Years of Superman fighting Batman have turned a symbol of hope into a villain. There are two Supermen: The Man of Tomorrow, a refugee baby raised by hard work and kind guidance into a man originally dedicated to sharing his vast gifts with humanity; and the Man of Steel, a fiery-eyed alien warrior whose power makes us question our own helplessness and whose battles shake the foundations of our planet. And one of them wins – at least in Hollywood.
A dark, conflicted Superman, or even a Superman who has completely passed away – Superman as the bad guy – rules the current zeitgeist. Over the past few years, we’ve seen The Boys and their fickle demagogue in the making of Homelander; the stunning Superman from Man of Steel via Justice League; the irresistible power of Ikaris with laser eyes in Marvel’s Eternals. The shadows of breakthrough 1980s graphic novels such as The Dark Knight Returns (Superman as a trusted tool of American imperialism) and Watchmen (Superman as a being so powerful that he no longer cares about humanity) hang over Hollywood almost three decades later after their publication. Smaller productions like “Brightburn” have even turned a super kid into a bad guy.
It wasn’t always like this: back in 1978, Christopher Reeves and director Richard Donner created a Superman to believe in. And it’s not that you can’t find a benevolent Superman – in the comics and on The CW, he’s a father figure and a truth teller. But how has our popular representation of Superman gained a reputation for being controversial and reluctant? Naive and involuntary? Like a puppet of the silent majority? Or like a tyrant waiting?
A hasty judgment could be that today’s creators view cynicism as being hand in hand with sophistication, or misunderstand the classic incarnation of the character and think it lacks depth to interest an adult audience. Fans of the more troubled Superman may believe this makes it easier for viewers to connect with him.
There is some truth to all of these ideas, but there may be a deeper answer, rooted in how comic book history has infiltrated the wider consciousness: Superman has become a bad guy because we keep making him fight Batman. And when we keep making him fight Batman, he keeps losing. And when he loses, it makes him the bad guy. And when our most famous comics feature Superman being the bad guy, Hollywood decides that’s the way it should be.
In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Superman is essentially the comic’s final boss fight. His Kryptonian physiology is young and agile, while Batman is rocky and battered; he is the faithful hand of the dystopian American state, where Batman has become the hero of the people who unnerve this state. Batman fakes his death at the hands of Superman (the Bat-victory, after all) and lives to raise a generation of revolutionaries for a new day. When Miller returned to the setting in 2002, he ended the first act of The Dark Knight Strikes Again when the entire Justice League, on Batman’s tactical orders, kicked Superman’s ass.
This article is not a logistical breakdown of how the ability of a tactical genius compares to a nearly invincible man. This is simply to establish the recurring commonality – you might say, the never-ending battle – of Batman v Superman. And anyway, the matchup between Batman and Superman to see who wins is not a science experiment, but a scripted story. The stories may not have anything as predictable as Newtonian thermodynamics to guide them, but they do have an observable pressure.