fans claim the Protector isn’t relatable, but that’s a whole different blog, I’m sure
-Has a defining trait of trying to protect as many people as they possibly can, and in some cases that can be a lot.  For example Superman, due to his super senses and super speed, can detect pretty much every mugging in Metropolis and stop it before anyone can get hurt
-Will automatically stop being a Protector is he ever permanently loses his faith in people in general.  If he continues on fighting for justice despite this he will become the Defender.  He is however unlikely to ever become an Anti-Hero (More on that later)
-Usually has a sense of honor and perhaps fair play, though this could be worked against her if she’s set in her ways
Pictured:  A mighty shield
Not Pictured: The Nazi about to eat it
Examples: Captain America is probably the penultimate example of this type despite having no powers.  He is, of course, handicapped by the fact that his lives in a more cynical world than Supes.  The Fantastic Four, who by in large represent the best the Silver Age had to offer, also fit the bill.  Iron Man fits this as well due to his tendency to work as an agent for US interests (Thus proving that this type isn’t all positive), especially after the events of Civil War and The Initiative.  Most members of the Avengers tend to fall under this, especially when grouped together. The Justice League of America and, indeed, the majority of heroes in the DC Universe fall into this as well due in large part to the hero community being largely inspired by Superman.  Interestingly Batman’s original sidekick Dick Grayson, often known as Nightwing, has more potential to fit into this category than the Defender as he has always been a lighter, more optimistic version of his mentor.  Even Batman often slides into his as well (The current Batman INC. storyline may be the most recent example).

The Defender
Grace Choi will kick your ass
-Is usually more concerned with catching criminals than good PR, but the tradeoff is that his reputation tends to suffer.   At its worse the media and the authorities decry him as a criminal himself and he must constantly stay ahead of the very people he wants to protect, lest they “bring him to justice”
-Is often either a non-powered hero or a lower powered hero compared to other powerful beings.  This is not universal as its not powers or lack thereof that determine the type but rather mindset
-Can be abrasive and unpleasant, though this is not universal.  The problem is more in that the nature of their work can deeply affect their ability to properly interact with others.  Ironically despite many non-powered characters fitting this type the Defender is usually more likely to lose his humanity during his war on crime
-Can work with authorities but usually not as a whole.  They will normally have a liaison with police to help them keep track of what’s going on crime-wise but the relationship is usually unofficial and the person may be in trouble if it were ever discovered.  This is usually because…
-Will often break laws to save lives.  The Protector can do this as well but the Defender won’t hesitate to do this as often as he feels necessary.  Usually this includes something like breaking and entering, assault and of course vigilantism but some Defenders can be guilty of stalking, kidnapping, terrorism, possession of illegal weapons and in some cases attempted murder and/or murder.
-Isn’t a believer in second chances, usually.  He’ll likely be very suspicious of anyone claiming they’ve changed their ways no matter how many times they proved themselves
-Doesn’t usually use lethal force, though she can be more brutal than the Protector.  While for the Protector avoiding killing is about maintaining the hope/fear ratio many Defenders use it as the line that separates them from those she fight.  Sometimes the Defender does indeed use lethal force but it’s usually reserved for those who either really have it coming and she doesn’t tend to kill indiscriminately (As in they may try to shoot the Joker but they probably wouldn’t immediately gun down the goons working for him)
-Is far more likely to become an Anti-Hero (More on that later) but conversely finds it harder to become a Protector as it’s easier to lose faith than to gain it
-Has a code of honor, much like Protectors.  Often they are extremely similar, but the Defender may be more talkative about it.  I’m not sure why this is
Examples: As Batman is the poster child for this all of the Batman Family fall into this with maybe the exception of Dick Grayson and Stephanie BrownLuke Cage (Shut your mouth) falls squarely into it as well.  Most of Marvel’s “street level heroes” do too, including Daredevil and Moonknight (Who may be a Batman rip-off anyway).  Many new characters created during the 70s and 80s fit this description as well, especially if Marvel was involved.  The newest Manhunter (Kate Spencer, one of my favorite new characters from the 2000s) is probably right t the edge of the line between Defender and Anti-Hero.  Every hero who followed Hal Jordon (aka Green Lantern) on his quest for vengeance JUSTICE in the miniseries Justice League: Cry for Justice fell into this, despite where they might have been beforehand.  The X-Men are certainly Defenders due to their militant nature, outsider perspective, and designation as “outlaws”.  Yes, even Cyclops.  Hell, especially Cyclops.
Cyclops completes his transformation into "Jack Bauer-Man"
Spider-Man is a weird case.  On the one hand I think his ideology is closer to the Protector.  He does, after all, greatly look up to Captain America as an example. But his reputation is not very good and he suffers from much of the same civilian backlash a Defender would get.  I think it depends on who’s writing him at the time but in general Spider-Man may kind of bounce between one and the other.  Maybe he wants to be a Protector but he keeps finding himself as a Defender despite his wishes.  Similarly Wonder Woman could be placed in either due to the (Poor) nature her character is sometimes written.  However in her case I believe the spirit of her character should mark her as a Protector.
The Third Option
This is my nightmare!
As I mentioned there’s a third option to this.  As you’ve probably figured out by now it’s the Anti-Hero.  He is the cyclical cousin to the Defender the same way the Defender is to the Protector.  Though they may have taken different roads to get there all Anti-Heroes are characters who don’t just come close to the line but regularly cross it.  At best they are vigilantes not unlike Defenders who kill opponents regularly.  At worst they’re psychopathic monsters who’s goals just happen to involve “fighting crime/evil” and sometimes not even then.  The deference between these characters and the villains they fight are either blurred or they just happen to battle some really terrifying creatures.   Usually they do not share the same since of ethics as Protectors or Defenders; indeed Protectors will often be unable to work with them.   This type of character has been involved in superhero comics since the beginning (Namor, the Submariner) but they rose in popularity during the 1970s through the 1990s.  During the 90s creators took this to its logical, but frustrating, conclusion with gun toting muscle men becoming the favored type of hero.  Even previously indentfied Protectors or Defenders fell into this trap even if just for a limited amount of time.
I don’t really have a problem with these types of characters in general, at least in more cynical settings, but in comics with established superhero continuity it always feels out of place to me; like they should actually be a new villain rather than a new ally (There are exceptions, of course).   If you’re unsure whether yours favorite character falls into this category try answering the following questions:
-Does the character use killing as a first resort, even with enemies less powerful and/or less skilled than themselves?
-Is the character a former villain?  Specifically were they a villain for a substantial amount of time of their own volition (As opposed to forced, blackmailed or otherwise controlled)?
-Has a Protector and maybe even also a Defender suggested that the character be arrested for their crimes?
-Has the publisher ever used the word “edgy” to describe the character?  How about some variation of the phrase “This isn’t your daddy’s superhero”?
-Does the character use guns as their primary means of attack?
-Does the character perform heroic deeds for a paycheck?
-Does the character fight for vengeance, despite claims of fighting for justice?
-Is the character associated with Satan or an equivalent evil creature?  Is he or she associated with hell in anyway?
-Does the character’s name include the word “blood”, “death”, or some sort of negative emotion or violent action?
-If a movie were made of the character would you be upset to learn that it was rated PG-13 instead of R?
-Is the character a Wolverine clone? (Be honest)
-Is the character actually Wolverine?
If you answered “yes” to two of those questions then you character may be an Anti-Hero.  If you answered “yes” to three then he is nearly 100% certainly an Anti-Hero.  If you answered “yes” to four or more then I’m surprised that the character hasn’t been taken down by Captain America yet.
Just smile and nod.  Don't make eye contact
Examples: The Punisher is likely the most obvious example of this, but on his better days he might lightly be able to pass as a Defender.  Maybe.  If it was foggy outside.  Spawn, Image Comics 90s poster boy, is another “iconic” example.  The Authority are a particularly brutal example, but then again they’re from the WildStorm Universe and pretty much everyone there is some sort of Ant-Hero or another.  Also Ghost Rider and the Spectre respectively depending on who’s writing them.  Daredevil’s fall from Defender to Anti-Hero is the main plot in the recent Shadowland story Marvel just recently finished.
Anyway Anti-Heroes notwithstanding the Protector and the Defender make up the bulk of superheroes.  They’re the same but the opposite.  The yin to the other’s yang.   This is how I think about and its easily just opinion.  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know.

2 comments:

  1. While I agree for the most part, there are the carry-cases that could be argued are either deconstructions or, I don't know, spoofs (although that really has the wrong connotation). Take DC's Plastic Man. At first blush, you'd probably say he was Protector, and really, I wouldn't argue with that. However, honestly, he's meant to be a PARODY of that kind of archetype. In fact, having started life as a criminal, one could possibly make the case for him being suited perfectly to your Defender or even Anti-Hero role. Another, probably better example, is Wonder Woman, particularly after George Perez's reboot of the character in the mid-80s. When written well, she seems to fit best in the Protector role. However, since she comes from a warrior culture and has been trained to kill monsters her entire adult life, she's much more likely to use lethal force against her enemies than the typical Protector. And yet, even when she's written poorly, it's hard to really bin her as a Defender (unless you want to read too much into J. Michael Straczynski's silly little thing, but she's just so unrecognizable there . . . . oh whatever). And there's no way in hell that she's a Anti-Hero, unless someone fucked up royally. You also mention Spider-Man, a great admixture of the two archetypes, and that admixture is arguably why he was so popular when he debuted and for so long afterwards (BND, of course, turned him not so much into an Anti-Hero as into an idiot). He's a Protector treated like a Defender. It's entirely possible that such a chimera couldn't properly exist in the DC Universe (despite wrongheaded attempts to try it occasionally that I'm thinking of but can't place off the top of my head). Anyway, good rant.

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  2. Good points. There's a lot of room for discussion about who fits into where, especially for comic book fans with long memories. I agree with your examples, for sure. As for a DC Universe example of that chimera role the only one I can think of the top of my had is how the Justice League International was being portrayed in Justice League: Generation Lost since most of the team were Protectors before hand but had all of their reputations ruined by Maxwell Lord (Though I haven't read the book in a while).

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