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.
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.
5) All of which set the stage for Frank Miller’s wholesale reinvention of the character in 1986 with the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. Every part of Miller’s Batman is formed in reaction to the murder of his parents, creating a character whose complications all arise from a stripped-down, yet coherent, set of motivations. He is, in increasing order of importance, a vigilante, a hero, and a monster.
Miller’s Batman was so evocative and powerful, that it has undergirded just about every depiction of Batman, in every medium, for 35 years. But not just Batman. You could argue that The Dark Knight Returns influenced just about every superhero comic written over the last two generations and that it is, alongside Siegel and Shuster’s creation of Superman in 1938, the most influential comic ever written.
(You can see Miller’s brush strokes in what might be my favorite Batman moment. In Brad Meltzer’s series Identity Crisis, Batman attempts to explain his existence, saying, “People think it’s an obsession. A compulsion. As if there were an irresistible impulse to act. It’s never been like that. I chose this life. I know what I’m doing. And on any given day, I could stop doing it. Today, however, isn’t that day. And tomorrow won’t be either.” There are a number of deep truths wrapped in this bit of self-justification, but the overarching conceit, of course, is a lie.)
6) Miller’s Batman was the definitive version of the character until Christopher Nolan cannily created a new one. With his cinematic Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan gave us a Batman that was superficially similar to the Miller Batman. He was angry and vengeful and obsessed with his parents’ murder. But beneath that was a weary man who was desperate to lay down his burden and run away to find love and a new life. Both the Miller and Nolan Batmen were created the night their parents were gunned down in Crime Alley. The rub is that Miller’s Batman can never change; and Nolan’s Batman desperately wants to. This may seem like a small distinction, but it creates an enormous difference.
So those are the Batmen available to pair with Superman for Zack Snyder’s new movie. History suggests that only one of them would be dramatically satisfying.
Superman and Batman have been teaming up since 1941, the minute DC Comics realized that it could put its two best-selling titles together and create a third book. They called the team-up “World’s Finest," and it utilized, at different stages, the first three iterations of Batman. The results were frequently embarrassing. Sometimes, unimaginably so.
The fourth version of Batman was paired with Superman throughout the ’70s and early ’80s both in later issues of World’s Finest and in the series Justice League of America. Using this slightly grittier Batman helped remove the rot of the camp era, but the stories were entirely forgettable, with no real substance or dramatic heft.
Thematic success didn't come until Jeph Loeb mixed the two in 2005 with a series titled, simply enough, Superman/Batman. Loeb begins with a short, 2-page, prologue showing a near-meeting of young Clark Kent with young Bruce Wayne. In just eight panels, it establishes the future dynamic of their characters and the tension that must always exist between them. For his part, Clark Kent admires Bruce Wayne and wishes only that he could find a way to help him overcome his demons. Batman, on the other hand, instinctually distrusts Superman’s power, and realizes that someone ought to be prepared to stop him.
Loeb, of course, was using Miller’s Batman. Because The Dark Knight Returns, didn’t just create a definitive Batman. It also established a philosophical conflict between Batman and Superman.
In Miller’s world, Superman and Batman embody two polar views of the human condition. Superman believes in the perfectibility of man and the eventual triumph of the City of God over the City of Man. Batman does not. In fact, he views even the City of Man as a tenuous achievement, and one which must be constantly defended against the depredations of human nature. He believes in the Enlightenment, but not in its inevitability. And because of this, he believes that an übermensch such as Superman is at least as much a threat to civilization as he is its savior.
This pairing is satisfying in a way that a team-up using the Nolan Batman could not be. Christopher Nolan’s Batman exists in a very different universe than Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. A movie that sought to bring them together would struggle for coherence, because Nolan’s Batman would ultimately welcome a Superman. Yet a Superman-Batman movie must have tension between the two characters if it’s going to have anything interesting to say.
So while the Nolan Batman is an interesting creation—and was used, in the Dark Knight trilogy, in service of two very Big Ideas—he will have to be jettisoned if the Superman-Batman movie is going to work. The good news is that Snyder's announcement suggests he intends to do just that.
If he does, the nerds—my people—will rejoice.