Is he or ain't he?
March 3, 2012 11:51 AM   Subscribe

Batman is a Superhero. I just know he is. But now I'm having an argument with a friend over whether he's technically a Superhero. Details of the argument within.

Here is the transcript of our argument:

HIM: Batman wasn't a superhero. He just had money.
ME: Your definition of Superhero is defunct. A Superhero is defined by the nature of his or her deeds, not the nature of his or her ability.
HIM: Nah, a superhero is defined by his extraordinary abilities. Whether the superhero uses those abilities for good or ill is something different altogether.
ME: Batman's ability to use technology in innovative ways is pretty extraordinary. Not to mention the man has a set of cajones that not everyone possesses. Unless you think you'd be willing to take on the crime syndicates of Gotham City with no backup except for Robin, who, you have to admit, is only there to parade around in his tights.
HIM: Alfred. Batgirl.

By that definition, Steve Jobs is a superhero.

Maybe my definition is defunct, but I refuse to put Batman in the same category as the true superheros who have powers that surpass human abilities.


I'm willing to admit defeat if I have to, but help me out here. There must be some definitive source on the matter. Batman is a Superhero, right?
posted by madred to Writing & Language (59 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm pasting from Wikipedia here:

While the Dictionary.com definition of "superhero" is "A figure, especially in a comic strip or cartoon, endowed with superhuman powers and usually portrayed as fighting evil or crime," the more longstanding Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the definition as "a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers; also: an exceptionally skillful or successful person".

There is no definitive source. Batman is not a superhero by his definition of the term, and he is by yours. You're both right.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:59 AM on March 3, 2012


The question is about the definition of superhero, less so about Batman. But, since "superhero" implies a gift or power that is impossible for others to attain, then Batman might as well be that. The only way he became Batman was because he was born into billions, had the means to develop his image and technology, and the free time to train. Even an extremely motivated individual not born into those circumstances would not likely be able to become the idea of Batman so fully, since they simply wouldn't have the proper environment to steep in.

But really, it is kind of a stupid argument.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:00 PM on March 3, 2012


I don't get how Steve Jobs would be a superhero, since Steve Jobs didn't make it his duty to protect the public? I just Googled a couple of definitions and most of them stipulated that a superhero either have 1) extraordinary powers or 2) be dedicated to a life of crime fighting. I would argue Batman has extraordinary powers, despite being a result of his technological innovation, and he definitely aims to protect society from crime.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:00 PM on March 3, 2012


If you allow that some of the technology he invents is complete science fiction, then he is indeed using a supernatural power.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:01 PM on March 3, 2012


Burhanistan, of COURSE it's a stupid argument. That doesn't change the fact that I desperately want to be right. As a matter of fact, it raises the stakes in my book.
posted by madred at 12:03 PM on March 3, 2012 [17 favorites]


HIM: Nah, a superhero is defined by his extraordinary abilities. Whether the superhero uses those abilities for good or ill is something different altogether.

Well is this, at least, is definitely wrong. A superHERO uses their powers for good. A superVILLAIN uses their powers for ill.
posted by magnetsphere at 12:03 PM on March 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


(By "either" I guess I meant both, since a cop wouldn't be a superhero without extraordinary powers. There might be counterexamples, but I can't think of any now. Also it is kind of a "stupid argument" in that the way it's framed between you there's not much to gain, but recent philosophizing about the nature of the mind and what objects/abilities outside of the body constitute a "person" makes it a little more interesting.)
posted by stoneandstar at 12:04 PM on March 3, 2012


Wikipedia offers a slightly broader term that would include the superpower-challenged:
By strict definitions, characters require actual superhuman powers to be deemed superheroes. However, this term has also been applied to costumed crime fighters, characters without super powers, who perform the same functions as superheroes; examples of the latter being Batman and Green Arrow. Broad interpretations of the superhero genre included masked vigilantes, such as the Spirit, who fought crime with their wits, fists and guns rather than superhuman powers, while concealing their identities with only a mask, hat and coat.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:05 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ok, maybe I should have said "disagreement" or "debate."
posted by madred at 12:06 PM on March 3, 2012


There are currently about six billion people on the planet. Exactly zero of them display the crimefighting abilities shown by Batman. Throughout history, we've arguably never had someone as universally proficient at crimefighting as Batman. If you take those premises as true, we have currently seen 100 Billion humans, none of which have been as good as Batman.

Even if there is no diegetic exposition about Batman's "superpowers", you cannot deny that they exist. His sum strength + bravery + intelligence + determination far exceed any human to have ever lived.

Consider The Flash - sure, he just moves fast, and Carl Lewis moved fast too, but even in the absence of a supernatural backstory, The Flash would clearly be said to have superpowers because he's clearly faster than any human that has ever lived. Batman, too, has superpowers, and is thus a superhero.
posted by 0xFCAF at 12:08 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Ok, maybe I should have said "disagreement" or "debate."

Yeah, and I wasn't trying to be harsh. But, you have to focus on the definition rather than the particular character. That way, if the definition is decided as one thing then it would be a simple matter of taxonomy to determine whether or not a particular individual was a superhero. You could allow for alternate definitions.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:10 PM on March 3, 2012


But that's a circular argument... Superhero = "superhuman powers" is just begging the question. But "costumed crime fighter" doesn't seem to be enough. The movie Super called that one into question for me.
posted by madred at 12:10 PM on March 3, 2012


If they wear a costume and successfully fight crime, then they are a superhero. Superpowers are secondary and always have been.
posted by empath at 12:12 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


That last was in response to the Wikipedia definition and Rhaomi.
posted by madred at 12:12 PM on March 3, 2012


If you a) fight crime & right wrongs and b) can be described as "the world's greatest X", then you are a superhero.

(For Batman, of course, X = "detective". Take away all his money and gadgets, he's still the world's greatest detective.)

Ask your friend if he considers Iron Man a superhero. If yes, ask him how billionaire playboy Tony Stark differs from billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. World's Greatest Industrial Designer vs World's Greatest Detective. Both superheroes.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:12 PM on March 3, 2012


empath, doesn't that make cops and firefighters Superheros? Not that they're not in some way but I think I'm thinking about a specifically literary or fictional problem.
posted by madred at 12:14 PM on March 3, 2012


Superhero = "superhuman powers" is just begging the question.

That's not begging the question; it's a testable and falsifiable definition of superhero. Under this rule, you must have superhuman powers to be a superhero. You then have to define 'superhuman', which could be defined by either "above any human that has ever existed" (Batman qualifies) or "above any human that could ever exist" (Batman probably does not qualify, but then neither would e.g. Daredevil).
posted by 0xFCAF at 12:15 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Given that superhero is in fact a tradmarked word originally used by DC Comics to refer to Superman and Batman, I think Batman is in fact the picture in the dictionary next to superhero.

Plus, your friends definition would rule out Captain America and Green Lantern and god knows how many other superheroes. I don't see why the guy would be required to have super-human powers, he just has to be super-heroic. Superpowers surely help, but aren't required.
posted by Lame_username at 12:22 PM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Gadgeteer has been a class of superhero for roughly a geological epoch.

Beyond that, batman is super-humanly driven. He had money, but lots of people in the DC comics universe have money and when the Riddler steals their stuff what do they do? Run crying to Batman. Superman finds time to write articles for the Daily Planet in the guise of his secret identity when there are wrongs out there he could be righting, given his super hearing and thirty one flavors of super-vision he has to be deliberately ignore them. Multiple incarnations of Batman have been a "sleep where I fall" kind of a guy with Alfred dragging him off to bed so he doesn't short out the bat computer with drool. Again.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:26 PM on March 3, 2012


Similarly to the "superhero" entry, Wikipedia's entry on "superpower" says:
There is no rigid definition of a "superpower". In popular culture, it may be used to describe anything from minimal exaggeration of normal human traits, magic, to near-godlike abilities including flight, superstrength, projection of destructive energy beams and force fields, invulnerability, telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, super-speed or control of the weather.

Generally speaking, exceptional-but-not-superhuman fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, Batman, and Green Arrow may be classified as superheroes although they do not have any actual superpowers.

Similarly, characters who derive their abilities from artificial, external sources—the Six Million Dollar Man and his bionic limbs, Green Lantern and his power ring and Iron Man's armor, and Captain Olimar's Pikmin may be fairly described as having superpowers, but are not necessarily superhuman.
The Wikipedia entry on Batman says:
Batman is a fictional character, a comic book superhero … Unlike most superheroes, he does not possess any superpowers; he makes use of intellect, detective skills, science and technology, wealth, physical prowess, martial arts skills, an indomitable will, fear, and intimidation in his continuous war on crime.
So as Famous Monster says, he either is or isn't a superhero depending on what your definition is. One word often has multiple definitions. Under a rigid definition requiring superhuman powers, Batman doesn't seem to be a superhero.

Under a looser definition, he is a superhero: he has an alter ego in which he wears a costume, has a unique persona, and fights crime using extraordinary and distinctive powers, and those powers mesh with his costume/persona. Those are so many factors all converging on most people's idea of what constitutes a "superhero" that anyone who raises the objection of "He can't be a superhero because he isn't superhuman!" seems to be overly focused on a technicality.

But that's a circular argument... Superhero = "superhuman powers" is just begging the question.

You're misusing the terms "circular [reasoning]" and "begging the question" in your attempt to give your position a veneer of logical rigor. This is a logically valid argument: "1. A superhero, by definition, must have superhuman powers. 2. Superhuman powers are abilities that ordinary human beings do not possess. 3. Batman doesn't have powers beyond those of ordinary human beings. 4. Therefore, Batman isn't a superhero." (Just because that's logically valid doesn't mean it's correct — for instance, maybe point 3 is wrong. I don't know enough about Batman to know the answer.)
posted by John Cohen at 12:29 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


This sounds like an argument that has probably come up between characters in the DC Universe, multiple times.
posted by jozxyqk at 12:36 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


One word often has multiple definitions. Under a rigid definition requiring superhuman powers, Batman doesn't seem to be a superhero.
JC, I'm aware that words often have multiple definitions. As for my veneer of logical rigor, I still think that the "super" in both superhero and superpowers creates a circular argument, not in a mathematically rigorous way, but in a fluffier, more conversational way.
How we define "super" is at the heart of all this I think.
posted by madred at 12:37 PM on March 3, 2012


(Like between people living on the streets of Gotham, or between members of the Justice League themselves, where Superman and Batman are very real).
posted by jozxyqk at 12:37 PM on March 3, 2012


jozxyqk, that would make an awesome premise for a story/movie/skit. Has anyone done that?
posted by madred at 12:39 PM on March 3, 2012


Alright let me clear this up, Batman IS a superhero.

He's always the one that takes care of the bad guys, the police rely on him and he wears a costume.

If you need more use this line, "Sweetmag said so. "
posted by Sweetmag at 12:39 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


If yes, ask him how billionaire playboy Tony Stark differs from billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne.

While I'm on the side of "Yes, he's a superhero", this is not the right way to go about demonstrating it.

Stark's different because his technology has been directly integrated into his body to keep his heart beating despite his deadly shrapnel wound. Staying alive while having that inoperable wound is Tony's (technologically-granted) core superpower; without that, all you've got is a corpse in some Vietnamese Persian Gulf Afghani cave somewhere.

But this does give us a good starting point. What happens to Bruce Wayne if you strip out the money and the technology? You still have the drive, the focus, the quick mind, and above all else, you have the near unstoppable need to see justice be done (some would say vengeance instead of justice).

It's this last point that is developed to superhuman levels in Batman: no normal human, upon having their parents murdered, would have the willpower to take their response to the extremes that he has. And it's hardly a unique superpower, he shares it with Marvel's Punisher, and Rorschach from the Watchmen.
posted by radwolf76 at 12:54 PM on March 3, 2012


If you haven't seen it, this thread might interest you.
posted by cribcage at 12:57 PM on March 3, 2012


In a lot of ethics textbooks, a "hero" is someone who goes above and beyond what's morally required, especially when faced with a difficult situation, in order to help others (sometimes called "supererogatory behavior"). However, often a hero is also defined as someone who performs such an act only on that one occasion - a heroic act is not expected to be repeated because it's whether you step up to the plate when faced with adversity. The one who lives a life of supererogatory behavior is sometimes categorized as a "saint" - which shows that continuous or repetitive acts that go beyond the call of duty are probably going to be acts of martyrdom more than acts of heroism.

The reason would probably be that finding yourself in a situation where you have the opportunity to step in and altruistically save someone only come along now and then. Even someone who becomes a cop or a policeman or a soldier or some other profession where acts of heroism may find their day to day jobs much more mundane than expected. So maybe a super-hero is someone who has the ability, through supernatural gifts or technology, to get to the right place at the right time more of the time, or who lives in a world with super-villains who make those places and times more frequent.
posted by mdn at 1:02 PM on March 3, 2012


It depends on what you think a good definition of 'superhero' is. I would argue that you should establish a definition of superhero that consistently classifies your hero across all settings and over time. That is, the same person should be consistently classified as a hero on Earth, on Kyrpton, and on New Genesis. If you can get your friend to agree to this requirement for absolute superheroism (vs. relative superheroism, which varies according to setting), then there is no way that s/he can disagree that Batman is a superhero.

An absolute definition of super-heroism necessarily relies on identifying the superhero should by their actions (that is, frequency with which they perform heroic activities) rather than attributes (relative to the normal human). This is because the standard of of normal or abnormal in terms of heroic abilities will vary across setting. On Mars or Krypton, the Martian Manhunter and Superman are normal. On Earth, they are certainly abnormal, but this doesn't imply that Earth standards are a better measure of their abilities--I mean, if you were going for some ability based standard, you should go to a planet where the inhabitants aren't all weaklings, like New Genesis, in which case even Superman may not be considered a superhero. Capability is all relative.

In contrast, if you define a superhero as a person who is consistently capable of performing feats of greater than normal heroism, then this would allow to overcome the problems of setting and require you to include Batman in your definition of super-heroism. Furthermore, you do see Batman, Superman, et al., performing heroic acts on New Genesis and other planets where the inhabitants are all stronger than the standard human, but still recognize the Justice League (collectively) as heroes.

By extension, would your friend define Lex Luthor as a supervillain? Because he also starts out as a normal human, but he still kicks Superman's ass a lot with nothing more than human ability. Also the Joker, the Riddler, and the Penguin don't have any super-powers, but are commonly considered supervillains.
posted by _cave at 1:05 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


The issue: JLA #3 (1997).
The scene: Superman, Wonderwoman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter have all been captured by powerful white martians masquerading as new superheroes. The only one they haven't been able to catch is the Batman, who's somewhere in their citadel.

One of the Martians expresses dismay that he's loose, to which the leader says "Batman? Don't be ridiculous. What can a pathetic, fragile creature like Batman do to us". The leader sends the concerned subordinate to find Batman. When he doesn't return, the leader sends three more white martians. Within minutes, they too disappear.

Cut to the leader standing with a kryptonite weakened Superman. Having lost *half* his soldiers, soldiers who were each a match for superman, he is (understandably) freaking out.

"What's happening there!? He's only one man!"

Responds Superman, "The most dangerous man on earth."

Took down 4 white martians, and Superman thinks he's the most dangerous man on earth.

No, he's not a superhero.

He's the Goddamn Batman.
posted by JonahBlack at 1:09 PM on March 3, 2012 [15 favorites]


If Batman isn't a superhero, then Lex Luthor isn't a supervillain. The nemesis of the single most powerful superhero of them all isn't a supervillain; he's just some guy. Superman has been repeatedly brought to his knees, humbled, all but definitively defeated, nearly killed, over and over again, by Some Guy.

Pluto is a planet, and Batman is a superhero.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 1:17 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, I hate to wade into this minefield...

@radwolf76 "What happens to Bruce Wayne if you strip out the money and the technology?"

A= He is just a person who has to work a 9-5 job to feed himself. A person who does not have access to the finest, most nutritious food, health care & exercise facilities. A person without access to expensive education/tutoring. A person without the means to travel the world to train or deal with problems originating from afar. A person without influence of any kind. A person without the interpersonal relationships and resources that come from having money/influence/sway over others in the business world and world at large. A person without the ability to create vast networks of information that he can tap to exercise his great detective skills. A person who, because he is obligated to his job to survive, does not have the time or resources to dedicate to prowling the night.

Batman is a super hero because her belongs to a fraternity called "Super Heroes". He is not a superhero. If the fraternity was called, oh, Avengers, he would be an Avenger due to his membership and an avenger because he is actually avenging his murdered parents.

So:
Batman = Super Hero
Batman =/= superhero

I'm sure that settles it for everyone. My work is done here.... WOOOOSH!!
posted by sandra_s at 1:22 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ok. Now do Frank Castle.
posted by radwolf76 at 1:27 PM on March 3, 2012


I think if you took away the money and the technology, Bruce Wayne wouldn't become a 9-5 worker by any means. He'd become a complete and total vigilante, doing whatever was necessary to mete out justice and survive on the streets of Gotham. His sense of purpose is much greater than his sense of personal well-being and because of that he'd easily cast aside all trappings of a normal life to pursue that purpose.
posted by Modica at 1:39 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


As a librarian, and thus the last word on classification, I would say:

1. Batman is an example of the "costumed or masked avenger" genre, typified by characters like the Shadow, Doc Savage, and (more psychotically) the Spider (along with comic strip characters like the Phantom). They survived the decline of the pulps by migrating into the comics, where they get rolled into the superhero genre. Since Batman is clearly part of this lineage, which survived as superheroes, he is a superhero.

2. While Batman's physical and mental capabilities are generally depicted as at the upper edge of human potential, he is often depicted as doing things that are clearly outside of human ability (for one thing, he would have no joints left after all that swinging and contorting). Thus, he is a superhero, even if his "powers" are fairly "mild" by Superman or even Spiderman standards.

So, yeah, he's a superhero.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:41 PM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Looking back at my earlier comment and thinking about what your friend said, re: Batman's only power is that he has a lot of money. Bruce Wayne is estimated to have a net worth of 7.0 billion dollars, though much of that is not going to be in volatile assets. The NYPD (on which the Gotham PD is doubtlessly based) spends roughly 4.5 billion a year. Add to this the fact that the police enjoy lots of community support (911 calls, neighborhood watch programs, free coffee at the doughnut shop, etc.), all Batman has is some branded equipment, an elderly butler, a court appointed ward and a fabulous cape. Batman might come out of the gates looking pretty good, but realistically, the police should, in short order, pull ahead and mostly need Batman to fill in for their Drug, Alcohol and Henchman Resistance Education program while they send a battalion of officers out to take care of some real crime. Instead the police have special "have Batman come save our asses" signaling equipment.

In football, there are guys who have all the basics out the wazoo. They can run like a cheetah and throw a pass as far and as accurately as anyone, but when push comes to shove, they're pretty average players. And then there are those guys who aren't particularly fast and can't throw a football like a bullet, but they can look up from the snap and they instantly know what to do. Where the ball needs to go. They don't wow you on paper with amazingly long passes or number of passes completed or yards run. What's their skill? Winning football games.

So what's Batman's power? Being a superhero.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:43 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Having innumerable wealth is Batman's superpower. He got it from his father, the same way Superman inherited his powers.

Batman hides the construction of the JLA Watchtower in a line item in one department of his business. That's a superpower.

He's also a great detective, a superior martial artist, and an inventor. But no, I think his money is his power.

Bruce Wayne himself says, "I do nothing that a man of unlimited funds, superb physical stamina, and maximum scientific knowledge could not do." The only one of these that is not attainable by an ordinary human is unlimited money. That's his power.
posted by gauche at 1:43 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Batman is a superhero in the same way that Spider-Man is a superhero -- exposure to an external force has changed them in a fundamental way. One was bitten by a radioactive spider and gained various spider-like abilities unattainable by normal people. The other witnessed his parents death, triggering a single-minded focused ambition unattainable by normal people.

Spider-Man gained physical strength and agility. Batman gained mental strength and agility.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:45 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ok. Now do Frank Castle.

Same thing. Seeing the death of his family triggered a violent streak unattainable by normal people.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:50 PM on March 3, 2012


I think GenjiandProust raises an important point:

In real use, "Superhero" is not primarily used to describe a kind of person who fights crime. It is used to describe a kind of fictional character who fights crime in a specific genre of fiction.

Among the various criteria of whether a character is a superhero, a really important criterion is whether that character appears in superhero fiction.

Someone like, say, Robin Hood, who has near-supernatural powers of archery, and wears a costume, and fights injustice is not a superhero, in part because his story does not otherwise fit the superhero genre (it predates the genre, did not first appear in comics, etc...). If there was a supernatural character in roman mythology who fought crime, and wore a costume, we would not describe him as a superhero.

Among the various super-hero-like criteria of Batman is the fact that the Batman comics are pretty clearly within the superhero genre- they are comics, with super-villains, in a world populated by people with supernatural powers, published starting in the 20th century, etc, etc.

This question is easier to answer if you first admit that superheros aren't real.
posted by ManInSuit at 1:56 PM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


That's exactly my rebuttal to sandra_s. The Punisher doesn't have 7 billion to work with, but he didn't fall into a 9 to 5 pedestrian existance.
posted by radwolf76 at 1:56 PM on March 3, 2012


I'm pretty sure Batman's 'superpower' is the application of his resources, but having a superpower doesn't make you a superhero- Maxwell Lord ends up with psychic powers and went through a period of wrestling with his identity related to being a guy manipulating real superheros for profit and power, indeed he's depicted as having nightmares about a costumed version of himself.

It's the costume and the capacity to be more than a punchline, as far as ability to get stuff done, that counts, even more than the power. Batman is in a camp with people like The Green Arrow (wealthy dude stranded on island = amazing archery, silly suit!) or Ironman.
posted by Phalene at 2:05 PM on March 3, 2012


Seems like superhero is different from hero because of superhero power.

Is Sherlock Holmes a hero or a superhero?
posted by jander03 at 2:20 PM on March 3, 2012


As an alternate point, (since I didn't see this mentioned) what are we considering Iron Man? Isn't Tony Stark in the same situation as Batman? He just happens to have a lot of money to throw at building a power suit. Of course, based on the movie at least, he might have the superpower of engineering having constructed the a version of the Iron Man suit while being held prisoner.

That being said, I agree with 0xFCAF and JonahBlack 's points.
posted by graxe at 2:32 PM on March 3, 2012


If, when engaging a bad guy, your actions have ever been captured in brightly colored textual overlays, with words like "POW" or "BAM", etc, you are most certainly a superhero.
posted by forforf at 3:11 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Batman is a superhero. Bruce Wayne is not.
Iron man is a superhero. Tony Stark is not.
Superman is a superhero. Clark Kent is/could also be a superhero.

Sure Bruce can still fight and he has a strong drive or whatever but when it comes down to it he is human. Maybe a really super human but not superhuman. He needs his gadgets to put him over the edge.
Clark, on the other hand doesn't lose anything with out his cape or gain anything with it. So he's always superhuman even if he doesn't want to be.
posted by simplethings at 3:19 PM on March 3, 2012


In addition to being a type of character, "superhero" is a genre: one can speak of "superhero comics" or "a superhero movie" in the same way that one speaks of "a detective novel" or "a fantasy role-playing game".

This is important, because genres are not products of definition. No one sits down and says "We will establish a new genre, and it shall have these qualities" -- or at least, if they do, no one takes their proclamations seriously. Rather, genres are products of imitation, of artists looking at other works and adopting their features until there's a recognizable body of works with a cluster of features that they tend to share -- but since any particular work can imitate some features without imitating others, no particular feature is essential to making it recognizable as a member of the genre. There are works that are easily recognizable as detective stories despite not having an actual detective, or not having any crime. They achieve this by conforming to the genre in other respects. And likewise, a work can have some of the features of a genre without being recognized as a member of the genre: there are quite a few spy stories that contain speculative technology without being branded as sci-fi.

In this way, Batman (the comic book, not the character) is clearly recognizable as a work in the superhero genre. It has most of the features we associate with the genre: the costumed hero, the crime-fighting, the larger-than-life action, the cape, the secret identity, the colorful rogues gallery, etc. Heck, Batman is responsible for establishing some of those tropes. Just about the only thing it doesn't have is a hero with superhuman powers, but like I said, no one feature is essential to genre membership. And I suppose it seems strange to say that Batman is a superhero comic but that Batman isn't a superhero.
posted by baf at 4:14 PM on March 3, 2012


HIM: Nah, a superhero is defined by his extraordinary abilities. Whether the superhero uses those abilities for good or ill is something different altogether.
YOU: Is Gandalf a superhero?

Batman is a superhero, even by his reasoning. You just need to find out what the baseline 'hero' is. Soldier, cop, firefighter, EMT, good Samaritan - those are your baseline heroes.

Does Batman have extraordinary abilities when compared to the standard hero? Of course he does - he has more combat skills than a soldier, better deduction than a cop, superior equipment to the firefighter or EMT, and is able to place himself in situations where he will do more good than the Samaritan. His abilities are beyond ordinary for the average hero.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:38 PM on March 3, 2012


You should both go on the Judge John Hodgman podcast and abide by his ruling. That is all.
posted by Green With You at 4:46 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was sure there was a similar discussion here once, and indeed there was a previously, almost six years to the day. I'd certainly call him a superhero, but I agree with the source quoted there that at best he has near-superhuman abilities. And a lot of willpower. The money helps, but he likely still would've found a way to be a vigilante. Fighting weird, fantastic bad guys helps too.

Punisher is more debatable because in essence he's not much different from "action heroes" like John McClane or Jack Bauer. People might call the live action Batman/Daredevil/Iron Man movies superhero movies, but the Punisher ones?

And if one is to make a distinction with "Batman" the comic book, it should be noted that he started out with guest stints in the more mundane "Detective Comics." So his roots were definitely more in line with the Shadow and the Phantom, and he probably just evolved more into the superhero genre, esp when a heavier fantasy element was added. The other thread also mentions that Batman as unstoppable immortal badass (Martian-)killing machine is more of a recent phenomenon.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 5:40 PM on March 3, 2012


I'm not opposed to a definition of superhero that includes Jack Bauer.
posted by radwolf76 at 5:52 PM on March 3, 2012


Only superheroes are allowed membership in the JLA. Batman is a superhero.
posted by Mr. Justice at 6:34 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Alan Moore settled this question in Watchmen. "Heroes" are people in costumes doing good. "Superheroes" are more-powerful-than-people in costumes doing good. "Heroes" included Night Owl, who was Batman in many ways, and "superheroes" pretty much just meant D. Manhattan.

According to Alan Moore, then, your friend is right. Batman is a hero and not a superhero.
posted by pmb at 7:19 PM on March 3, 2012


Batman has a superpower, something no other human does: he's at the human limit of everything he does.

Michael Phelps is possibly the most fit human in the world, or was in August 2008. He's not doubt a smart guy, but he doesn't have the time to also train to be a better fighter than Bruce Lee, a better crime scene expert than an FBI police scientist, a better pilot than Chuck Yeager. Batman is all these things and more.

Humans really only have enough time to get good at one thing, or maybe pretty good at two. No one is, or could ever be, world class in a dozen or more disciplines. That's Batman's main superpower.
posted by bonehead at 7:47 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Batman can, and has, outfought Superman. He used technology and cunning, but those are part of his superness.

He's the goddamned Batman. Calling him "just a human" is like calling Warren Buffett "pretty well off", or the Green Arrow "just an archer".

There may not be anything extra-mortal/extraterrestrial about Batman's abilities and resources, but as has been pointed out in this thread, no one else on Earth can do what he can do.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:22 PM on March 3, 2012


Interesting angles on the underlying issue in this "Is Buffy Summers a superhero?" thread
posted by Trurl at 1:54 AM on March 4, 2012


A couple of points, although I think bonehead nailed it above.

Sure, Batman's rich, and that helps, but how much is it an excuse? If someone's main superpower was that they were the tallest person on Earth, (or best-looking, or has the best eyesight), being rich is pretty irrelevant. Sure, some people are so poor that malnutrition prevents them from attaining their maximum height, but once you're eating 3 squares a day, it's basically genetics. On the other hand, if someone's main claim was that they had the biggest house on Earth, (or best collection of cars, or most gold-plated plumbing fixtures), well, that's pretty obviously enabled by them being super-rich and deciding to channel it in a specific direction; any one of a number of other rich people could do the same, if they had a mind to. So there's a range of super-attributes, some of which are totally orthogonal to wealth, and some of which are pretty much synonymous with wealth.

Let's call these extremes A and B respectively. What are Batman's attributes? One is that he's in incredible shape, which is mostly a type A thing; Usain Bolt's parents ran a small rural grocery store in a developing country, for instance. He's also a really good martial artist, skilled gymnast and so on. All type A. He's very smart, and knowledgeable about a wide range of disciplines (for instance, he knows enough about botany to go up against Poison Ivy, who has a doctorate in the subject). That's in between A and B, but it's mostly self-study; although a rich dude like Bruce Wayne could have Gotham's experts on every subject tutoring him constantly, he doesn't, so it's closer A than B. His third main notable attribute is being well-equipped; that's a lot more of a type B thing, although he does invent much of it himself; the person with the world's biggest house didn't draw up the blueprints themselves. (Actually, she inherited it. From William The Conqueror. Who also didn't draw up the blueprints.)

Another thing to talk about is how good Batman is at everything. For a real-world contrast, Andrew Luck is the consensus #1 draft pick in the NFL, so he's clearly an elite athlete. It's a notable part of his story that he's academically inclined; he's graduating in architecture from Stanford. This is remarkably uncommon for an elite athlete; in sports where college is the main training ground, many go, but it's understood that the academics are not important, and college athletes frequently don't graduate, despite an easy course schedule -- and many athletes in other sports (hockey, for instance) don't have any postsecondary education. So Andrew Luck is pretty remarkable academically, as an elite athlete goes. But viewed without the athletics, his academic achievement is to graduate from a good school in a fairly rigorous program with a bachelor's degree in four years. This is something that literally thousands of his classmates at Stanford have also done this year, and hundreds of thousands across the US. Only a few people are elite athletes and fairly good academically (or the other way around, and elite intellectuals are only good at their one thing); Batman's world class at all of it.

The other point is that he fights guys on a pretty regular basis. Not only that, is he good enough at it to fight people who are clearly superpowered. Fighting is incredibly stressful on the human body. Pro wrestlers have incredibly short active careers; veterans mostly just shit-talk each other, and have mostly short, crappy fights. It takes a massive toll on the body, and they're pretending to fight each other for like 10 minutes a couple of times a week. Think about an actual fighter, like a mixed martial artist, who gets in fights with people who are actively trying to hurt him. Remember, these fights are just with other highly-trained fighters and not actual superhumans like Bane or whoever, and they are done according to rules; there are no weapons, it's not in a collapsing building, there aren't a dozen henchmen involved. Georges St. Pierre's professional career has been a decade long; in that decade, he's fought 22 times. Top ranked fighters (MMA or boxing) only fight on the order of 2 or 3 times a year, and spend the rest of the time recovering and training. Batman fights 2 or 3 times a night. And with what we know about head injuries and brain trauma, the fact that he's also a genius and the world's greatest detective just isn't within the range of human capacity.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:25 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Batman travels around the city by improvisationally swinging between buildings, using a thin cable that would cut a normal person's fingers off the first time they tried it. He somehow attaches this cable to things that are blocks distant from, and/or stories above, his present position; he then, equally inexplicably, recovers it. He's shown routinely entering buildings by swinging himself through windows from Lord-knows-where, as well as casually dropping to the ground from who-knows-how-many-stories up.

Batman's superpower is getting around like this for years and years without killing himself.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 3:23 PM on March 4, 2012


I don't see why the guy would be required to have super-human powers, he just has to be super-heroic.

How we define "super" is at the heart of all this I think.

Absolutely. Is Batman a hero? Yes. As a hero, can Batman be described by these definitions of the prefix 'super'?
“an individual, thing, or property that exceeds customary norms or levels” (superalloy; superconductivity; superman; superstar ), “an individual or thing larger, more powerful, or with wider application than others of its kind” (supercomputer; superhighway; superpower; supertanker ), “exceeding the norms or limits of a given class” (superhuman; superplastic ) (all from Dictionary.com)
Batman, as a hero, definitely exceeds customary norms of the regular day-to-day hero: Police, Firemen, Good Samaritans, etc. Batman is definitely larger-than-life and more powerful than the day-to-day hero. Through his training and his technology, he does exceed the day-to-day hero's norms and limits. Therefore, what kind of a hero is Batman? He is a Superhero.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 2:03 PM on March 5, 2012


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