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23 March 2016

Batman v Superman is a stupid idea – it ignores the complexity of their historic relationship

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice sees two comic book heroes meet on the big screen for the first time. It’s the grudge match of the century, they say. But who really wants to see them go up against each other?

By James Cooray Smith

Batman and Superman were created in the 1930s. Superman, the older of the two and the acknowledged progenitor of the entire Superhero genre, was created by two Clevelanders, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and first appeared in Action Comics #1 (June, 1938).

Batman turned up nearly a year later, the creation of New Yorkers Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and first appeared in May 1939’s Detective Comics #27. Detective Comics (DC) had already been running for years and was an anthology of, well, go on, guess.

Incidentally, all four men were the children of eastern European Jewish émigrés – and Shuster had been born in Canada. These two American icons, the industries they’ve spawned, and the billions made from them over decades owe their entire existence to the imagination and craft of immigrant labour.

Both characters were immediately popular and quickly spread to other media. Superman got his own radio serial in 1940, and it ran for a dozen years before moving to TV.

As well as being the originator of the “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Superman!” rubric, it also created staples of his supporting cast, like Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, and Kryptonite. What makes it relevant right now though, is that it’s also where, on March 2, 1945, Superman (Bud Collyer) met Batman (Matt Crowley) and Robin (Ronnie Liss) for the first time in any medium.

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The meeting was inspired, it’s said, by the success of the 1943 Batman cinema serial, and the story – The Mystery of the Waxmen – chose to portray Batman and Superman as old friends. Doing this, rather than making a big deal of their first meeting, probably seemed like a good idea, because Batman and Superman were already appearing in the same comic – World’s Finest – just always in separate stories.

They did, however, share the cover. Because of this, it seems, much of the listening public had no idea that characters had never officially teamed up. They’d seen them so frequently on newsstands together, depicted jointly enjoying activities such as playing baseball, encouraging the purchase of war bonds or testing machine guns for the US Army.

Batman and Robin became frequent supporting characters in the Superman radio serial, cementing public understanding of their relationship, but it wasn’t until Superman #76 (1952) and a story entitled The Mightiest Team On Earth! that the characters met on the inside pages at last.

There they swapped secret identities (rather than punches) and within two years World’s Finest had, starting with #71, combined its Superman and Batman features, meaning the two heroes were sharing an adventure a month.

From that point on, and for a matter of decades, the characters would frequently meet in each other’s books, other characters’ books and the many anthologies and team-up titles that DC still published in those days.

In 1986, Frank Miller, a writer/artist who had made his name on Marvel Comics’ Daredevil, created The Dark Knight Returns, the story of an aged Batman coming out of retirement in a dystopian future inspired by then current political and cultural trends. It ends with Batman and Superman – portrayed as a government lackey – having a fight which appeared to be to the death.

At that time, DC was revising its continuity, and when doing so took its cues on the Batman/Superman relationship from Miller.

Their new first meeting was portrayed in Superman: The Man of Steel #3 (November, 1986). The characters were antagonistic, albeit not to the extent Miller had portrayed, with Batman finding Superman naïve and Superman seeing Batman as a miserablist vigilante who ought to do jail time.

Frank Miller saw Batman not as a human being but as “the god of vengeance”. This might explain his desire to turn what had been a cheerful partnership between crime-fighting characters in science fiction stories for children into some kind of War in Heaven narrative.

Yes, The Dark Knight Returns itself remains a remarkable piece of work (if rather odd now, being set in a future where there is a Soviet Union but there isn’t an internet) but in many ways its influence has been pernicious.

Its “final” bout between Superman and Batman was reprised by Miller, in bloodier, Kryptonite-laced form, in his (frankly dreadful) sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Again, in 2002, and clearly casts a long shadow on the new film.

Miller hasn’t had it all his own way. The early Noughties Superman/Batman comic, a sort of latter day World’s Finest (written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Ed McGuinness) saw the duo bounce through parallel universes and having amped up versions of the kind of adventures they’d shared 50 years before.

The Nineties series JLA, written by Grant Morrison and largely drawn by John Porter and Howard Dell, portrayed their relationship as essentially that of Lennon and McCartney: distinct, contradictory but complementary personalities, each endowed with prodigious gifts.

Just as John and Paul were attracted to each other by a mutual understanding of what it’s like to lose one’s mother when young, so Batman and Superman, both orphans, shared an emotional bond.

JLA #41 (May, 2000) sees an unconscious Superman plugged into an alien-killing machine that is using his knowledge against the Earth. No one can reach him. When Batman arrives, he sends everyone else out of the room and takes off his mask. He looks at Superman. “Clark? This is Bruce” he says. And it works.

In the trailer for Batman v Superman, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor lays out the supposed appeal of its title in simple Manichean terms, and concludes that Superman represents day, while Batman represents night.

It’s rather unconvincing, and even more so because Superman – as played by Henry Cavill –has been, so far at least, a muted and reactionary character. One who, in the end, can come up with no better solution to the problems facing him than to murder his opponent.

The decision to make Luthor into Mark Zuckerberg (to the extent of getting Eisenberg to play him) seems to sum up the film.

Prior to the 1980s, Luthor had been a sort of mad scientist and/or super criminal, as played by Gene Hackman – albeit one who, on the page, occasionally dressed up in green and pink battle armour.

The version of Luthor, retooled by writer Marv Wolfman and writer/artist John Byrne for the Eighties, was a super capitalist with political clout. Zuckerberg probably seemed to the filmmakers like a good fit for that archetype in our current decade. Except that the Eighties Luthor was based on Donald Trump.

To abandon that characterisation at the exact moment that Trump reaches the peak of his international fame and influence, and comes within touching distance of the US presidency exemplifies the tin-eared nature of the whole project. (Luthor himself, incidentally, became President on a Third Party ticket back in the year 2000.)

This is as a big a misstep as deciding that two characters – who audiences are used to rooting for – should knock the hell the out of each other over a misunderstanding. This proposition has all the queasiness of farce without any of the fun.

That they will inevitably then team up in order to defeat the problem just makes the whole thing seem a combination of tedious sleight of hand, as well as a colossal waste of time – and most of half a billion dollars.

DC has been trying to make a film called either Batman v Superman or Superman v Batman for nearly 20 years, with a version directed by Wolfgang Peterson nearly getting made in 2004. They are clearly committed to this “vision” of the characters’ relationship.

Yet there’s another version sitting in plain sight. Something richer, odder, more complex and more interesting; something that works for a wider audience, and that is also more varied in age. It’s something that is probably a bit nobler and certainly a lot more fun. Why aren’t they doing that for their first big screen meeting instead?

Batman versus Superman is a stupid idea.

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