Ask Chris #269: The Great Superman/Batman Fight
A: As is so often the case with these questions, there's a short answer and a long one here, so let's do the short one first: People keep wanting to do a big fight between Batman and Superman because it happened in a book that was very good and sold very well, and that's not the kind of influence that creators --- or readers, for that matter --- have ever been good at shaking off. The longer answer, though, is that it's an inevitability, a result of how the characters have been built up over the years, how DC as a company has been structured around one and then the other, and even the simple desire that we have as fans to categorize things and play out conflicts and battles to find new and engaging soluions, something that can provide us with some really fun stories.
But I mean, yeah. If we're being real with each other here, it's mostly that first one.
It goes without saying at this point, but the modern-day obsession with Superman and Batman slugging it out in a fight to the finish descends pretty directly from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which famously climaxes with the two heroes pretty much attempting to beat each other to death in the middle of Crime Alley. And really, that's to be expected. As much it's had its luster worn off by thirty solid years of creators trying to recapture that magic, to what could charitably be described as diminishing returns, there's no getting around the fact that it's one of the greatest fight scenes of all time.
It's brutal, it's visceral, and it's ridiculously over-the-top in the best possible way. I mean, it's a fight that opens with Batman standing at the corner where his parents died, literally punching Superman with a haymaker powered by the entirety of Gotham City, and then it just keeps going. It's a sea change right there on the page, a bloody, violent end to an era that gave us some of the most powerful visuals of the decade.
For a lot of readers, that moment is so powerful that it became the one thing that they wanted to see again and again and again. Again, that makes sense, because there's always something that's going to pique your interest, no matter how many times you've seen it play out. As much as I might roll my eyes at getting yet another scene where those two guys grit their teeth and growl each other's first names, I'm also the person who would happily read comics in a world where Batman chucked a car battery at someone's head every month. We all have something that we're all in for, and with DKR being one of the single most influential books DC ever published --- and probably the most influential Batman story --- then it's no surprise that the Superman/Batman fight is that thing for a whole lot of people.
But as understandable as it is, it's also a shame, especially if you happen to be a fan of Superman. The Superman of DKR is, at best, a well-meaning sap, and at worst is a simpering toady who just happens to save the world while writing poetry about how sunflowers are like his mom. He's there to exist purely as a foil and justification for Grampa Batman's brutal approach to the war on crime, and that this ended up being one of his most prominent appearances didn't really do the character any favors.
I imagine it would've been different if the era had given us a similar high-profile victory for Superman, but it didn't. Instead, the closest equivalent to DKR, the Silver Age-ending Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, doesn't exactly give him the triumphant ending that DKR does. Whatever Happened ends with Superman watching all his friends die, losing his powers, and then going and getting a real job. DKR ends with Batman punching Superman so hard that his own heart explodes, and then revealing it was a fake-out so that he can keep being Batman forever. When you stack those two endings up to each other, it's pretty easy to see why people came away from the '80s thinking that Batman should probably win all their fights.
So yeah. That's the short answer.
The thing is, as much as DKR and its particular aesthetic have popularized the idea in the modern era, it definitely didn't invent the idea of Superman and Batman fighting each other.
It's something that would be teased at and shown under various increasingly improbable circumstances for decades in comics, for the simple reason that it's a natural outcome of how those characters are built.
When you grow up reading comics, you sort of naturally gravitate to the classic Who Would Win In A Fight question. It's one of the most natural things to think of when you're talking about two protagonists, if for no other reason than because you only ever see them winning. That is, after all, what protagonists do. It's the inevitable end of each story, where the hero succeeds through outsmarting or outfighting their enemies, whether it's through a new deus ex machina gadget, a clever application of super-powers or, if you're reading shonen manga, the power of friendship and an unshakable dedication to becoming the greatest pastry chef in the world.
Point being, when you have characters and all you see them doing is winning, it's natural to wonder who would win harder if they ever had to compete against each other. And for that question, Superman and Batman make the perfect contenders.
For one thing, they're both pretty unstoppable as protagonists. It's the same reason that you see the idea of Superman racing the Flash come up so often, because while Running Really Fast is the only thing the Flash does, the only thing Superman does is win. Batman's the same way, built out of gadgetry and a history of honing skills that always give him exactly what he needs to put an end to his enemies' plans.
But there's another level where they just make perfect contrasts to each other. Where Superman was essentially given his abilities by landing on a planet that would turn him into, you know, a superman, and chose to do good, Batman had to hone his abilities over a lifetime of training. You get to play into ideas of whether all the skill in the world can overcome sheer power, and it's a fun debate.
Until you run into words like "Kryptonite ring" and "prep time," which suck all the fun out of a conversation with an efficiency that's downright admirable.
There's a nice visual contrast, too, and it comes along with the idea that Batman uses darkness to his advantage and fights crime by night, while Superman is literally powered by sunlight. And then there's the fact that Superman's arch-nemesis, his deadliest and most persistent enemy, is --- at least in the modern age --- a billionaire who puts on a suit full of gadgets to commit crimes. Even if you're the kind of person who would rather see them as best friends whose dedication to a common good outweighs their differences, there's just something there that feels like they should fight, whether you want the two-fisted brutality of DKR or a story where Batman's going to use an energy sword to make Superman apologize.
The thing is, it's a fight nobody ever really wins. As much as Batman has usurped Superman's position as the character that DC is built around, there's still a character that has to be preserved. There's always going to be a cheat, whether it's a Kryptonite ring or mind control or any of the other elements that we've seen a dozen times, which keeps it from being satisfying. The only way you can really get away with it and make it work is, well, setting it in an out-of-continuity alternate future and pitting Superman against three people and a literal tank just to get to a very violent draw, and since that's already been done about as well as it can be, everything else is going to seem like a pale imitation.
As for whether there's anything new left to be done with it, well, I suppose that it's possible, but I doubt it. I mean, they've already done the best Superman/Batman fight that it's possible to do:
And folks, they are never going to top that one.