Feature

The ridiculous history of Batman and Superman fighting for no reason

Why can't they just be Super Friends?

For characters who once famously referred to themselves as Super Friends, Batman and Superman sure have spent a lot of time punching the crap out of each other.

They've battled in comics. They've battled in cartoons. They've battled in video games. And now, for the first time ever, they're battling on the big screen, in one of the widest releases in Hollywood history.

Though they've shared the same universe for the better part of a century, Superman and Batman originated as distinct and separate properties. The first Superman comic, Action Comics #1, was published in 1938; the first Batman comic, Detective Comics #27, was published less than a year later. Though Batman and Superman shared a cover in a special anthology published for the New York's World's Fair in 1940, they didn't actually appear in the same story until 1952, when they teamed up to foil a diamond thief on a luxury cruise.

It's hard to come up with new angles for any characters over that much time, which is perhaps why so many writers have gone back to the same long-tapped well: Batman and Superman fighting each other. Last month, the YouTube channel The Imaginary Axis published an invaluable (and apparently exhaustive) guide to all the times Batman and Superman have battled. By the host's count, Superman won 14 of those battles, and Batman won three, not counting the outcome of the title bout in the new blockbuster. (I won't spoil the outcome of Batman and Superman's big-screen brawl, but it's probably safe to reveal that it doesn't end with one of DC's biggest superheroes killing DC's other biggest superhero — and, more to the point, snuffing out a potential billion-dollar franchise in cold blood.)

But the most important statistic laid out by The Imaginary Axis is the 28 separate Batman vs. Superman battles that can't really be called a victory for either superhero. Sometimes one has been possessed by a supervillain, forcing the other to fight him to a draw. Sometimes they were goofy, one-off "imaginary stories" that didn't really represent either character with any particular accuracy. Sometimes Superman's powers were diminished to make it a marginally fairer fight (though Superman, of course, is still absurdly more powerful).

All of these weird asterisks in the Batman vs. Superman record book point to the greater truth underpinning the decades of brawls between the characters: There's basically no reason for these guys to fight. Ever. And comics writers who attempt to make it happen anyway are forced to twist both canon and logic to make the conditions plausible.

Even the most carefully structured Batman vs. Superman fights require a fair amount of wrangling before the first punch is thrown. The most famous (and arguably best) Batman vs. Superman brawl, in Frank Miller's now-legendary 1986 limited series The Dark Knight Returns, still required significant tweaks to both characters to make the fight plausible. In this continuity, set in a future decades after Batman and Superman fought side-by-side, Batman has become a near-fascistic hard-liner, and Superman has become an unquestioning tool of the U.S government as led by then-President Ronald Reagan. Batman beats Superman, but only after Superman has been (1) weakened after landing in the immediate blast radius of a nuclear bomb, (2) further weakened by a Kryptonite arrow fired by Green Arrow, a fellow superhero, and (3) slapped around by a Batman who is considerably stronger than normal because he's wearing a robotic suit. And even then, it's kind of a pyrrhic victory; Batman feigns a heart attack, which enables him to slip back into the shadows, and Superman quickly returns to full health.

And that extremely circuitous setup leads to the other big problem with a Batman vs. Superman fight: Even if there were a good reason for the two superheroes to go head-to-head in a fight to the death, Superman is so ridiculously overpowering that it's hard to imagine a scenario that doesn't end in half a second, with a bloody stain where Batman used to be standing. The old saw is that Batman can beat anyone in a fight if he has the time to plan his attack. He is, after all, the World's Greatest Detective — though I've never been totally clear on how detective skills translate to "winning every fight." Superman, meanwhile, has flight, super-speed, super-strength, super-intelligence, heat vision, freeze breath, and whatever other weird powers a writer decides to bestow on him — like that time he took down Zod by turning his logo into a giant plastic sheet:

If you really want to pit Superman against a worthy rival, pick someone who can fight on his level — like Man of Steel's Zod, a fellow Kryptonian who possessed all the same powers. If you really want him to fight another superhero, go with one whose powers are roughly equivalent — like 1996's DC vs. Marvel Comics crossover, when Superman went up against the Incredible Hulk. Superman won, but at least it was a fair fight.

So why make Batman and Superman fight at all? The answer, of course, is because fans want it. Batman and Superman are arguably the two all-time biggest superheroes (and, at the very least, unquestionably the two biggest in the DC Comics canon). Whether it makes sense or not, the logic driving a Batman vs. Superman battle is a chocolate and peanut butter situation, in which creators insist that these two great tastes taste great together — even as they're pounding each other into the pavement.

This is what happens when fan culture overrides the basic dictates of storytelling. This fight can't really have stakes, because neither of these characters can actually be killed, and because there's no way they won't eventually end up on the same side. You can level a laundry list of complaints at Batman v. Superman — and many already have — but it starts with a title and concept that forces the writers to spend half of the narrative digging a hole, and the other half digging themselves back out again.

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