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Dan Steinberg, Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP
Fans pose dressed as DC Comics Super Heroes at the DC Comics Super Hero World Record Event to set a Guinness World Record at the Hollywood & Highland Center on Saturday, April 18, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision for Warner Bros. Consumer Products/AP Images)

Ten minutes into his panel at Salt Lake City Comic Con, therapist Michael Higgins has managed to enrage an audience of eager DC Comics fans, his voice drowned out in a thunder of disapproval.

Higgins is co-moderating a hot-button issue for comic fans: The rivalry between Superman and Batman, DC Comics’ flagship heroes for the past 75 years.

Higgins has earned the ire of a packed ballroom by uttering the unthinkable: In a fight between the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight in 2016’s upcoming “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Higgins is unapologetically pro-Superman.

“But how can you like such a Boy Scout?” a fan dressed as the Joker shouts over the din.

It’s a tough time to be a Superman fan. The Man of Steel and his alter ego, Clark Kent, have ebbed in popularity in recent years. Neither of the two recent Superman films — 2006’s “Superman Returns” and 2013’s “Man of Steel” — fared especially well with critics or the U.S. box office.

And it's not just movies; Superman comics barely cracked the top 50 list of best-sellers in 2014, while Batman and Spider-Man storylines occupied much of the top 20.

The public that once adored the emblem of truth, justice and the American way seems to prefer its heroes a little darker, a little grittier and a little less than perfect these days, says Superman historian Larry Tye.

“Superman has always been the hero of light,” Tye said. “As our world has gotten darker, some people prefer a hero that reflects that sense of despair.”

University of Oregon literature and comics studies professor Benjamin Saunders says Americans are living through dark days — and that may be why they prefer an edgy hero to a saint.

“Americans got bloodied and scared when the 9/11 attacks occurred, and the impulse toward retribution and vengeance often expresses itself rhetorically as an assertion of justice,” Saunders said. “Batman, for example, is a character who invites us to take pleasure in the experience of self-righteous violence — 'good' violence, if you like — much more overtly than Superman.”

Psychology of a superhero

Superman’s defining characteristic, virtue, also makes him a more difficult character for writers to develop and change than mortal heroes like Spider-Man or Batman.

“He has stayed the same in a way his handlers understand that they can’t meddle with,” Tye said. “They can change his hairstyle, they can change his workplace, they can change his girlfriend, but he’s always going to be the clunky guy who knows right from wrong. He’ll never be a dark hero.”

Higgins and mental health counselor Joe Gorton (who co-moderated Higgins’ Comic Con panel in Salt Lake) argue that Superman embodies a cultural archetype that makes him especially hard for audiences to identify with.

“Superman seems pretty far removed from what we can be,” Gorton said. “But Batman gives us something that makes us think, ‘Maybe someday I could do that.’”

Higgins and Gorton contend that because Superman and Batman represent opposing archetypes, they’re relevant to audiences’ lives in different ways and under different circumstances. Batman is what Higgins and Gorton call “The Shadow” — someone who is defined by tragedy, and acts out (for good or ill) as a result. Superman is the “Hero” archetype — someone who sacrifices himself for the good of the world.

“He’s very Christ-like,” Higgins said. “He dies for our sins all the time.”

Batman is also more relevant today, Saunders argued, because many people now believe violence is justified as a deterrent or answer to terrorism — something Superman would likely advise against.

“I do think Batman is perhaps more right for ‘right now’ than Superman, for a number of historical and cultural reasons. There’s an obvious way that the joy of self-righteous or seemingly ‘justified’ violence fits into our current zeitgeist,” Saunders said. “Batman is also the perfect hero for the digital age; he’s all about the neat little gadgets, and so is his audience.”

While both Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker are motivated after their loved ones are murdered, Superman’s need to act as a parent to planet Earth comes directly from never knowing his biological parents, Higgins said.

Because Superman acts in the interest of all parties and struggles to figure out his place in his adopted home, he’s not as easy to relate to as heroes galvanized by witnessing personal loss.

“It’s this idea of the perfect symbol versus our distrust in that symbol a little bit: Can someone be that absolute hero without having some kind of dark side?” Gorton said. “For Batman, the idea that the shadow doesn’t exist for somebody is frightening.”

Superman endures

The popularity of darker heroes — whether Batman, Spider-Man or other comic-book characters like Rick Grimes of “The Walking Dead” — might reflect a different set of values than those of Superman, but Saunders said it doesn’t mean people are losing their values or their taste for traditional justice.

“I don’t think we’re particularly invested in anti-heroes or even villains today — at least, not any more than Shakespeare’s audience was when he wrote Richard III, or Milton’s audience was when they decided they found his Satan more interesting than his good angels,” Saunders said. “The dark side — whether in the form of an ‘edgy’ hero or a charismatic villain — has always had a powerful appeal for popular audiences.”

While Batman might be more popular now, Tye suspects Superman’s popularity will likely rebound as the national consciousness and audience tastes change.

“The dark heroes have always been there. And Superman has always been there to counterpoint them,” Tye said. “In a way, it just makes Superman more appealing as someone who stands out and represents something quite different.”

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In another 75 years, Tye said, many things will have changed for America and the world, but what won’t change is people’s attraction to what Superman represents.

“He’s waned and waxed over the years, but I would argue that if you walked down the street on Halloween anywhere in America, there are just as many kids dressed as Superman as anybody,” Tye said. “He represents that within every one of us, however modest our exteriors are, however plain, there is a hero.”

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Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson