Superman vs. Batman (2016): How It Should Be Done
At long last, after years of constant delays and indecisiveness, Wonder Woman is finally going to appear in a theatrical motion picture. Even better, the film is shaping up to look pretty damn spectacular and sounds like a lot of fun, and based on the creative team’s previous efforts, I personally cannot wait to see this thing.
I’m speaking, of course… of The LEGO Movie.
What’s that? You thought I was referring to a different film? Oh, you mean that half-assed directionless Man of Steel sequel that seems to be learning nothing from the mistakes its predecessor made, in addition to being largely made up on the fly based on whatever happens to be big at the box office any given moment? The obvious developing clusterfuck that’s taking its inspiration from all the wrong places and likely will begin filming without even so much as a solid plot outline, never mind a script? (Okay, I wrote this before the recent announcement that the film’s release date has been pushed back until 2016, but most of it still applies…)
Yeah, no. I’ll take The LEGO Movie, thank you very much. For one thing, a bright and colorful action comedy revolving around my favorite childhood toys and made by the guys who brought us Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Clone High sounds significantly better than another dull, drab, poorly-written mess in the vein of Man of Steel. For another, it’s already clear that LEGO Wonder Woman will be superior to anything producer Christopher Nolan and director Zack Snyder and their disinterested writing team could ever dream up. I mean, she even has the invisible jet. Do you think Nolan/Snyder are going to give us an invisible jet? Hell, no!
But enough about LEGO Wonder Woman—you came here for my thoughts on Man of Steel 2/Superman vs. Batman/Trinity/Whatever dull name they come up with that’s not nearly as cool sounding as “World’s Finest”.
You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m not terribly excited for this movie. I’m unsure as to why anyone could be, to be honest. It’s a sequel to Man of Steel, for one thing, and besides just being a shit movie in general, Man of Steel’s vision of Superman is not one I’m particularly eager to see more of. It’s from a creative team who apparently heard our complaints that the film was too dark and responded by throwing in Batman and having Harry Lennix quote a line from The Dark Knight Returns as if they misheard us. For another thing, the project doesn’t seem to have a solid foundation for what it’s going to be yet which, given how poorly thought out the last script was, and considering they’ve already set a release date with presumably no script, is not a good sign.
But it’s not like I want this film to fail. I want to be excited for it. The very prospect of a Superman/Batman team-up movie should be the greatest news ever to me. And it’s not like the concept should be hard to do well. All it needs is a good idea.
If Warner Brothers has any clear direction for this project (though I’m pretty sure they don’t), so far the only real hint is the aforementioned Comic-Con announcement, and the use of a quote taken from one of the better known published instances of Superman and Batman as adversaries. So all indications are that the film will be a Superman versus Batman movie, as opposed to a simple team-up.
Now to me, starting off with the concept of Superman and Batman beating each other’s brains out for two hours is just getting off on the wrong foot. It doesn’t really fit the characters, it’s a waste of potential, and it’s just plain not very interesting. I am aware that many feel otherwise, however. There is definitely a market for Dark Age hate-each-others’-guts Superman and Batman, and I recognize that my preferred brand of Silver Age best-friends-forever Superman and Batman isn’t for everyone.
But even if you absolutely must go that route, The Dark Knight Returns is the worst possible story to draw inspiration from. There’s not nearly enough story in the last chapter (the only chapter to feature Superman) to fill a feature film. It’s the weakest part of the book by far: mindless, angsty tripe about an over-equipped, Gary Stu-Batman wailing on a two-dimensional straw-man version of Superman. Not to mention, there’s really nowhere for Woman Woman to fit in.
To be frank, there aren’t really any good Superman-fighting-Batman stories, despite there being quite a few of them. The problem is the whole concept is just so stupid on its face, even by comic book standards, that no one knows what to do with it. The only way to give Batman even a snowball’s chance in hell in a straight-up fight is for them to equip him with so many extra advantages that he kind of ceases to be Batman and essentially becomes Emo Iron Man. What they usually come up with for a Superman vs. Batman fight isn’t really a fight. It’s more of a “Batman tries desperately to stay alive long enough to break whatever brainwashing made Superman kill-crazy” sort of deal.
There’s really only one attempt I’ve ever read that managed the trick of being fun, in-character for everyone involved, and mostly believable. That was in Darwyn Cooke’s Justice League: The New Frontier Special #1, a tie-in he wrote to promote the animated movie. It manages this in a number of ways. For one thing, both Superman and Batman go into the fight reluctantly, pushed by outside forces despite already respecting one another, even without having met before. It feels much more in keeping with the spirit of the characters than the idea of them being bitter rivals, which never rang true to me. Secondly, it’s not just a mindless punch-up, and plays to Batman’s strengths in a mostly believable way: Batman relies on stealth, evasion, and sneak attacks, and he manages to get his licks in without Superman seeming slow or incompetent.
And finally, it has the perfect ending. Wonder Woman, ever the peacemaker, intervenes and points out the obvious, that they should be allies instead of needlessly fighting each other. And just to drive the ludicrousness of the premise home, they resolve the situation by staging a fake fight in which Batman wins.
If any comic should be the template for a Superman vs. Batman movie, it’s this one. It would have to be fleshed out quite a bit; it’s a very short comic, after all. But the basic idea and spirit of the thing is sound. Having the massive, gritty brawl all the Batman fans want to see in which the Dark Knight annihilates the Man of Steel by pure force of awesome, only to pull the rug out from under them and have the whole thing revealed as a hoax would be just too hilarious for words.
Once again, I know my favoritism towards this story over The Dark Knight Returns is influenced mostly by my Silver Age inclinations. But even if you insist on going darker, the staging of Darwyn Cooke’s fight is far superior to Frank Miller’s. Miller makes Batman into a walking tank just so he can have a straight-up fistfight. Regardless of tone, a fight between Superman and Batman should never be a direct melee duel. It just looks silly, and requires a writer to jump through too many hoops to make it plausible.
The characters simply aren’t compatible like that. Batman isn’t a brawler like Superman, and brute strength isn’t how he solves his problems. He’s a ninja, a guerilla fighter, he’s all about misdirection and sneaking around in the shadows. Use that. Give him lead shielding and ultrasonic tech to sneak around where even Superman can’t see him. Have him use distractions to launch sneak attacks. Let him do things that feel like things Batman would do. Don’t just give in and hand him heavy ordnance and have him punch things.
In fact, if you really want to make the conflict between the two heroes the main crux of the plot, there’s really only one way to play it: make Batman the villain. The thing people always misunderstand when they say Batman is “smarter” than Superman is that he’s really not. Superman’s solar-enhanced brain is the most powerful computer on earth. What Batman is, is more devious than Superman. Sure, he follows a lot of the same codes of conduct Superman does, but he’s more willing to use torture and intimidation, and more likely to pull underhanded, morally-gray tactics. The one thing Batman has that Superman doesn’t is the ability to think like a villain. He’s spent his life studying the criminal mind to the point of becoming a bit unhinged himself. So use that.
Find a reason to put them at odds, then have Batman show up as the new villain in town, the legendary Winged Avenger come to haunt the Metropolis night. Have him leave traps and cryptic clues to taunt the Man of Steel. Maybe he even borrows some fear gas from Scarecrow to confront Superman with his worst fears (laced with Kryptonite, of course). Have him lead Supes on a wild goose chase all over town, building up to their final confrontation: an explosive battle of wits between man and god, between light and shadow.
Or it could be two hours of punching. You know, because that worked out so well last time.