The upcoming film Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, aside from helping to establish the DC Extended Universe, also takes one of the greatest debates from comic book or superhero history and takes it to the big screen. Basically, the argument as to who would win in a fight: Batman or Superman? There’s the obvious answer that it would be Superman, since with his super strength and speed Superman could easily beat Batman to a pulp. On the other hand, Batman’s determination and intellect could allow for a much more interesting confrontation.
Even though Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is the first time such a conflict has been brought to the big screen, battles between Batman and Superman have occurred numerous times throughout the cartoons and comic books of DC. For the sake of argument, this article will look at examples from previous conflicts as well as each superhero individually.
In the animated film Justice League: The New Frontier, Batman tells the other superhero Martian Manhunter:
“I’m not sure what you are or where you come from. But my instincts tell me you’re to be trusted. Make no mistake, I have a $70,000 sliver of radioactive meteor to stop the one from Metropolis. All I need for you is a penny for a book of matches.”
Now even though Batman is threatening Martian Manhunter with his weakness towards fire should he ever go rogue or become a threat, Batman also mentions having a piece of kryptonite on him at all times should Superman ever become a threat. Even though in the film Batman and Superman are on the same side, this reflects how Batman is always prepared for possible betrayal and doesn’t shy away even from the prospect of having to fight the Man of Steel. On the other hand, Superman is more reluctant to combat Batman even if he disproves of Batman’s methods, such as the graphic novel and animated film The Dark Knight Returns in which Superman is asked by President Ronald Reagan to bring in Batman.
Superman’s loyalty to authority is brought up elsewhere, such as the Justice League Unlimited episode “Panic in the Sky” in which Superman decides that the main Justice League founders should surrender to the U.S. government in order to ease tensions between normal people and superheroes in the aftermath of a crisis. However, Batman outright refuses and continues to seek those responsible.
This reflects Superman’s desire to work within the law and to turn himself in if he believes it would help despite his immense power, whereas Batman would never turn himself in and continually insists on solving issues his way. One notable exception would be the episode “Divided We Fall” in which Superman tells Lex Luthor (after apparently killing the Flash) “I’m not the man who killed President Luthor. Right now, I wish to heaven that I were but I’m not.” Granted, Luthor had just been bonded with the villain Braniac, but it shows that Superman is willing to consider exceptions to his own rules when those close to him are threatened.
Another important aspect of both Superman and Batman are the symbols that both represent in the DC universe. Superman is obviously the poster boy for DC, he’s the leader of the Justice League, he’s perhaps the strongest superhero in the DC universe, and essentially the figure that other heroes tend to rally behind.
However, it would be difficult for anyone else to take up the mantle of Superman. Superboy isn’t a family member of Superman, but rather a clone created by the U.S. government using Kryptonian DNA. Supergirl is Superman’s cousin who also survived the destruction of Krypton. This shows how only those carrying the “Super” logo or are comparable in terms of power are those directly related to him. If Superman were to be killed or otherwise incapacitated, then there would be no one capable of replacing him. The comics series JLA: The Nail revolves around this concept with a dystopian reality in which Clark Kent never became Superman.
Superman himself is a huge figure in the founding of such groups as the Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, Justice League International, etc. However, in the episode “Divided We Fall,” Superman makes a speech in which he decides that the Watchtower should be disarmed and the JLU dissolved, although the other heroes (notably Green Arrow) protest Superman’s decision and he is convinced that the JLU should be allowed to continue.
Conversely, Batman both inspires others to take action against crime as well as training others to be “Batmen” themselves. The film The Dark Knight depicts this situation, as a group of regular men dress up in fake Batman-esque costumes and fight the mob using machine guns. At one point, the Joker is interrogating one of the vigilantes and asks “Why do you dress up like him?!” to which the vigilante responds “Because he’s a symbol that we don’t have to be afraid of scum like you.” Granted, this isn’t the most efficient way to fight crime and even Batman disproved of the vigilantes’ methods, but it shows how Batman can be a symbol.
Aside from vigilantes, there’s the matter of the Bat Family including fellow heroes such as Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl, etc. Again, because Batman has no superpowers he is able to train others to fight crime almost as effectively as he can. Aside from helping Batman cope psychologically by forming a “family” of sorts, it also allows for Gotham City to have an increase in heroes with high-quality training and equipment, although they are still able to branch off on their own paths such as when Robin (suggested as being Dick Grayson) left to lead the Teen Titans. There is even a comics series in which Batman forms a group called Batman Incorporated, which is essentially an attempt to establish a unique “Batman” for every country in the world that reports to Bruce Wayne. Although these efforts are met with mixed successes, it reflects the expansive nature of Batman’s symbol.
Then there is how others have been able to take up the Batman mantle when Bruce Wayne is injured or otherwise unavailable. For example, Nightwing, Bruce Wayne’s own son Damien Wayne, Azrael, and even Commissioner Gordon have all taken up the Batman costume at some point or another. The animated TV series Batman Beyond depicted a futuristic Gotham City in which teenager Terry McGinnis had taken up the role of Batman with an aged Bruce Wayne acting as his mentor. Although there were few references to other futuristic superheroes or the Justice League at this point in the timeline, Bruce Wayne repeatedly mentions the positive effect McGinnis has on Gotham City and unlike most of the other temporary “Batmen,” Wayne eventually comes to fully accept McGinnis as the new Batman.
Of course, there is the matter of each’s villains. Batman’s villains, such as the Joker, Scarecrow, Riddler, Two-Face, etc. may not possess superpowers but usually exhibit somewhat advanced weapons or technology with a particular psychological disorder. However, many arguments have been made that Batman in fact attracts or indirectly creates his own villains. The 1989 film Batman showed Batman inadvertently turning Jack Napier into the Joker, and the film The Dark Knight illustrates how the Joker came into conflict with Batman because, in his own words, “You complete me.”
Superman also has his own cadre of villains, although because of Superman’s immense strength, it would only make sense that his villains should have some comparable strength as well, such as Doomsday, Braniac, or Bizarro (the alternative Superman) Unfortunately, this is bad news for the occupants of Metropolis. Whereas a villain like Scarecrow or the Joker may rob a bank or blow up a train, Bizarro could easily fly through a building. Others, like Braniac or Doomsday, may even try to destroy the entire world.
The film Man of Steel shows General Zod being drawn to Earth because of Superman, which results in Zod attempting to terraform Earth into another Krypton. Basically in the case of Superman’s villains, not only are they extremely powerful which is bad enough for average citizens but usually Superman (or someone similar such as Wonder Woman or Capt. Marvel) is the only one powerful enough to defeat them, except that there’s only one Superman in Metropolis to deal with such threats.
Overall, when it comes to Batman and Superman the main issues to address are powers, symbolism, and the villains they battle, and in these respects it seems Batman is superior.
Superman could easily beat Batman to a pulp in the blink of an eye, but there’s the chance Superman would be reluctant to do so whereas not only would Batman not hesitate, but he also carries around a piece of Kryptonite just for the odd chance he has to fight Superman.
Both characters are huge role models for the rest of the DC universe, but while Superman can rally others behind him, Batman can inspire everyone from normal people to fellow vigilantes while training people to be just as skilled as he is. Superman can’t pass on his powers or train someone else to be another Superman unless they already had powers, such as Superboy.
In terms of villains, Batman battles everything from criminals with real-life mental issues (even if he does unwillingly draw them to Gotham) to major villains as a member of the Justice League, all without superpowers. However, Superman battles much stronger villains that are not only drawn to Superman but are also capable of dealing much more damage.
That’s not to say that one hero is necessarily worse, as both Superman and Batman have different roles to fulfill and situations to deal with. It merely seems that Batman has the capability to be more adaptable to more threats than Superman while being able to actively recruit and train others to the cause of justice. Then again, it’s much better that the two work as a team in that they can cover each others’ weaknesses rather than be enemies.