We just saw the release of the massive new blockbuster superhero film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It will be the first time that theater-goers will see Batman and Superman in the same film, after decades of failed attempts and reboots by DC to push together their various Batman and Superman franchises into a single continuity. A single throwaway joke in Batman & Robin at least hinted at the Man of Steel existing, when George Clooney’s Batman dismissed Robin’s demand for “a car, chicks dig the car”, with “this is why Superman works alone”. In 2001, a “Batman vs. Superman” script was pitched to Warner Bros by Andrew Kevin Walker, which was eventually dropped in favor of Batman Begins. But now, we finally have it. The first Batman-Superman movie as directed by Zack Snyder with all the power of modern CG, major stars, and a 150-minute running time.
But is Batman v Superman really the first Batman-Superman movie? No, they have been several before, in fact. Their first cinematic meeting was almost twenty years ago.
In 1997 a three-part episode of Superman: The Animated Series aired on the WB Network, which was later released as a standalone direct-to-video movie, “The Batman/Superman Movie: World’s Finest“. Named for a long-running Batman and Superman comic book series, World’s Finest saw the first meeting of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s animated versions of Batman and Superman, establishing that the Superman and the highly acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series cartoons of the 90’s existed in a single continuity, now known as the “DC Animated Universe”.
Here is the – typically awesome – Toonami trailer for World’s Finest, produced to promote the film on Cartoon Network in the early 2000s:
World’s Finest is roughly an hour long, a mere fraction of the 150-minute length of Batman v Superman. Since it is just three episodes of a TV series strung together, it is edited with obvious pauses for breaks between episodes. The limited budget shows with several shots being reused and the action scenes being passable but not extraordinary. The script is also hurried, having to force certain key scenes down to a single minute. But managing to tell incredibly detailed stories in just twenty minutes was an old hat for the DCAU writers by this point, so the pacing remains excellent. For example, the romance between two characters is covered almost entirely in a minute long scene. However, just one artful detail of fading out most of the screen other than the spotlight under which they dance conveys the entire intimate emotion of the moment. If anything an hour allowed writers Alan Burnett and Paul Dini more time to indulge in extra action scenes towards the end – they even fit in a catfight between Harley Quinn and Mercy Graves for the joy of all.
In the first ten minutes, the entire plot is set up and every important character is introduced. The Joker (with his iconic Mark Hamill voice acting) steals a twenty-pound kryptonite dragon from a Gotham antique shop, with a plan to resurrect his criminal empire. He just needs a billion dollars in capital from Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown), which the Joker will get once he rubs out Superman (Tim Daly). Batman (with his equally iconic Kevin Conroy voice acting) travels to Metropolis to hunt the Joker. So essentially World’s Finest is the two greatest heroes of the DC universe first meeting to fight the two greatest villains. Things are made more complicated by every character initially not trusting each other. The Joker and Lex are constantly double-crossing each other while Batman and Superman start with an uneasy peace that must become a partnership. Plus the superheroes’ relationship is made ever more complicated by the Batman’s alter ego, the Gotham playboy, Bruce Wayne, now dating Superman’s on and off again girlfriend, Lois Lane (Dana Delany).
There is a great deal going on in this one hour, with a complicated love triangle, Lex Luthor’s robots, and the Joker’s comic insanity. Much of it works despite the limitations, to even be even outright clever. Lois Lane is in love with Superman, but not Clark Kent, and she’s in love with Bruce Wayne, but does not care at all for Batman, so the heroes are not just physical but romantic foils to each other. While Lois is kidnapped several times, she is still a strong enough character on her own and even rescues Batman at one point. The Joker is laughed out of Metropolis several times since nobody can believe a mere clown whose criminal enterprise has been reduced to just himself and Harley Quinn can possibly take out a living God-like Superman, no matter how much kryptonite he has. But by the end of the first half hour he has taken over the Metropolis mob, briefly kidnapped Lex Luthor, and outsmarted Superman in a perfect death trap – only failing his objective thanks to Batman’s interference. By the end of the hour, the Joker is on an explosive rampage throughout Metropolis, quickly becoming one of Superman’s most destructive enemies. Batman too is not taken seriously until he puts one over on Superman by easily finding out his secret identity and trampling on his love life. And while Lex merely fumes at Superman’s heroism, he is legitimately terrified by the Dark Knight breaking into his home.
World’s Finest takes care to show the difference between Batman and Superman. It not about trying to show that the Caped Crusader is as strong as the Man of Steel, or that he can even take him in a straight fight. That is not the point. A small Lexbot manages to completely overwhelm Batman’s gadgets and tricks, forcing Batman to flee across Metropolis until Superman can save him. It is a clear moment where the limitations of one superhero are accepted outright. Superman is stronger, faster, and has superpowers, we all know this, but he’s also easily tricked by the Joker and needs Batman to show him how to deal with a villain of that level of evil and insanity. World’s Finest accepts that Batman and Superman have their own skill sets and they need to work together to overcome the super villains around them.
This is also the DCAU, meaning that it is far from the darkest superhero story ever put to the screen. The tone remains just serious enough to keep you interested, but far from excessive violence. Regular old Bruce Wayne with the cape actually comes off cooler than his bat persona. He’s all smirks and cocky quips while Batman himself is mostly business. The Joker causes terror throughout Metropolis but mostly he’s more straight-up funny than terrifying. The closest to emotional stakes come when Lois Lane is briefly kidnapped, but getting kidnapped is Lois Lane’s job, hardly anything too shocking.
There is something to be said for lighter, enjoyable superhero fare, Marvel has had great success with movies in this sort of tone. Heck, Batman even makes a joke at the end of this movie. The DCAU walked the line between the darkness of 90’s comics and the ridiculous camp of the Schumacher Batman films, and World’s Finest fits that perfect medium.
Though the animation budget is clearly not unlimited, quite a few clever things are done to emphasize the difference between the two heroes. Metropolis’ visual design is entirely different from Gotham’s, with Metropolis being a retro-future Tomorrowland of white skyscrapers, where what little we see of Gotham is a 1930’s gangster land of dark shadows. One of the best animated moments is a particularly iconic Dark Knight action scene, with Batman leaping from a skylight into a dance club. His dark cowl is silhouetted in the bright lights of the club, making him seem a creature of nightmare. Superman, of course, has to fly around in the bright blue skies, fighting anonymous thugs who curiously use laser guns rather than normal bullets. Batman cannot help but look conspicuous under the bright yellow sun of Metropolis, and Superman looks strange standing in the darkness of Batman’s nocturnal vigilante.
Of course, World’s Finest is far from the finest movie ever made. Bruce Wayne and Lois Lane’s relationship is under-developed and terminated suddenly at the end mostly for the sake of narrative convenience. (Lois cannot just leave the Superman cartoon, can she?) Bruce is a little too cool with Lois, and never seems very emotionally involved. Something had to go to fit this story into an hour, clearly the romance stuff was the least interesting thing for the kids, so was the sacrificed piece. Mask of the Phantasm, the first DCAU that can arguably be called the greatest Batman movie ever made thanks to a serious emotional underpinning and a tragic romance, this is not. But World’s Finest remains a great little movie.
Batman and Superman would have a few smaller crossovers in later Superman episodes before finally teaming up in the Justice League and Justice League: Unlimited cartoons of the early 2000s on Cartoon Network. DC continues to make the occasional straight-to-DVD Batman and Superman animated feature since the end of the DCAU, such as Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, and several features based on the Justice League. But while many of these are very well made, they generally all accept the concept that Batman and Superman have worked together for a long time. They never feature the key meeting point and potential rivalry that World’s Finest explored. They are not about the Batman-Superman relationship, they are more about Batman and Superman kicking ass.
A perfect Batman-Superman crossover shows how each one fits into each other’s life, how they fill the weaknesses of each other and complete the DC universe. That is what World’s Finest delivers on. If you’re wondering about the gladiatorial match of a century between Batman and Superman in World’s Finest? Batman flings Superman once and Superman responds by slamming Batman into a wall. That is it. Only a few seconds total. But that is ultimately that was all that needed for this story. There are more important aspects of these characters to cover then their violent rage and antagonism, which World’s Finest instinctively understood.