We live in the glorious Golden Age of superhero movies, in which two superhero-vs-superhero dust-ups are both coming to theaters in the next few months. But Superman vs. Batman and Captain America vs. Iron Man aren’t the only long-lasting superhero rivalries… or should we say frenemy-ships?… to feature in the pages of our favorite comics.
Heroes may mostly be one big, happy thug-punching family, but every family has some ties that are more awkward than others, and decades of publishing history is a long time for certain resentments to fester. For this list, we’ve stuck to feuds that have either fueled many stories over the years or, in a couple of cases, memorable character arcs.
Here are the 11 Best Superhero Rivalries Of All Time (which won’t be portrayed in movies coming out in the next few months).
11. Superman vs. Flash (Who’s faster?)
In the 1960s, DC Comics heroes’ powers were virtually unlimited. Superman was strong enough to drag a whole planet out of its orbit with ease and he and Green Lantern could travel across the galaxy between frames. But wait a tick: isn’t being really fast the Flash’s thing? Isn’t it his only thing, while Superman also has the strength and the flight and sometimes the army of robots and the ventriloquism and all of that? Hardly seems fair if Superman is faster, too.
After their first charity race in 1967 (Superman #199), they had a few others. Even in the 1990s, when super-powers were more limited and it was Wally West, not Barry Allen, wearing the Flash’s mask, they were just about evenly matched, but with the slightest of edges going to the Flash.
10. Daredevil vs. Punisher (To kill or not to kill)
Punisher’s “kill all criminals” ethic has put him at odds with many other crimefighters in the Marvel universe, from Spider-Man to Wolverine (who kills, but less indiscriminately). But there’s nobody he plays better against than Daredevil, who’s more in his weight class than those three and who has grappled with the issue of killing the bad guys, rather than simply observing a code, more often than most.
Prolific Punisher writer Garth Ennis tends to show more than a little favoritism when pitting his boy Frank against other Marvel characters (let’s put it this way: his first Punisher story was called Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe), but lots of other Daredevil and Punisher creators have also been drawn to this basic moral argument, expressed with fists, clubs and guns in grand superhero fashion.
9. Green Arrow vs. Green Lantern (Getting political)
Early Justice League stories made these characters fairly interchangeable in terms of personality. The series’ first writer, Gardner Fox, only brought Green Arrow in to the League because sometimes his editors wouldn’t let him use Batman and, what the hell, one rich guy with no super-powers and a lot of gimmicks was as good as another. By the 1970s, Green Arrow and Hawkman were sniping at each other as the most liberal and conservative members, but it wasn’t until Arrow started spending more time with the almost-as-conservative Green Lantern that his character fully clicked.
The two rarely came to blows but often traded verbal barbs, and while Arrow often got the best lines and the moral high ground, it wasn’t a one-sided match. Lantern may have had to fess up to his white and middle-class privilege, but it was Arrow whose ward and sidekick slid into drug addiction, right behind Arrow’s own back.
Likelihood we’ll see this on screen: Slender. Arrow may be big on TV and Green Lantern may reach the big screen again in a few years, but neither is slated to do both TV and movies, and The CW’s Oliver Queen is a long way away from the grown-up hippie whose fiery devotion to liberal causes gave the Green Lantern-Green Arrow series its juice. There’s a slight chance both heroes will show up in the recently announced Justice League Action cartoon show, but don’t hold your breath.
8. Spider-Man vs. The Human Torch (frenemies)
The two major teen heroes of the early Marvel universe started pranking each other almost immediately, probably because Spidey threatened Johnny Storm’s rebel cred and Johnny reminded Spider-Man of the popular, good-looking, girl-chasing jocks who used to make his life miserable as Peter Parker, like Flash Thompson.
Whatever the case, they were a natural comedy duo, complicated further since the Torch would sometimes be friendly to Spider-Man and on the outs with Parker… also like Flash Thompson. A Spider-Man/Human Torch miniseries/trade paperback from about a decade ago captured most of this relationship’s history in all its glory.
Likelihood we’ll see this on screen: Slight but not impossible, what with both Fox and Sony willing to talk turkey with Marvel Studios after their own Spider-Man and Fantastic Four projects haven’t done so great. It sure as heck won’t be for a while, though.
7. The Human Torch vs. The Thing (bro-nemies)
It’s hard to pin down just one ingredient responsible for Marvel’s years of success, but if you had to choose one, you could do worse than to say it was the decision to have some of its heroes fight like cats and dogs – even when they were basically family.
Johnny and Ben Grimm were brothers from other mothers after about five issues of Fantastic Four, although they acted more like kid brothers than adults, with Johnny playing dumb pranks on Ben or just calling him ugly until Ben lost his temper and gave Johnny a reaction, which usually didn’t take very long.
Still, even after threatening to murderize Johnny on a weekly basis, Ben found it in his heart to be forgiving when he came back from a long trip to find that his longtime girlfriend Alicia had apparently moved on to Johnny. If that’s not love, what is? (Ben later discovered this “Alicia” was an alien impostor, anyway.)
Likelihood we’ll see this on screen: This was something the first big-screen Fantastic Four movie actually got right, portrayed well by Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis. Whether we’ll see it again anytime soon is up in the air until Fox and Marvel work things out.
6. The Incredible Hulk vs. The Thing (who’s stronger?)
Like the Flash, the Hulk and the Thing both have basically one power – super-strength – so when the Hulk’s rampages turn more sociopathic than beneficial, Ben has no choice but to put his body between Old Greenskin and any innocent bystanders, then trade punches and kicks and occasional body slams until one of them can’t get up any more.
That one is usually Ben, who’s fought the Hulk many times and only won once or twice. But Ben is also much craftier than the Hulk and never gives up, making him the kind of underdog fans love to root for. Sometimes it seems that what really makes him lose is psychology: he’s plagued by self-doubt, while the Hulk is (on most days) pure id.
5. The Incredible Hulk vs. Thor (who’s stronger?)
In this matchup, it’s less clear who has the underdog role. The Hulk may be “the strongest one there is,” but there may be an escape clause in that phrase for immortal gods who might be actual forces of nature, if not avatars of strength itself. Thor has thousands of years of fighting experience, too, and a variety of other powers including weather control, flight, an indestructible super-hammer and the ability to create spacewarps.
Still, the best Thor has been able to eke out against the Hulk is generally a draw, especially due to another oft-repeated aspect of the Hulk’s power: “the madder he gets, the stronger he gets.”
Likelihood we’ll see this on screen: We already have, of course: the first Avengers movie saw Thor in an extended fight with the Hulk (and more or less getting the worst of it), then getting a sucker punch. With the Hulk confirmed as a guest in Thor: Ragnarok and without his relationship with the Black Widow to soothe his impulses, there’s a fairly good chance of a rematch.
4. Bruce Banner vs. Reed Richards vs. Tony Stark vs. Hank Pym vs. Peter Parker (intellectual rivalries)
When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko laid the foundations for the Marvel universe, one skill they were pretty liberal about passing out was “good at science.” After all, how else do web-shooters and suits of high-tech armor get built? As time wore on, many of Marvel’s scientific geniuses started getting more obsessed with their “rankings,” to the point where Amadeus Cho started introducing himself as “the seventh smartest man in the world,” behind Reed, Hank, Tony, Doctor Doom and a couple of other villains.
Lately, Peter Parker and Bruce Banner have gotten into the act, founding their own startups or labs and trying to match Reed, Tony and Hank’s accomplishments. Putting aside the sexism (it’s smartest person, guys) and the fact that different kinds of intelligence are hard to compare, these academic rivalries are one of Marvel’s more realistic (if vaguely depressing) features.
Likelihood we’ll see this on screen: Movie Marvel hasn’t put so much emphasis on it. While Hank Pym does dismiss the Iron Man suit, Bruce and Tony have nothing but affection for each other and, in the upcoming Spider-Man movie, Peter Parker is said to be a big fan of Tony’s.
3. Cyclops vs. Wolverine (the opposites who switched paths)
It’s hard to say how much of their dislike for each other was a natural personality clash – Cyclops was all about order and discipline, Wolverine about feral fury – and how much was romantic rivalry. Both appealed to different sides of Jean Grey, who envied Scott’s control and Logan’s ability to cut loose.
After Jean died, their rivalry quieted for a while, then re-emerged as they both grew more concerned with the next generation of mutant. Scott sought to prepare that generation for a mutant-hating world at any cost, making his X-Men and any new mutants they inducted a militia, whereas Logan, who had always had a soft spot for innocence, is more protective of the students.
Likelihood we’ll see this on screen: Their romantic rivalry is certainly a big part of the first two X-Men movies, and informs the third. But while Logan grows into his role of protecting mutant young in the films, Scott doesn’t really change much until he dies and twisty time-travel restores him to life. Admittedly, death and rebirth are pretty big changes, but you know what we mean.
2. Batman vs. Robin (Boy becomes a man)
After decades of close collaboration and a more or less unquestioning partner/father-son relationship (never mind those gay rumors from the 1950s), Robin (Dick Grayson) started to spend more and more time leading the New Teen Titans, but Batman was still treating him as a kid sidekick after he was old enough to start attending college.
The growing pains that led him to become Nightwing made up some of the better Teen Titans stories. Since then, other Robins have had their issues with Batman, especially Jason Todd, who left the role to become the Red Hood and doesn’t share comic-book Bruce and Dick’s code against killing. (Movie Bruce seems more flexible.)
1. DC vs. Marvel (coopetition)
The two giants of superhero publishing may have each wished the other would just vanish into a black hole sometime, but when their relations began to thaw, they realized they were leaving money on the table by not working together on comics that featured two of their characters and splitting the profits. In quick succession, DC and Marvel together published Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man, then the simpler Superman and Spider-Man, followed by Batman vs. Hulk and many others, including the multiple-universe-spanning DC vs. Marvel and JLA/Avengers.
Almost each one follows the crossover tradition of some hero vs. hero fights. Though DC and Marvel haven’t done many crossovers with each other lately, the tradition lives on in work like Star Trek/Green Lantern and Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Likelihood we’ll see this on screen: Sadly, almost microscopic at this point: Warner and Disney have their independent movie plans and can’t see the value in working together right now. Nevertheless, we have been adamant that the Marvel/DC flame war has to end, and perhaps that will convince studios to figure out a team-up scenario.
Can you think of any other superhero rivalries that should be on this list? Let us know in the comments!