Ask Chris #66: Superman, Batman and the World’s Finest Friendship
Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That’s every week, Senior Writer Chris Sims puts his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: Frank Miller says that Superman and Batman would never be friends. What do you have to say to that? — @MagicLoveHose
A: As hard as it might be to believe, I don’t really have an opinion about this. The relationship between Superman and Batman isn’t something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, and I don’t really find it all that interesting.
Nah, I’m just messing with you. Of course I’ve got an opinion on this one. And with all due respect to Frank Miller, I completely disagree.Admittedly, Frank Miller more than anyone else is responsible for the modern idea of Batman, an amazing feat that he accomplished through two stories, plus a run on Daredevil that influenced all of super-hero comics. I even remember having the old Batman vs. Captain America debate with a guy I used to work with back at the comic book store who said there was no question, because in a fight between a Bob Kane Detective and a Jack Kirby Super-Soldier, the latter wins hands down, with my reply being that as of 1987, that “Bob Kane Detective” was now a Frank Miller Badass, which puts it a little closer together. So yes, Frank the Tank’s ideas on these matters are going to hold a lot of weight.
But while Miller may have cast a shadow that defined the character for the past 25 years, it’s important to remember that for the forty years before that, those dudes were best pals.
Four solid decades of high fives and slam dunks. Try to ignore it if you want, but brother, that happened just as much as anything in Dark Knight Returns did.
Like so many things I talk about in this column, the status of the World’s Finest Friendship would seem to hinge entirely on Batman, for the simple reason that of course Superman would want to be his friend. Superman wants to be everyone’s friend. He’d even be friends with Lex Luthor if that guy stopped trying to kill him and used his criminal intellect for good. It’s kind of his entire deal.
So the question is whether or not Batman would want to be Superman’s friend, and as I understand it, the accepted rationale against it is rooted in the idea that Batman would never trust Superman enough to actually like him. And to be honest, there’s a lot of solid logic behind that. Batman has seen the corruption that comes with power firsthand, and he’s well acquainted with the idea that those who have that power often see themselves as above the law, the very fact that led him to become a vigilante rather than work within the system.
And that leads to what’s often cited as the crucial difference between the two characters: Superman, the all-powerful invulnerable alien, has no reason to keep himself guarded. Nothing can physically hurt him, which leads naturally to an attitude of openness. Why wouldn’t he walk up to someone and offer his hand in friendship? They literally can’t stab him in the back. If they try, he’ll deal with them then, but has nothing to lose by assuming the best in people.
This, by the way, doesn’t mean that he’s a pushover, which is something that he definitely is in Miller’s work, particularly The Dark Knight Returns, in which Superman’s about as morally steadfast as a Nazi soldier being tried at Nuremburg.
He’s a stooge who’s just following orders, and if there’s one thing Superman’s not, that’s it. He just prefers to think that given the choice, people are basically good. That’s it.
Batman, however, is rooted in being The World’s Greatest Detective, and from Holmes on down, detective characters are built to be suspicious. They have to be — in a mystery, everyone’s a suspect until they’ve been eliminated through cold logic. Batman should be suspicious of everyone until given a reason not to be, and that’s before you take into account that Superman is a guy who can move so fast that he can’t be seen, shoot death rays out of his eyes, and break through a locked door with a flick of his finger. When you see everything through the lens of crime, everyone starts to look like a suspect.
There’s a secondary reason brought up when discussing Batman’s dislike of Superman, which is that Batman, having struggled and trained his entire life to hone his abilities, would think Superman was lesser for having come by his abilities naturally, through no effort of his own. This, to put it kindly, is total bullsh**.
Stories where Batman rails against Superman for being able to fly above it all and have bullets bounce of his chest while sitting in his billion-dollar stealth jet, nestled snugly in his kevlar armor, both of which were prepared for the evening by his combat trained butler, are among the dumbest things that have ever seen print. Yes, Batman struggled and trained, and that’s a very important aspect of his character, but you know how he traveled around the world to become a ninja and stocked his utility belt with grappling hooks and pointy metal logos? He used the vast fortune he inherited from his parents through no effort of his own, and having that much money is the closest thing we have in the real world to super-powers. Ragging on Superman for “inheriting” powers — powers he uses exclusively to help other people — rather than being a self-made man isn’t just being a dick, it’s being a massively hypocritical dick.
That kind of storytelling only plays into the power fantasies of fans who want their “realistic” hero to be a bigger badass than anyone else. So please, if we can all stop being in third grade for a moment, let’s all agree that ideas of one fictional protagonist being “more powerful” than another are just silly arguments for children. I’ve never understood it when adults tell me that they like Batman more than Superman because Superman’s too powerful. The standard argument is that if you’re reading a story where you’re bored because of Superman’s powers, that’s the fault of the writer, but the flipside of that is also true: If you truly believe that Batman’s going to lose because someone wrote down that he’s a “normal human,” then you’re unclear on how the concept of fiction works.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the idea that Batman’s a human being who set out to become something more than a man through sheer force of will (and lots of money), and I love the the idea that Superman came from another planet with incredible powers and was embraced by the Earth. I think they’re both extremely compelling, extremely important aspects of those characters, and I wouldn’t change them for the world. But they have no impact whatsoever on whether they’re going to beat the bad guy. They’re always going to beat the bad guy.
Batman can fly with a jetpack. He can take a bullet to the chest because he wears armor. He can bend steel in his hands with the exoskeleton he had in the opening scene of The Dark Knight. He can fly around the world in the blink of an eye in a rocketship.
He and Superman can do exactly the same stuff, when the story requires it. They’re equally powerful for exactly the same reason: they’re both protagonists in a story. The only difference is that Superman’s from Krypton and Batman’s from old money.
From a storytelling standpoint, there’s a difference that comes in terms of action that reflects on their relative — forgive the expression — “power levels,” though. It’s an old truism that all heroes are fundamentally reactive because the villain has to commit the evil act (or at least the attempt) before the hero can show up to stop and/or punish them, but by their natures, they’re forced into different roles. Batman’s allowed to crash through skylights and dangle thugs off of buildings because he’s a “normal human.” Superman, however, has to always be extremely reactive, because the second the most powerful man in the world starts throwing his weight around, he stops being a hero and starts being a bully, a label that never seems to stick to a billionaire who dresses like Dracula and beats the mentally ill into submission.
This often leads to what I like to call the ol’ Riggs-n-Murtaugh, where one person doesn’t like the other because they’re a loose cannon whose methods go too far! This has a slightly better footing than “I don’t like you because I can only fly when I wear my jetpack,” but still, at the end of the day, their goals are similar enough that they should be able to find common ground.
Now obviously, within the comics themselves, Batman should never look at Superman and say “Hey, we are both protagonists. We should team up and be protagonists together, and fight bad guys” — although now that I’ve written that down, I have to admit that I think it’d be pretty awesome if it actually happened. But they’re both smart enough to be able to look at each other and realize that they both have advantages that they’re using for what is essentially the same goal.
So in the end, as metatextual as all this might sound, it eliminates everything but the core of the conflict: Batman’s suspicion and distrust against Superman’s visibility and defined morality. And it makes absolute, perfect sense that Batman would be leery of trusting Superman.
Except that they live in the same world, they both understand how that world works, and they know each other.
It all goes back to Batman being a detective. He’s trained to observe people, to watch them, to know when they’re lying and what their true motivations are. Five minutes talking to Superman, and he’s going to understand that he’s not a guy who plans to gain the public’s trust and use that to declare himself King of the World.
Batman’s going to understand that this is a guy who simply cannot stand by and let people suffer while he can do something to stop it. That’s something he can respect, because he’s the exact same way.
And yes, Clark Kent might hear about a six foot bat terrorizing the night in Gotham City and think this is something worth putting a stop to, but the first time Superman sees the lengths Batman’s willing to go to in order to protect the innocent and stop Crime from hurting other people, his doubts are gone. He’ll see the good in Batman, just like he sees the good in everyone else, no matter what kind of scary front they put up.
They are fundamentally two characters who are devoted to helping others, and I think that gives them a lot of common ground to bond over, even if they see the world through a different perspective.
Besides, even if you see Batman as the ruthless avenger who is vengeance, the night, etc., the Frank Miller character of Year One, consider this: Is there any conceivable reason that a tactician who went so far as to weaponize a swarm of bats would not want to have the most powerful person in the world in his back pocket? Seriously, can you even imagine the psychological edge that would give him over criminals?
“Hey, we’ve got the Bat tied up! Let’s shoot him in the head!”
“You know, I heard that his best friend is Superman, who can tear apart tanks with his bare hands, hear your footsteps from orbit, and set you on fire by looking at you. His best friend. Who would probably be angry if he died.”
“… Oh no, I have accidentally loosened the ropes let’s get the hell out of here before Two-Face gets back.”
Thus: Best Friends Forever.
That said, that part in Dark Knight Returns where Batman plugs into the lamp post and then hits Superman with the entirety of Gotham City? Still pretty awesome.
And now, a few questions from The Lightning Round!
Q: I was fairly surprised when on War Rocket Ajax, you expressed a distaste towards Ranma 1/2 when it’s such a huge influence on so many things you champion (Scott Pilgrim, Adam Warren, etc.), and it has so many of the elements you love (nonstop action, high-concept comedy ideas taken to the extreme, superheroics as high school metaphor)… It seems tailor-made for you. Is there any larger reason, or is it just not your cup of tea? — Stephen, via email
A: You know, that definitely sounds like something I’d say, but I’ve never actually watched Ranma 1/2, so I’m going to guess that it was a joke.
Q: Did they ever explain how the Punisher went from being an angel (and dead) to alive and well in “Welcome Back, Frank?” — @padnick
A: Yes. The last three pages of Ennis and Dillon’s first issue deal with it in a pretty swift manner, but it boils down to “Tried it. Didn’t like it.”
Q: Is it just me, or are Cassandra Cain and X-23 essentially the same character? — Grace, via email
A: There are certainly similarities — they’re both taciturn teenage killing machines, which I believe came on USA right after Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters From Beverly Hills — but
I think calling them the same character is a little too far. For one thing, X-23’s still around, and for another, I think the fact that Cassandra Cain’s penance for her earlier deeds was something she sought out herself sets her apart at least a little bit from X-23, who was pretty much led to redemption by being taken by others to the Xavier
Cult For Gullible Kids School For Gifted Youngsters. If, however, another round of Amalgam Comics came out, Cassandra-23 would be the biggest no-brainer ever.
Q: I’ve been reading DC Million lately, and I’ve gotta ask… what happened in the future that the JLA wasn’t around at ALL during the 30th century and then showed up again after? in the DCU i guess the core super heroes just disappeared for centuries and then reappeared later? — Janra, via email
A: Oh, this one’s easy: There is a Justice League in the 30th century. It’s the Legion of Super-Heroes.
There may not bet characters directly filling the roles of their predecessors (there’s no Batman or Superman in the Legion, after all), but just as the JLA was the direct heir to the Justice Society without having Wildcat or Doctor Fate, the Legion fills that role by being the prominent super-team of the age. Aside from Mon-El and Karate Kid, there aren’t a lot of easy comparisons, but it’s more important that the Legion was a group of heroes inspired to unite from across the galaxy — don’t forget that despite the “of America,” the League featured a Martian, an Amazon princess and the King of Atlantis — and fight against evil.
There’s a reason the JLA of the 853rd Century in DC One Million is the Justice Legion. It’s the heir to both teams, because they’re all part of the same heroic lineage. It just so happens that the heroes in that particular time are all carrying on those 21st century legacies.
That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just put it on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!