Talking Tropes: Superman Stays Out of Gotham
Hello, dear readers, and welcome to our newly redesigned site! In the spirit of embracing the new, we’ll be trying out a new segment today to go with our new look! And so it is that we come to Talking Tropes, where we look at some of the most prevalent story-telling tricks and conventions used in our favorite medium, and try to discuss what they accomplish and why they are used. For our inaugural outing, we’ll be taking a look at an especially ubiquitous trope that pervades the shared universes of most any comic universe: Superman Stays out of Gotham.
To briefly summarize, this is a trope that describes the tendency for certain characters to stay away from another character’s sandbox; that is to say, that when you have a sprawling, expansive universe, two characters in that universe will rarely interact with one another outside of team and team-up books. The trope’s name, for example, comes from the idea that Superman doesn’t interfere with Batman’s own work in Gotham City.
If you think about it for a while, though, you sometimes come across a certain problem. To illustrate what I mean, let’s take a look at a scene from Red Robin: The Grail. In the story, Tim Drake is in one of those certain-death scenarios that super heroes tend to find themselves in every now and then. These scenes aren’t exactly infrequent, but something stuck out to me as I was reading this one. At one point during his internal monologue, when his doom seems assured, Red Robin runs through his options of escape, and wonders if it might be possible to yell loudly enough for Superman to hear him and come help.
Clearly, this was meant to be taken jokingly, but I found myself wondering: Couldn’t he, though?
It’s well established that, in most depictions of the character, Superman can hear things occurring on the other side of the planet, if he knows to listen for it. Is it too crazy an idea, then, that he might be able to pick up on a cry for help from one of his allies? But hey, maybe he wouldn’t pick up on it if it just came up out of the blue, or maybe he’s off-world at the moment, so certainly it isn’t something you would want to rely on.
But what about other situations that might come up? What if Batman has to square off against Bane to save some hostages? Bane’s Venom-enhanced strength makes him a daunting foe for the Dark Knight…but not so much for Wonder Woman. Presumably, Batman would have ways of getting into contact with her, them being teammates on the Justice League and all, and surely Diana would come to help innocent people if she were able, at which point the Amazon Princess would make short work of Bane. Or let’s say that someone placed a number of bombs scattered around Star City, set to go off in just 5 minutes. Such a crisis would be a great challenge for Green Arrow, but not for the Flash. Spider-Man sure had a rough time when he faced off against Morlun back in JMS’s run; one imagines that bringing in his old pals on the FF for backup would have changed that dynamic considerably.
We could go on like this for quite some time, concocting situations where a certain hero has to face a dire threat that wouldn’t be too big a deal for one of their godlike associates. This issue isn’t exclusive to superheroes, but it is perhaps most glaring in that genre, where beings of staggering power who can devastate worlds roam the same continuity as those heroes who struggle to fight mobsters. Certainly, different problems call for different skill sets (I wouldn’t want Hercules trying to dismantle the Kingpin’s criminal empire), but there are clearly a variety of scenarios where calling in help from a friend or teammate would help to thwart a villain and save lives.
Granted, sometimes writers do their level best to justify this; during the X-Men: Second Coming event, for example, the Avengers show up to help with the crisis, but are locked out by a force field. And in the Red Robin example from earlier, they address the idea in the abstract, and in that case used it as a bit of a joke. The vast majority of the time, though, the idea is never brought up or considered at all. For Batman specifically, there seems to be an understanding within the DC superhero community that there is a nigh-sacred no-encroachment policy when it comes to a hero’s turf, and that Batman especially guards his most jealously. Generally speaking, that works well enough, I suppose, though it could make Batman seem awfully petty if innocent people die because he didn’t want help from the Martian Manhunter.
Having said all that, this trope does indeed exist for a damn good reason; it can be the only thing that makes certain superhero books worth reading. Imagine if every time Black Widow had to fight someone with super powers, she just placed a call to Thor and had him mop the floor with the guy. Maybe that would make sense if you’re being starkly realistic about it, but it would get very boring very fast if this was a frequent solution. Imagine if every issue of Batman ended with a scene similar to the one depicted at the top of the page; how lame would it be if Superman swooped in out of nowhere to save the day every single time? Pretty lame indeed, if you ask me, so it’s a good thing it doesn’t happen.
So this trope is something that needs to exist, but how do we justify the absence of characters that could easily solve the problem-of-the-day when we know that they exist in that universe? It does help when the writers provide an explanation, and the whole turf aspect does give us something kind of plausible, but I would argue that it’s ultimately more about the reader than it is the story.
Whenever you read or watch any story, it doesn’t matter which kind, you have to bring with you a Willing Suspension of Disbelief; that is to say that when you read a story, you must be willing to put aside your reservations about reading something you know is impossible in order to enjoy the narrative. This isn’t an excuse for bad writing; Willing Suspension of Disbelief does not pardon things like a lack of internal consistency or a disregard for basic logic. But it DOES allow us to enjoy stories about Jedi knights, boy wizards, Time Lords, hobbits, Kryptonians, and other things that we know can’t really exist, as well as any absurd coincidences that might take place to create tension. I say all this because it also allows us to enjoy a story about Batman racing against time to stop the Joker from blowing up a subway station, even though Superman could probably solve the problem more efficiently.
To take this one step further, we can say that when we read a specific comic book, we are entering into a sort of contract with the publisher. When I go into my local comic shop and buy an issue of Batman, I’m doing so because I want to read a story about Batman, in which Batman solves his own problems. And in exchange for a few bucks, that’s what the writer delivers. My end of the bargain doesn’t end with me paying for the book, though; I’m also conceding that while I’m reading the story, I should expect it to take place in its own little bubble, one where Green Lantern cannot come to help. Maybe the in-universe explanations for this are a little shaky at times, but it’s a trope that needs to exist, and one that shouldn’t be a problem when we meet it half-way.
So there we have it! Thank for bearing with us as we try something new. Be sure to let us know what you think, and come back soon!