With the upcoming release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros.’s bid for a shared cinematic universe, the question remains: Why would these two iconic superheroes fight in the first place? Certainly, the marketing has laid it out clear: After the destruction of Metropolis in Man of Steel, Batman doubts the Kryptonian’s motivations and fears absolute power will corrupt. But this altercation has 30 years of precedent for their butting heads in the comic books.
Luckily, just last year DC Comics released a succinct, if not fully comprehensive, compilation dubbed Batman vs. Superman: The Greatest Battles. Collected are six times the Dark Knight and the Man of Tomorrow came to blows, stories that run the gamut of hoops writers have had to jump through to catalyze such an occasion. Of course, each issue has been published since “The Dark Knight Falls,” the final issue of Frank Miller’s classic mini-series The Dark Knight Returns (1986).
There’s no getting around it, writers have struggled to recapture that moment for three decades: A middle-aged Batman, garbed in advanced armor that (amongst a few other tricks and extenuating circumstances) allows him to go toe-to-toe with a man that can juggle planets, swings wide and knocks Superman off his feet, accompanied by Miller’s machismo-injected inner monologue declaring, “It’s way past time you learned – what it means – to be a man.”
The new movie appears to recreate this almost verbatim, using the comic panels as storyboards (not unlike Zack Snyder‘s adaptation of Watchmen), albeit without the context of 40+ years of published material. That’s a pretty apt description of every writer in this trade paperback, trying to rekindle that spark without having earned the moment.
Strangely enough the issues aren’t in chronological or even thematic order, with the first being “The Battle” from Batman #612 (2003), in the middle of Jeph Loeb’s “Hush” storyline. Batman pursues Poison Ivy to Metropolis and encounters a mind-controlled Superman. This is one of two times the fight results from mental manipulation, which has two effects: It makes sense and justifies the fight, but reduces Superman to a guy too easily duped. This is an instance, however, when even brainwashed he holds back, thus allowing for opportunities to bring in the requisite shocks, flash bombs, hypersonics and — of course — the Kryptonite ring. In the end, there’s technically a draw as Batman puts Lois Lane in danger to tap Superman’s willpower.
The next issue is a Superman writer in a Superman comic, John Byrne’s “One Night in Gotham City” from Man of Steel #3 (1986). Coming hot off of the universe-revamping Crisis on Infinite Earths and The Dark Knight Returns just ending, this is actually ground zero for redefining this relationship. They don’t come to blows, but it’s clear Superman doesn’t agree with Batman’s vigilante methods and fear mongering. The latter keeps the former at bay with the usual planning ahead, being able to disappear out of sight by knowing Gotham City so well and threatening to blow up an innocent if Superman penetrates a force field surrounding Batman’s body. Of course, the irony is that the bomb is on Batman’s belt as he considers himself the innocent.
“Who Would Win?” was one of the last published issues of the long-running Superman/Batman series, #78 (2011) of the modern World’s Finest revamp. Written by Joe and Jack Kelly, two young boys dramatize the timeless question that got us here in the first place. What it gets down to is Superman’s might versus Batman’s brains, and it does a couple of provocative things: The boys establish handicaps, namely that Batman can’t use Kryptonite and Superman can’t kill. So both parties hold back, but Batman still puts up a good fight through quick thinking and eventually hyperbolic utilization of gadgets. Eventually, the boys stumble upon these wise words: “There’s no winner really, is there?”
Then there’s Geoff Johns’s “Justice League” Part 2 from Justice League #2 (2011). This isn’t much of a fight, but does sum up the personalities of the New 52 iterations of these characters while contrasting nicely against similar encounters. A relatively new Batman, accompanied by Green Lantern, bumps into Superman while investigating aliens and Superman attacks first thinking these two are with the invasion. Green Lantern is dismantled immediately, and although Batman empties out his utility belt ineffectually, all he wants to do — for a change — is talk. It’s a nice parallel to Byrne’s earlier first meeting, with Superman as the aggressor and Batman as the mediator, amped up to an extreme degree, and has the intriguing twist of a Batman that is simultaneously unprepared but more open to parley.
Finally, there’s “Batman: Endgame” Parts 1 & 2 from Batman 35-36 (2014). Here Superman (and the majority of the Justice League) is under the sway of Joker toxin. Batman takes each team member out one by one with the aid of a power suit of armor, yet again, having once more calculated what means would be necessary to neutralize his allies. When it’s Superman’s turn, there’s no holding back as the Joker’s chemicals far outweigh Ivy’s vines. Batman beats his friend with knuckles that contain microscopic red suns, but even that’s not enough. Ultimately, it comes down to Kryptonite, this time in the form of “a butadiene-based synthetic rubber, a polymer laced with radioactive Kryptonian dust.” As they splash down, Batman is perhaps for the only time the clear winner in mainstream continuity, but still breaks the fourth wall as he muses, “Who wins in a fight? The answer is always the same. Neither of us.”
The aforementioned The Dark Knight Returns brings things round robin, but what more is there to say? Superman is a stooge of a not-so-thinly veiled Ronald Reagan, and Batman is an anarchist criminal that throws everything but the kitchen sink at his frenemy and still has to fake his own death to get out on top. It is fascinating considering how over-the-top Miller has treated the character in the years since that Superman actually comes across as sympathetic. He just wants to help his old ally, and that’s what gives this fight its real power.
Distilled down to their cores, it’s not surprising that these two men would be driven to blows, and that Batman especially would be initially apprehensive. One is rich, the other came from modest roots; one is the ultimate human, the other is alien; one lives in darkness, the other finds strength in the light. But what’s important, and what the new movie seems to indicate from its previews, is that even if they sometimes disagree, in the end Batman and Superman will band together to fight the good fight.