Tue
Sep 3 2013 8:00am

Super Frenemies: The Tumultuous Relationship of Superman and Batman

Batman Superman Fight!

With the recent news that Ben Affleck will play Batman in the Man of Steel sequel arriving in 2015, now seems like a good time to look back on the often fraught relationship between the two most iconic characters in the superhero pantheon. If comic books comprise a large part of the canon of our new American mythology—and there is every reason to think that they do—then the relationship between Superman and Batman, with their opposing views of heroism and justice, reflect our conflicted culture in interesting ways.

On the one hand we have Clark Kent—the immigrant and Midwest farm boy—who, in days gone by, claimed to fight for “truth, justice, and the American Way” (a statement that presented those three things as synonymous). He’s a character defined by his squareness, his kindness, his sense of law and order. Superman is evocative of America’s blessedness. To be born an American is to be born into most powerful economic and military superpower the world has ever known. Superman, a man endowed with godlike powers, is our myth of power righteously exerted.

On the other hand we have Bruce Wayne—a victim turned vigilante. His story begins with a vow, with a boy standing at the grave of his parents and pledging himself to become the greatest crime fighter the world has ever known. He achieves his goal on several different fronts, combining different elements into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. He’s a criminologist on par with Sherlock Holmes. He has as many gadgets as James Bond. He’s as theatrical as the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro. Swooping around the rooftops of Gotham City he is a cross between Tarzan and Dracula. In combat he doesn’t carry a gun; he’s a brawler. He’s Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee rolled into one. Driving all of it, weaving it all together, is a fierce ascetical commitment. Batman stands toe to toe with god-like Superman because he has purified himself of everything which would distract from the war he is waging. If Superman is a hero by birth, Batman is a solider by choice, his body pushed to the peak of human excellence by effort.

It makes sense, then, that these two heroes would come into conflict. They do, after all, represent two very distinct notions of heroism.

Superman has, for seventy-five years, represented not just of “truth, justice, and the American Way” but also a certain haggard commitment to social order. Superman is a company man, and the company is society. His Midwestern roots, his decision to blend in among us mere mortals and take a wife from among us—all this models principled self-control, the constraint of overwhelming power by a more powerful sense of public duty and personal morality.

Single-minded in purpose and lonely in its execution, however, Batman represents a uniquely libertarian idea of heroism. Batman is our myth of American striving. His body is nothing but flesh and bone pushed and punished to perfection. He is alone among superheroes in that he is driven by intention. He may have been born to wealth and privilege, but his focus is completely his own. He belongs in the shadow-filled streets of poverty far more than he belongs to the champagne-and-caviar set, and those dark streets are where the ascetic works out the final level of his commitment. No other superhero has been associated with darkness for so long, his foes so consistently psychotic and twisted. It is not an accident that this most self-controlled of superheroes is forced to crawl down the murkiest of holes. It’s not surprising that he and Superman would part ways on the most effective way to keep social order.

We’ll have to see how the creative team behind the Superman/Batman movie work out this fraught relationship, but here’s a quick overview of some essential moments in the ongoing saga of Clark and Bruce:

The Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman

  1. One Night In Gotham City (1986): Writer and artist John Byrne created the definitive first meeting of the two heroes in the third issue of Man Of Steel, his landmark reinvention of Superman. The criminal the boys are chasing is an insignificant second-stringer named Magpie, but what really counts here is the relationship between Clark and Bruce. The book opens with Superman trying to arrest Batman. It only gets better from there.
  2. The Dark Knight Returns (1986): Frank Miller’s reinvention of Batman sent a shockwave through the comic book industry that reconfigured basically everything. One important part of his narrative was his decision to cast Superman and Batman as ideological enemies—and to have them engage in a battle to the death.
  3. Dark Knight Over Metropolis (1990): Writer and artist Jerry Ordway gave us one of the duo’s best pairings in this three issue storyline (unfolding over three different Superman titles) that found the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight teaming up against Lex Luthor, who has created a deadly Kryptonite Ring.
  4. Hush (2002-2003): Written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Jim Lee, this storyline is more Batman than Superman, but it does feature an epic showdown between the two when Superman is brainwashed by Poison Ivy. Evocative of Loeb’s deep love of comics history, it features the triumphant return of the Kryptonite Ring.
  5. The Supergirl From Krypton (2004): Unfolding over several issues of Superman/Batman, this storyline was written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Michael Turner, and represents the high water mark of the series. Loeb cleanly delineates the opposed personalities of the open and trusting Clark and the suspicious and calculating Bruce.
  6. Skeeter! (1987): Okay, this one might not be as well known as some of the others, but trust me, it’s worth hunting down. In 1987 John Byrne and Art Adams teamed up for Action Annual #11 and gave us Superman and Batman chasing a redneck vampire girl in the swamps of South Carolina. Beautifully illustrated and snappily written, it’s one of their oddest—and best—adventures.   

Jake Hinkson is the author of the novels Hell On Church Street and The Posthumous Man. He blogs at The Night Editor.

15 comments
jeff hendrix
2. templarsteel
These are two people who should never get along.
Spider
3. Spider
The Batman/Superman confontation in 'A Death In The Family' is often overlooked, but really great - escpecially with how Batman sneers at Superman, knowing he'll do what he does. It's some of the seeding of 'Batman-as-manipulator' that became such a dominant theme in the '00's, and it's really well played. "Spare me your boy scout sentimentality, Clark!"
Spider
4. James Moar
These are two people who should never get along
Quite possibly in some modern interpretations. Up until about the 70s, though, most DC superheroes had to take turns using the same personality.
Matt Stoumbaugh
5. LazerWulf
I remember tw0 things about the "World's Finest" episode of The Batman/Superman Hour on Saturday Mornings, the first crossover in the DCAU. The first was that The Joker tried to sell a statue made of Kryptonite to Lex Luthor. The second was that Superman used his X-Ray Vision to see through Batman's Cowl and find out his secret identity, to which Batman responds by slipping a tracker on him and following him to Clark's apartment. When Clark finds the tracker, he looks out the window and sees Batman, who gives a little smirk which seemed to say "See? I can find out your secret identity, too!"
Spider
6. Wizard Clip
I'm not sure it's accurate to say that these two characters have "opposing views of heroism and justice." At his core, each one is essentially a suprememely compassionate being, unwilling to stand by as others suffer. The need to protect the innocent and the weak from terrifyingly evil forces (whether street-level or cosmic) is what drives both Superman and Batman. Their compassion even extends to the criminals they fight. Now they certainly have radically different methods of achieving justice, as outlined by Jake. Also, Superman has not been the "company man" for his entire 75 year history. In his very early days he often fought against institutionalized political and social corruption. It's worth noting that both of these characters were initially outlaws. Fighting for justice, yes--"Thank heaven he's apparently on the side of law and order," as the governor exclaims following Superman's first appearance-- but still very much outside the law.
Spider
7. Colin R
I have pretty mixed feelings about Batman/Superman conflict. That's probably the way it should be. Before the modern age, Batman and Superman were tight--truly Super Best Friends Forever. I think that there is definitely something to that. Really, the last thing the current movie incarnation of Superman needs is MORE things to be brooding about. He could use a friend.

Greg Pak's current Batman/Superman series has started out looking at this very conflict, by the way, and it is pretty great. It's used the opportunity of a reboot to introduce us to Batman and Superman when they first meet, and distrust each other--and then thrusts them into crossover with the middle-aged Silver age Superman and Batman, who are best buds since childhood and have implicit trust in one another.
Spider
8. FourDown
The Batman vs. Superman storyline is lazy, which is perfect for a mainstream movie! Easy to digest, expects no thinking from the audience, and will easily make $1 billion worldwide. It's The Avengers all over again...
Spider
9. Twitchity
One thing I always liked about the original concept of Superman is that he was basically a City College socialist in funny clothes. He started out his career by going after bankers, politicians, and slumlords; he was a champion of the Depression-era little guy (the original tagline for the character was that he fought for "truth, tolerance, and justice," with the more familiar line not appearing in the radio serials until the dawn of the Cold War). The character may have been raised in Kansas, but he owed more to the experience of New York's Jewish immigrants, less a gray-flannel-cape company man than an idealistic populist.

As far as character dynamics are concerned, Superman's moral code is something that defines him, whereas Batman's moral code is something that limits him. Superman can't become a vigilante or killer (or even consider it!) without basically destroying the character, whereas the possibility of Batman's going over the edge is the basic propulsive force of that character. This also suggests why it's so hard to write a good character piece for Superman: he's essentially a static character, whereas Batman has fundamental, visceral drives -- hurt, revenge, violence, insanity -- moving him forward.
Spider
10. Colin R
It's fairly difficult to make a universal statement about either character, since they've had multiple iterations for decades. But the forty years where those dudes were best buds are just as legitimate as the 20-30 years that they've been more at odds with one another.

Also, portraying Batman as a loner doesn't entirely work for me. While that has been popular in the movies, in the comics he has long had an entire Bat-family--he is an inspirational figure who has led other people to discover their own heroic natures. Nightwing and the various Robins. Batgirl. Batwoman. Huntress. Ace the Bat-Hound. Sometimes even Catwoman. He is self-sufficient, but he is not alone. I think the 'loner' aspect comes from the popularity of Batman's early years.

Ultimately for all their differences, Superman and Batman are two people who want to save everyone else. They are more similar than dissimilar.
Spider
11. Eric C
There is one fundamental difference between the two and is the source of any and all the confects between them. And that is this Kal-el was sent to earth to rule the earth.

Now I know that I'm gonna get flamed by saying that but its ok I got my asbestos boxers on. The general consent is that this idea is a new thing based on Smallville's Jor-el but really it goes back to the 78 movie Jor-el played by Brando. If you really listen to WHAT he says (both to Lara and later to Clark) he sent Kal-el to earth to take over and teach us lowly humans how to behave correctly. He was to be a benevolent ruler, but a ruler none the less.

In each of the conflicts that raise between them (excluding Dark Knight Returns) this is what drives that conflict. The latest being the Injustice game.

And they all play out the same:

Something really bad happens that shakes Clark to his core and Kal-el takes the forefront and declares himself the be all end all. Then Bat's shows up and no way Jack doesn't work that way.

Now in DKR and DitF Superman is more of the square government yes man that gets called in for dirty work. Which I guess would be a more a point of contention between the two that most every one else picks up on and that is the whole letter of the law / heart of the law thing. Superman being the "boy scout" follows the letter of the law, while Batman follows the heart of the law. Bats doesn't break the law but does tend to bend it.
Spider
12. Eric C
Oh, and Clark Kent is a hero by choice because of Jonathan and Martha Kent. And has nothing to do with his birth. His upbringing is what makes him super and not the abilities that his birth gave him.

The only difference between Superman and Batman in this are the powers that Superman has making it much easier for him to be the hero.
Spider
14. Tesh
It's not canon, but I think that the JL8 webcomic has a great take on their relationship. Best friends who occasionally screw up, but who always care for each other.
Spider
15. Improbable Joe
One of the best descriptions of the difference between the two characters is this: Clark Kent dresses up as Superman to hide his real identity, while Batman pretends to be Bruce Wayne in order to hide hiw true self. Clark Kent has a real life and a bunch of friends and family, while Bruce Wayne is a lonely playboy billionaire with a butler.
Spider
16. __Erik__
@15
I believe Bill would disagree

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