Illustration by justpurdueit on Tumblr, via Pinterest
In a scathing rebuke of this blog’s title,
I want explore comparison that I am definitely not the second to make. A cursory Google search reveals a myriad of face-offs between Marvel and DC’s respective interpretations of the genius-billionaire-playboy turned tech-infused vigilante.
Who would win in a fight? Who’s richer? Who’s smarter? The internet is seething with all manner of versus-style hot takes. These immediately incite virulent opposition that (implicitly, and always in bad faith) goes on to tweak the scenario in question and draw on alternative source material to prove that their preferred hero comes out on top. It’s a raucous, engaging, and brilliant case study in motivated reasoning. A real hoot, if you’re into that sort of thing.
(A pleasant, if banal, exception to this pattern is found in Danang Permana’s undergraduate thesis “The Differences of Temperament Between Batman and Ironman in Batman Begins and Ironman Movie,” 2014 Diponegro University)
Despite the glaring similarities in their character archetypes, (and the WWE Smackdowns such similarities invite) Batman and Iron Man are delightfully sophisticated characters. Both are, I think, the most compelling heroes in their respective canons. In what is, hopefully, a departure from a lively online debate, I want to explore one small part of why these characters excel in their respective stories.
Before I get going, I should point out that the source material I’m most familiar with, and what informs just about everything I have to say here, is as follows:
Batman: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and the Arkham video game series
Iron Man: Marvel’s Cinematic Universe
With that out of the way, let’s jump into it.
A key part of what makes these characters so successful has to do with magic. Hold up, Sebastian — you might be thinking — neither of these characters uses magic! That’s part of what makes them so cool; if I wanted magic, I’d go hang out with Dr. Strange or Wonder Woman.
Yes, obviously nothing that these characters do is treated explicitly as ‘magic’ within-universe. I’m using the term here in a looser way. By ‘magic’ I mean, roughly:
Abilities that enable courses of action unavailable to everyday folks.
For characters with magic, its use is obvious, boring even, while the rest of us look on in wonder.
When Bruce Wayne commandeers a larger table at a swanky restaurant at which it took Harvey Dent three weeks to get a reservation, that’s magic.
When Tony Stark solves time travel by running a simulation “in the shape of a mobius strip,” that’s magic.
When Batman flings himself between skyscrapers with his grapnel gun, that’s magic.
And don’t even get me started on Iron Man’s nanotech armor.
All superheroes have magic, in my sense of the term. But the magic we get from Bruce and Tony doesn’t trace back to some mysterious god-alien. These characters are captivating magic users because the fundamental elements of their magic makes sense.
The most cogent development of this idea that I’ve encountered comes from Brandon Sanderson. In a 2016 lecture at BYU, Sanderson proposes three rules that form a recipe of sorts for the engaging use of magic in fiction.
- Your ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the reader/viewer/player understands said magic.
- Limitations are more interesting than powers.
- Go deeper into magic, not wider.
Some motivating examples are in order, I think, if I want to lean on Sanderson’s framework.
Consider Tolkein’s One Ring, arguably one of the most captivating magical items in contemporary fiction. Its powers are easy to grasp: used by anyone other than Sauron, the ring grants invisibility, but it allows said Dark Lord to see exactly where you are. Oh and depending on what kind of creature you are it either slowly or quickly turns you into the middle-earth equivalent of a meth head. The power of invisibility is beautifully tempered by these two limitations, making the ring’s use both dangerous and oh-so alluring. And rather than proliferate magical rings throughout the narrative, Tolkein’s tale stays largely focused on the One, tracing its passage from Isildor to Smeagol to Bilbo to Frodo (then, briefly, back to Smeagol).
Where Tolkein passes muster, Rowling falls short. Despite a few intriguing exceptions (Expecto Patronum and the Polyjuice Potion come to mind) the magic of the wizarding world is largely arbitrary and vague. Some people have it and some don’t, magic users are born to non-magical parents and vice versa. Most of the time, you need to have a wand to control your magic, some wands are better than others, and some wands have to choose you but others will just accept you if you kick their owner’s ass. And the time turner makes less sense than a payphone in 2021 (…think about it). Rowling’s magic has few limitations; you can presumably keep spewing from your wand until you loose feeling in your wrist, and there are enough spells mentioned in the books to fill four jeopardy boards. Scarcely explained, sparsely limited, and sprawling like an Orange County suburb, Rowling’s magic culminates in an epic showdown that is less satisfying than an episode of “Who’s got a better pooping face?”.
(Pooping is, apparently, something that Rowling has thought a lot about).
How do Batman and Iron Man fare on Sanderson’s metric?
Their abilities are highly legible. Both are based in wealth, ingenuity, stubbornness, and a generous helping of paternalism. They utilize sets of tools that are (nanotech suit excepted) well-defined and relatively sparse.
Their limitations are clear and relatable. Iron Man’s suit runs out of power (or nanobots) and Batman gets really sleepy. Iron Man can never be prepared enough for the next big threat and Batman’s unwillingness to kill is constantly exploited by his foes.
There is depth on tap as well. Tony’s obsession with his robotic suit gives us the chance to enjoy nineteen different iterations through the MCU, while the fact that Bruce never sets his sights beyond Gotham City keeps the narrative grounded in a distinct history and set of relationships.
I note these things only to suggest why these two characters are effective when they are, in fact, effective. But Sanderson’s rules cut both ways. By the end of Arkham City the player has a dizzying number of gadgets at their disposal. Here, and to its detriment, the game goes wider, not deeper. In his face-off with Thanos at the end of Infinity War, Iron Man’s nanosuit takes the shape of just about whatever the moment calls for, and the viewer is left with a nebulous idea of just what the suit can do.
But rather than dilute my enjoyment of these two characters, moments like these more often remind me just how consistently successful Iron Man and Batman are in their respective roles. And that success — what makes their stories so satisfying and interesting — makes more sense with Sanderson’s Rules of Magic as a lens.