Cloaked and masked in a black outfit designed to generate fear, anonymous, unaccountable, striking out of the darkness without warning, upholding justice while being free from the bounds of due process, Batman epitomises the ideals of the heroes and defenders of society, our modern law enforcement and paramilitary governmental agencies.
What, you thought I was going to talk about Superman? Sure, he's All American - if you've been frozen in a block of ice since 1945 (or 1949, or 1954). Do grow up. Batman is our ideal now.
Am I being unfair to Batman? He is laden with gadgets and body armour (in the comics as well as post Keaton), but surely he uses no lethal weapons? Not so. Batman drives and flies armed vehicles, has used firearms opportunistically, and wore one on his utility belt very briefly. He regularly assists criminals to take impromtu flying lessons, has no compunction about killing anyone/anything remotely paranormal or freakish, and has even killed at least three people with his silken bat-rope.
But Batman doesn't kill indiscriminately! No, and neither does law enforcement. Like Batman, they are forced to kill because they choose to put themselves in positions where it is kill or be killed.
It's easy to see why Batman has become a model for modern law enforcement. He does background work, so as to be sure that he never gets the wrong guy. He has no superpowers, but makes up for it with technology and training. And he's pragmatic; Batman understands that in the heat of battle, due process has to take a back seat, and survival becomes paramount. Batman is fighting a just war against hopeless odds, and his only chance is to pick his fights and put his enemy down fast. This urban warfare mentality describes modern law enforcement very well, where the military (and Batman) principles of gathering intelligence, planning and resourcing the operations, then going in with surprise and overwhelming force are becoming increasingly commonplace. Witness the SWAT team commander that takes his inspiration from Napoleon.
So, where does that leave Superman, with his primary colours and high ideals? Rescuing cats out of trees, most likely. The Man of Steel has changed several times down the decades, and recent reworkings have attempted to give him a darker spin, and to burden him with troubles (including being dead ). But that's an aspect known only to comic afficionadoes; the popular view of Superman is and will remain a one dimensional do-gooder, of unquestionable morality. Superman announces his presence, often reasons with evildoers, and gives them an opportunity to surrender and repent. His powers are so overwhelming that physical confrontation with individuals is unnecesary. The mere appearance of his gaudy costume is enough to cause criminals to throw down their guns in dismay, a behaviour that the cunning Batman has exploited on several occasions.
Superman seems like a relic of a bygone age; his unswerving adherence to the law and to fair play now make him seem slightly ridiculous. As far back as 1986, he was being portrayed as a mildly contemptible figure, even in the world of comics. In Dark Knight Returns, Superman unquestioningly obeys any order accompanied by the waving of a Star Spangled Banner. He was shown as an easily manipulated opponent and oppressor rather than an ally. Further, he invites his own defeat through his sense of fair play, making him seem foolish in comparison with the pragmatic protagonist.
But his apparent anachronicity is a symptom of his fall from grace, not the cause. We could have chosen to develop a society and justice and law enforcement systems based on the ideals of Superman rather than Batman. We could have decided that when making arrests, we would send in overwhelming force, but announcing itself as such and offering the opportunity to surrender. The "Come out with your hands up, we have you surrounced!" method of a show of force followed by negotiation for surrender is now only portrayed for satirical purposes, often by the bumbling Chief Wiggum. A far more popular fictional and edutainment depiction of law enforcement is the SWAT team style assault, shown from their point of view, where overwhelming force is there to be used directly, not just as negotiating leverage. Where negative consequences are attached, the Batman style SWAT operation is portrayed as the lesser of two evils.
It's hard to argue against that. We can't be Superman, but we can be Batman, and that gives us all sorts of pragmatic advantages in fighting the good fight against the forces of evil.
The problem is that we seem to view it as being inevitable that because we can become Batman, that we should become him. And once the mask goes on, it becomes easier and easier to assume that we know right from wrong, that all of our actions are justified and forced on us, and that the occasional death of a suspect or bystander - or 84 year old bed ridden woman - is collateral damage in a just war.
It's so tempting, so easy, to put on the mask and the utility belt and zoom off into the darkness in the Batmobile. But wouldn't it be equally pleasant to look at Superman and see more than a figure of ridicule? We don't have superpowers, and we probably shouldn't all start wearing our underpants on the outside, but how splendid it would be if we tried to live up to his ideals: courtesy, respect, integrity, and the fairness that flows from strength of character. On the street, in the courts, in the boardroom and in Washington, what would it be like if we aspired to the Superman ideal in our daily lives, rather than just remembering it fondly as the relic of a bygone age?
Please, choose your costume.