There are two Supermans: the Man of Tomorrow, an infant refugee raised on hard work and kind guidance into a man constitutionally dedicated to sharing his vast gifts with humanity; and the Man of Steel, a blazing-eyed alien warrior whose power raises questions about our own helplessness, and whose battles shake the foundations of our planet. And one of them is winning — at least in Hollywood.
One eternal question spans all of pop culture: “Who would win?” That’s why we’re dedicating an entire week to debates that have shaped comics, movies, TV, and games, for better and worse. Prepare yourself for Polygon’s Who Would Win Week..
The dark, conflicted Superman, or even a Superman who’s gone fully over — Superman as the bad guy — commands the current zeitgeist. The last few years have seen The Boys, with its mercurial demagogue-in-the-making, Homelander; the neck-snapping Superman of Man of Steel through Justice League; the laser-eyed unstoppable force of Ikaris in Marvel’s Eternals. The shadows of breakthrough graphic novels of the 1980s like The Dark Knight Returns (Superman as a loyal tool of American imperialism) and Watchmen (Superman as a being so powerful he ceases to care about humanity) loom over Hollywood nearly three decades after their publication. Smaller productions like Brightburn have even made a bad guy out of the superchild.
It wasn’t always this way: Back in 1978, Christopher Reeves and director Richard Donner delivered a Superman worth believing in. And it’s not that you can’t find the benevolent Superman out there — in comics and on the CW he’s a father and truth teller. But how did our popular imagining of Superman gain this reputation as conflicted and reluctant? Naive and unwitting? As a stooge of the silent majority? Or as a tyrant in waiting?
The snap judgment might be that today’s creators view cynicism as hand in hand with sophistication, or misunderstand the character’s classic incarnation and assume it lacks the depth to interest an adult audience. Fans of a more troubled Superman may believe it makes him easier for audiences to relate to.
There’s some validity to all of these ideas, but there may be a deeper answer rooted in the way comics history has made its way to the larger pop consciousness: Superman has become a bad guy because we keep making him fight Batman. And when we keep making him fight Batman, he keeps losing. And when he loses, it makes him the bad guy. And when our most famous comic book stories are about Superman being the bad guy, Hollywood decides he must be.
Measuring superheroes against each other rather than their villains is the superhero genre’s favorite inversion, and “Batman vs. Superman” recurs so often it could be the encyclopedia illustration for “that thing where a slight misunderstanding leads superheroes to punch each other for a scene until they realize they’re allies.” Some of the most influential stories in the comics canon are inverted stories where Batman and Superman stand opposed to one another.
In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Superman is essentially the comic’s final boss fight. His Kryptonian physiology is young and spry, where Batman is craggy and battered; he’s the loyal arm of a dystopian American state, where Batman has become a hero of the people that makes that state nervous. Batman fakes his own death at Superman’s hands (a Bat victory in the end) and lives to raise a generation of revolutionaries for another day. When Miller returned to the setting in 2002, he closed the first act of The Dark Knight Strikes Again with the entire Justice League, under Batman’s tactical orders, kicking Superman’s ass.
In A Death in the Family, the indelible 1988 story arc that canonized the death of Batman’s second Robin, Jason Todd, Superman also plays a government stooge, albeit more gently. When Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini appoints the Joker as the country’s UN ambassador, thus giving him diplomatic immunity for all crimes he’d previously committed (I know, I know, just … go with it), the U.S. State Department asks Superman to have a talk with Batman about how he cannot, under any circumstances, seek revenge on the man who just murdered his son, because it would cause an international incident. The two heroes don’t actually trade blows, but Batman does belt Superman across the face, leaving himself with an injured hand and Superman looking like a smug and untouchable jerk.
“Superman” as a stand-in for “the Man” to Batman’s rebellion has become a familiar trope in alternate universe books as well. 2003’s Superman: Red Son imagines if Superman’s rocket landed in Russia instead of the United States, and he grew up to become a socialist dictator of the globe. The Batman of this universe is, of course, an anti-Soviet freedom fighter. In the lore of NetherRealm Studios’ Injustice: Gods Among Us, the death of Lois Lane drives Superman to murder the Joker and initiate a new world order with himself as ruler, while Batman heads up the resistance. And in the currently running Dark Knights of Steel series, a fantasy-themed version of the DC Universe, Superman tries to assassinate Batman when he discovers the latter is his secret half-brother and thus a threat to his kingly throne.
But Batman and Superman battles are also the stuff of everyday comic book canon. In 1986’s Man of Steel #3 and 2011’s Justice League #2, both comics that reinvented the first time they met for a newly rebooted DC universe, Batman and Superman briefly fought before realizing they were allies. In issues of Batman: Hush in 2002 and Superman in 2005 and Batman in 2015 they fight because a villain took control of Superman’s mind.
This piece isn’t a logistical breakdown of how the abilities of a tactical genius have been measured against a nigh-indestructible man. This is simply to establish the ever repeating commonality — the never ending battle, you could say — of “Batman vs. Superman.” And in any case, the Batman/Superman who-would-win grudge match is not a scientific experiment, it’s a story scenario. Stories might not have anything as predictable as Newtonian thermodynamics to guide them, they do have observable pressures.
Ubermensch vs. underdog
Just as gravity exerts force on an inclined plane, the victory of the underdog pulls storytelling in certain directions. That is the most obvious hook of “Batman vs. Superman.” Not the emotional heft of two natural allies coming to blows, but the tantalizing puzzle of how mismatched they are as opponents. Each retelling of the clash is the superhero world’s David vs. Goliath.
Ironically, Batman’s status as the superhero most famous for having no powers at all has so codified his underdog status that he is also known as a hero who “always wins.” The worse the odds, the more satisfying his triumph, and the more certain it is to come to pass. A tabletop gamer might call this “plot armor,” but this means that stories about Batman fighting Superman are already more likely to be ones where Batman wins.
These rules work for Superman in the reverse. If the unstoppable strength of the Man of Tomorrow is on the side of the scrappy freedom fighters, it follows logically that they won’t be scrappy and struggling for long. Superman is much easier to make into a wall than a wall climber; easier to make into a Goliath than to find a Goliath big enough to turn him into a David.
This surface level understanding of the character persists, even though there are plenty of fictional shortcuts to do the job, like kryptonite, or the fact that magic works just as well on him as it does anything else. And those are just the easy answers. Currently, in the pages of Action Comics, writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson is pitting Superman against an alien dictator-god, who has indoctrinated his enslaved populace into a belief system where one’s chains, metaphorically and literally, are one’s strength. In his story, Superman’s battle is where it most belongs: in hearts and minds, not fists and biceps.
None of this necessarily ads up to Superman becoming better known as an antagonist than a hero. For that, Batman has to become the biggest, most popular, and most lucrative character in the DC Universe. Batman has to become our main character.
I’m the villain in your history
Take a moment to consider the superhero cameo. Narratively, it’s enjoyable to see two otherwise isolated comic book settings come together. Logistically, the story is still published in a book belonging to one of those settings, made for the fans of that setting. This creates a preference in point of view, and a natural one. You’re not throwing down hard cash for an issue of Amazing Spider-Man to see Spider-Man not be the coolest guy in the room.
And so, in X-Men stories, the Avengers tend to come off as cops, while in Avengers books, the X-Men come off as unreasonable hotheads. In Superman books, Batman is often presented as kind of a dork.
In Batman books, Superman’s usually nice, but out of touch, maybe even naive. And that’s just books with cameos. When characters fight, this principle is blown out to the extremes.
Stories where everyone fights and everyone is right are exceedingly tricky to pull off. What you’re more likely to see is one side who is right, and a second side who is wrong, but in an in-character way. When the folks behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe decided to adapt the Civil War plotline, it was in a Captain America movie, not an Iron Man one. The easiest answer to the question “Who is going to come out on top in this battle between superheroes?” is “Whose name is on the cover?”
And in the interconnected web of comic book influences on today’s blockbuster Superman stories, Batman is the thousand pound gorilla. Not only does he himself dominate screens, in the films of Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder, and Matt Reeves (as well as an off-screen cameo in Wonder Woman); his setting of Gotham City and the characters who hail from it have featured in both Suicide Squad films, two Lego movies, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, Birds of Prey, Joker and soon DC League of Super-Pets, The Flash and Batgirl.
That’s a lot of Hollywood creatives familiarizing themselves with the DC Universe at least partly through Batman. And the best selling Batman book of all time — The Dark Knight Returns, which inspired and was referenced in Nolan and Snyder’s blockbusters — is also the most famous example of Superman taking the antagonist role so Batman can look cool and righteous in his own book.
Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice relishes in replicating the visuals of Frank Miller’s work in TDKR. Snyder is, after all, a big fan, having made his name with a lovingly accurate adaptation of Miller’s 300. But the Batman of Snyder’s films is also one who is mourning a Robin slain by the Joker — a direct lift from A Death in the Family.
This is not to say that all these Batman stories make creators — and new fans that might investigate the Batman mythos after seeing a film inspired by it — believe that Superman is a villain. That’s clearly not the case with Snyder, as conflicted and frighteningly powerful as his Superman may be.
But, if Batman and Superman have a history of famous clashes, and those clashes are mostly told from a Batman-y point of view, it’s going to lead to the perception that Superman makes a better wall than a climber, a better Goliath than a fellow David. It leads to the perception that the out of touch, kind-of-frighteningly-powerful Superman is the Thinking Man’s version, maybe even the more “standard” version. And for the “cynicism is sophistication” crowd, it hands them the false epiphany of “Superman isn’t worthy to wield the power he holds” all tied up in a nice little bow, ready to be trotted out in the ice cold take of “if Superman was real he would be a tyrant.”
Superman isn’t real, of course. And although he may have fought Batman a lot, that is in part because the closer two characters are, the more melodrama can be wrung from their falling out. As a Batman fan, I was never really sure why I was expected to dislike Superman — he was Batman’s best friend. He trusted Batman so thoroughly that he gave him a secret kryptonite ring and permission to use it if he ever stepped over the line. When Superman died, Batman declined to march in his funeral procession, but only to keep men with bombs from tarnishing the event. Superman was an uncle figure to the Robins. Batman bought the Daily Planet to keep it out of Lex Luthor’s corporate hands.
But what Hollywood most remembers is that Batman and Superman are natural enemies. And if Batman can beat anyone, then Superman always gets beaten. And if Batman’s always the hero, Superman becomes the villain. The only way for him to win is not to play.