Last weekend was a big one for nerds.
First, Joss Whedon announced that his Avengers sequel will be titled Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which is more promising than the Thanos storyline which had been widely expected. However, this news was quickly trumped when Zack Snyder explained that the sequel to Man of Steel will be a movie pairing Superman and Batman. That was on Saturday. The fanboys are still cleaning up after themselves today.
I get that. The idea of pairing Superman and Batman together holds an enormous amount of narrative (and philosophical) potential. But we should temper expectations—at least for now. Because for Superman-Batman to work, Snyder and his writing team first have to settle on using the correct versions of the two characters.
Superman is easy, because historically his character has only come in two flavors. In his early years, during the Great Depression, Superman was a crusading avenger, bringing scheming industrialists and corrupt public figures to justice. But by the end of the Second World War, he had evolved, in all his essentials, into the Superman we know today: an over-sized Boy Scout protecting truth, justice, and the American way, while making cute with Lois Lane. We’ve had this sweet, guileless Superman for more than 60 years now. The only real variation on the character is that beginning in the 1980s, he was occasionally tinted with some wistfulness for his lost Krypton.
Over the years, that mild balefulness—which never achieves even a minor melancholy—has added a touch of depth. But it’s bas relief. The Superman most of us know and love, and certainly the Superman from Man of Steel, is the definitive version of the character.
That’s not the case with Batman, of whom there are (at least) six fairly distinct iterations:
1) When he was first introduced, Batman was basically a gentleman adventurer. He wore a smoking jacket while at his mansion and drove around in a fancy sports car. He dispatched his adversaries by tossing them off rooftops and was basically Allan Quatermain in a mask, for the Jazz Age.
2) He slowly evolved into an ace detective, pursuing a rogue’s gallery of outlandish villains, including the Joker and Two-Face. Thus inching him closer to the modern conception of the “superhero.”
3) Then, during the ’50s and’60s, he swerved into pure camp. (No, really. Rainbow Batman. The Bat Hombre. Bat-Mite. And that’s just the print stuff. Don’t get me started on the TV series.) This move very nearly killed the character, and DC toyed with cancelling the Batman books as their sales cratered. Yet today there remains a good deal of nostalgia for these years. So much so that last week DC launched a series grounded in that world, titled Batman ’66. The first issue of which is as cloying as it is insipid.
4) In the 1970s, Batman slowly shed the camp and turned serious, even sullen. The character became so taciturn that he left the Justice League and set up his own competing super team, “Batman and the Outsiders.” But Batman was such a martinet that his new super-teammates mutinied and the Outsiders continued on without him.