“Who would win in a fight: Batman or Superman?” It’s a question that anyone with the minimal amount of pop-culture savvy has heard before, likely stretching back to their time on the playgrounds. It’s an absurd question of course, one dictated by whatever the demands of the story are. The question of who would win has never been interesting, but what has remained worth discussing is the why behind these two characters’ fights. The idea of a superhero fighting a supervillain is nothing new, but a hero fighting a hero? That’s worth a discussion, especially when it comes down to exploring the inherent character differences between Batman and Superman. Before we see two of the world’s most iconic characters clash on the big-screen, we want to take a look back at how the relationship between Batman and Superman has evolved over the years, and ultimately set the stage for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
From their inception, Batman and Superman were positioned to contrast each other and our American values. From the moment Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, he captured the imagination of millions and defined a culture. In the decades to come, and the vast multitude of costumed crime-fighters that followed in his wake, Superman’s originality and instant popularity has long been taken for granted. The creation of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, Superman was the ultimate blend of the immigrant story and Judeo-Christian themes and imagery. For some he is a modern day Moses, positioned to set his adopted people free from the rule of corrupt government officials, low-lifes, and monsters. For others he is a Christ-figure, a man with a mysterious background willing to sacrifice his own life to save ours. And for the vast majority he simply is who he is- a super man who can shape the course of the world with the power of his fists and an undying commitment to truth, justice, and the human way.
While Superman was created by the idealistic enthusiasm of two teenage boys, Batman was created solely for financial gain. National Comics, soon to become DC Comics, put out a request for more superheroes like Superman. Many failed and have since been forgotten in their attempts to adhere too closely to Superman. But Bob Kane and Bill Finger went in a different direction, and chose to create a superhero that pulled directly from the pulp magazines that preceded Superman, and thus The Bat-Man was created. Appearing almost a year after Superman, Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939 and almost instantly his popularity surpassed that of Superman. If Superman was the immigrant made good by working class American values, then Batman was the result of old money, made callous by a lack of coping skills and mental illness too taboo to discuss until decades later. Grant Morrison points out in his book Supergods that Batman’s fetishizing of violence, madness, and wealth instantly made him the cooler hero. You’d be hard pressed to find many people today who think that Superman is cooler than Batman. Superman is who we want to save us and who we’d like to imagine we could be if blessed with powers beyond those of mortal men, but Batman is the seductive fantasy of absolute control, of the primal forces of humanity that aren’t dictated by aliens or gods.
With Superman firmly defined by his ability to overcome fear and work in the light, and Batman defined by embracing fear and living in the shadows, it makes sense that we would want to see these opposites clash. But as Superman moved beyond street-level corruption and towards increasingly fantastical situations, and Batman abandoned his guns and took on a child-partner, the characters became less defined by their differences and more so by their similarities. And as company mandates dictated the direction of their stories, Batman and Superman both abandoned their casual attitude towards taking lives (for the most part) and became friendlier characters. The first time Batman and Superman appeared together in print was in World’s Best Comics #1 in 1941. The title, which was eventually renamed World’s Finest only featured Batman, Robin, and Superman together on the covers, while the stories inside kept the characters separate. These covers had nothing to do with the stories inside, but instead showcased the characters playing sports together.
The characters first interacted in radio in 1945, but it wasn’t until Superman #76 in 1952 that the characters actually interacted together in one comic story. In “The Mightiest Team in the World” Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent find themselves as unwilling bunkmates on a vacation cruise (crime was down) and worry about maintaining their secret identities. But when crime rears its ugly head, Bruce kills the room’s lights and tries to rush out the door in the dark, only to come out of the doorway at the same time as Superman. After realizing each other’s identities, they team-up, and Bruce later disguises himself as Clark Kent to protect Superman’s identity from Lois Lane. The team-up proved popular and World’s Finest began to feature Batman and Superman in stories together. In many of these team-ups Batman was given short-lived powers so he could be of use to Superman’s missions (this friends, is where the subtlest of dick-measuring begins).With the formation of the Justice League in The Brave and the Bold #28 in 1960, it become everyday business for Batman and Superman to interact with each other. The Justice League, named because of the then popularity of Baseball’s National League and American League, was built around the notion of these various characters not only being stronger together against larger threats but also that they were all friends. The friendship between Batman and Superman remained largely static until 1986 ushered in a Crisis and a Return.
As DC attempted to massively redefine and streamline their continuity (for the first time of many) with the 12-issue series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Frank Miller was also ushering in massive change with The Dark Knight Returns. While the oft-repeated sentiment that Miller is solely responsible for creating the darker Batman we see today is inaccurate, he is responsible for something just as groundbreaking: pitting Batman against Superman. In the years since his creation, Superman had become part of the establishment and, as far as children of the the post-Vietnam/Cold War era of Punk Rock and absent fathers were concerned, the establishment could go fuck itself. The relationship between Batman and Superman in The Dark Knight Returns is basically the story of two dads, with the qualities that had originally defined these characters exacerbated into near parodic levels. Superman is depicted as the unwavering patriot, a pawn of the American government whose efforts to stand by the “American way” may spark WWIII. Batman on the other hand is rogue, excessively violent, and an embittered war-hero by way of Clint Eastwood. Where Superman, in a reference to his roots in WWII propaganda, becomes the figure likely to tell American youth to join the military and fight for country, Batman is the alternative. He’s the one who says “Forget the government, protect what’s yours, follow my rules and we’ll create a new society.” Despite Batman being “the cool dad” in this scenario, he’s really not much better than Superman in his approach. He gives the Punk-generation of Gotham an outlet, but he’s still using the youth for his own cause. Batman may not be a boy-scout, but he’s still an old-man telling people what to do. Ultimately it’s ego, and two characters steadfast belief that their right-way is the only right way. This of course leads to one of the most brutal fights in comic-book history, with Batman calling in the aid of Green Arrow to weaken Superman with a Kryptonite Arrow. Bloody and bruised, Batman ultimately spares Superman’s life before suffering from an apparent heart attack. This fight left two major legacies: Batman’s kryptonite crutch, and the notion that both of our greatest superheroes could be fallible.
In the 30- years following that series’ conclusion, The Dark Knight Returns has been perverted, largely by Miller himself. What began as an examination of the ideals upon which these characters are founded and a decimation of moral absolutism has become a means for many comic fans to say Batman is better than Superman and that Batman can always beat Superman, instead of understanding the climate the series was created in and understanding that it is a story without winners, without heroes, and one written by a man who is smitten with neither the character or idea of Superman. But regardless of the flaws in The Dark Knight Returns’ legacy, the relationship between Batman and Superman became increasingly interesting. A new in-continuity first meeting between Batman and Superman was established in John Byrne’s The Man of Steel #3 in 1986. In this first meeting, the friendship is not immediately established. Superman travels to Gotham city to deal with the vigilante outlaw taking the law into his own hands. The heroes end up working together, but there’s a divide between them, a distrust of the other’s methods.
As the 80s led into the 90s, Superman became increasingly defined by doing what was right in the moment and sometimes acting without thinking of lasting consequences. Whereas Batman became increasingly paranoid, and concerned with his place in a world full of super-powered beings who could destroy easily destroy it. When Superman killed Zod and his followers in 1988, it led to a long crisis of conscience where the Man of Steel began questioning what would happen if he were to lose control, or worse, make the wrong choice again. In 1990’s Action Comics #654 Superman comes to the Batcave to give Batman a Kryptonite ring that had previously belonged to Lex Luthor. For the first time in-continuity, this cemented the idea that Batman would be the only one capable of taking down Superman, and it became the measure of friendship between the two men. There was only one problem: Batman is a dick.
In 2000, Mark Waid’s Tower of Babel showed what a self-righteous asshole Batman could really be. During his entire time in the Justice League, Batman had been tracking and cataloguing the weaknesses of each and every member of the Justice League and keeping these files in the Batcave, in the event that they lost control so he could stop them. Using the kryptonite Superman gave him, Batman created Red Kryptonite which made Superman’s skin transparent and overloaded his body to the sun’s radiation causing immense pain and sensory overload. Ra’s al Ghul discovers and steals these records and systematically takes out the Justice League. When Ra’s is defeated, the League votes on whether to remove Batman from the Justice League. The votes are split and come down to Superman. Superman remains silent and Batman leaves the Justice League, knowing how his “most trusted ally” will answer.
The 2000s saw further conflicts and team-ups between The Dark Knight and the Man of Steel. In Jeph Loeb’s Hush, Batman wields a Kryptonite ring to deliver a beat-down to Superman whose mind is under control by Poison Ivy. Loeb’s Superman/Batman ongoing series saw the two tackle threats from Luthor, Darkseid, and alternate realities while highlighting the optimism of Superman and the pessimism of Batman. In a flashback retcon, Loeb’s series revealed that Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent had met as children and engaged in a friendly game of baseball, bringing the relationship full circle. But that didn’t mean we’d see a return of the “chums” of the 1950s. In 2005’s Infinite Crisis by Geoff Johns, Batman delivered the showstopper “Let’s face it, ‘Superman…’ the last time you inspired anyone was when you were dead.” It was a line that hurt, and it was meant to. But it also provided meta-commentary on Superman’s declining popularity over the decades, a popularity that only had a brief resurgence during 1992’s The Death of Superman. With a darker universe, and the popularity of that year’s Batman Begins, comic fans finally had their answer. In a comic culture motivated by sales and pop culture mentions in a burgeoning social media-driven society, Batman beat Superman.
With DC’s reboot in the form of the New 52, and another streamlining crisis titled “Rebirth” on the way, Batman and Superman have remained allies, friends, enemies, and competitors all at the same time. It is a complicated relationship that has made great stories, awful ones, and everything in between. More than any president or American leader, Batman and Superman are the greatest fathers America has ever known, a means to explore the increasingly complex minefields of morality as both children and adults. There is no darkness without light, and no light without darkness, and our entire superhero comic book history is founded on these two characters. The idea of Batman versus Superman isn’t to show that one character is better than the other but a means to look at both characters’ flaws and attributes in order to examine those same components within ourselves. Whether we’re mentally ill or well-adjusted, whether we feel isolated or unavoidably visible, whether we’re paranoid or trusting, we’re ultimately capable of great things. We are both Batman and Superman.
Featured Image: Jim Lee (DC Comics)