In an entertainment industry that is packed full of superhero crossovers and tie-ins – where bigger team-ups and shared universe stories are becoming the norm – it’s ever more important that superhero films do more than simply increase the amount of CGI mayhem on screen. Long before they were all the rage in Hollywood, superhero stories were allegorical reflections of our world at pivotal points in time. They might be fun and colorful but many comics are also layered with powerful messages of inspiration – tales of everyday people overcoming the odds.
Comics teach us that some battles aren’t won by the strongest or most powerful heroes; sometimes, everyday heroes can win – even when they lose. But what if the hero that wins by losing is also one of comic book history’s favorite crime-fighters – who happens to be facing off against an equally beloved Justice League hero? For years fans have debated whether Batman can beat Superman – but today, we suggest that not only can Batman beat Superman, the Caped Crusader can still win even if he loses the physical fight.
Batman Meets Superman
It could be surprising to hear that, despite near-instantaneous popularity back in the 1940s, it took several years for Batman and Superman to appear in a comic book story together. The pair graced the cover of World’s Best Comics #1, joined by Robin, but the Batman and Superman adventures inside those printed pages remained entirely separate. The first time the heroes actually shared a storyline, it was on the radio – not in a comic book – when the Dark Knight made a guest appearance on The Adventures of Superman program – the first of several guest spots from the Caped Crusader.
Nevertheless, it took another seven years for the heroes to appear in a comic book cross-over – in a campy 1952 story that saw the future Justice League leaders, or more specifically their alter egos Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, sharing a cabin on a cruise ship (where, of course, hilarity and trouble ensues). Several more years followed, and in 1954, World’s Finest Comics officially became a Superman and Batman book series – in which the pair fought villains together.
World’s Finest Comics was an important moment in DC Comics – as well as the cascade of team-ups that would follow in the coming decades but it also marked the foundation of a key dynamic in Batman and Superman’s relationship: Batman was the brains, even though, on his own, the Caped Crusader was still a capable fighter – and Superman was the brawn, even though, on his own, the Man of Steel still possessed a keen mind. It was a necessary distinction – previously, the heroes had existed in entirely separate worlds, where Superman took-on super-powered threats and Batman solved crime as The World’s Greatest Detective but – bringing the heroes into the same world, meant that comic book writers needed to ensure that Batman was still just as fun to follow as his god-like partner in crime-fighting.
Over the years, as Superman writers gave the Man of Steel new abilities and greater feats of strength, and Batman writers armed the Caped Crusader with slick gadgets and high-powered vehicles, the dynamic between the heroes was taken to its logical conclusion: where Superman battled with raw physicality and super-human powers, Batman contributed with tactical savvy and specialized implementation of custom-built weaponry. However, even as the friends grew closer – and inspired an entire “league” of justice-seeking heroes to join their cause, DC writers began to explore ideological differences between the two iconic heroes.
An Ideological Conflict
Where Superman wears a symbol on his chest that stands for “Hope” and endeavors to inspire and protect all mankind, Batman is the product of a city overrun with corruption – where only vigilante justice could right the wrongs of a failed system. For Batman, Superman’s optimistic outlook wasn’t a strength, it was a sign of naivety – and a dangerous liability in the hands of an extra-terrestrial with god-like powers. Specifically, what would happen if Kal-El was driven mad or became frustrated with humanity – and sought to protect the world through dictatorial acts of intimidation and aggression? It’s the kind of worst-case scenario that only an obsessive and pessimistic vigilante like Batman could see coming – but, given his outlook and the people in his life that had been corrupted (example: Harvey Dent/Two-Face), it’s understandable the Caped Crusader would be tempted to take precautions – in order to protect humanity from any potential threat (foe or good friend, alike).
Driven by these ideological differences, with Batman fearing that Superman could become an unchecked threat to life on earth and Superman believing that Batman’s brand of vigilante crime-fighting is a threat to true justice, Kal-El and Bruce Wayne have (on several occasions) forgone friendly debate in favor of a full-on fist fight. On the surface, a god-like superhuman with the Man of Steel’s power should make quick work of a billionaire in a cape and cowl; yet, Bruce Wayne is more than your typical costumed vigilante – he’s a costumed vigilante and genius inventor with access to kryptonite.
Batman V Superman
The Dark Knight has used a myriad of strategies to subdue Superman – including controlling Kal-El by (an admittedly hollow) threat to the lives of innocent civilians, exploiting the kryptonian’s need to protect innocent life – but two of the Caped Crusader’s counter-Superman measures rise to the top: power armor and kryptonite-infused weaponry.
Despite its armored bulk and shock absorption, the armored Batsuit is deceivingly nimble – enabling Batman to put up a respectable fight. An integrated hydraulic exoframe enhances Wayne’s movements and attacks – while also protecting him from the full-force of Superman’s abilities. In the power armor, Batman can deliver ground-shaking punches and kicks, capable of sending the Man of Steel reeling, while also providing enough flexibility for the Dark Knight to dive, dodge, and counterattack.
Conversely, when Batman couldn’t overpower Superman with power armor, he’s also tried weakening the Man of Steel. While the Dark Knight has infused dust from Superman’s home planet into everything from smoke bombs to liquid capsules, on two separate occasions Batman outright forged kryptonite weapons in service of punching the Man of Steel into submission. Kryptonite gauntlets were introduced in the divisive follow-up to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again but, given that Batman can’t always predict when he might need to fight-off Superman (and it isn’t practical or fashionable to bring kryptonite gauntlets everywhere), the Dark Knight is also revealed to carry a kryptonite ring in the center pocket of his utility belt.
Still, even with the use of power armor and kryptonite, Batman has never been able to outright defeat Superman physically – only subdue him. Which brings us to the real reason that Batman would ever fight Superman: to remind that world that even god-like kryptonians can bleed.
Do You Bleed?
The Caped Crusader is often depicted as wary of the Man of Steel – and has, in the past, created myriad contingency plans For that reason, it’s no surprise Ben Affleck’s Dark Knight in Batman V Superman is suspicious of this alien hero, looking to actively knock “Metropolis’ Savior” off his high horse. Batman might not be able to kill a fully-powered Superman but armor and kryptonite weapons have given the Dark Knight enough of an edge to succeed in his primary goal: reminding Kal-El (and the rest of the world) that, should the Man of Steel ever overstep the line between do-gooder and despot, heroes can and will rise to stop him.
Achieving victory isn’t always the same as winning. After all, Superman defeated General Zod in Man of Steel but it’s still hard to call the outcome a win for the Big Blue Boy Scout – given the death toll and collateral damage (not to mention Kal-El’s neck-snapping end to Zod). Even though he is beloved by millions, many DC characters (whether human, superhuman, or supervillain) still consider Superman a potential danger to Earth – but feel powerless to hold the kryptonian accountable. To that end, what if Batman doesn’t need to beat Superman to a bloody pulp, but only needs to show that Superman can bleed, that he’s not invincible, to beat him?
Fans will have seen a similar idea played out in countless other stories, including Zack Snyder’s breakout film 300 (where a group of Spartans gave their lives to make Xerxes bleed – and prove he is not a god), as well as Miller’s Dark Knight Returns – where Batman, himself, doesn’t expect to kill Superman, he just wants to push back against a fascist government that wields Kal-El like a blunt instrument.
Taking a stand to gain an ideological victory may sound like a purely intellectual distinction, but it’s one that modern comics have explored in depth – including Marvel’s “Civil War” event. For that reason, the Dark Knight doesn’t need to knock Superman out in order to win (and make his point), he just needs to last long enough to show the people of Earth that, together, they are not powerless against Superman – and that the Man of Steel will be held accountable if he ever loses sight of his “humanity.” Simply put, if a single man in an armored exo-suit can go toe-to-toe with a super-powered extraterrestrial, Batman’s stand would make Superman and the people of our world think twice.
It might sound high-minded (especially in a conversation about a hunky, spandex wearing extra-terrestrial battling it out with a billionaire vigilante dressed in bat costume) – but a moral, not physical, victory is usually the outcome in nearly every time Batman and Superman have faced-off (at least in the battles where mind-controlling neuro toxins aren’t a factor).
Given the pair’s history, and mutual respect, it makes sense that the most important thing that Batman may ever do is keep his super-powered friend grounded – even if he has to take a beating in order to secure an ideological victory.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice opens on March 25th, 2016, followed by Suicide Squad on August 5th, 2016; Wonder Woman on June 23rd, 2017; Justice League Part One on November 17th, 2017; The Flash on March 16th, 2018; Aquaman on July 27th, 2018; Shazam on April 5th, 2019; Justice League Part Two on June 14th, 2019; Cyborg on April 3rd, 2020; and Green Lantern Corps. on June 19th, 2020.