Imagine you're a kid again, playing with your Batman and Superman action figures. Of course you make them fight, because it's fun to act out all the ways they could pummel each other. Not only that, but you get to decide who wins.
Now imagine you're an adult. DC Comics and its parent company Time Warner have just asked you to write a movie script about Batman and Superman fighting. It's the quintessential comic book fan's dream gig! You sit down to start writing, but then you pause. Because now the most important question isn't who would win that fight ... it's why would they fight in the first place?
That's what many people will ask themselves going into the film "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" this weekend. But Batman and Superman have been fighting each other in our fiction for decades. This is just the biggest, latest spectacle.
There are dozens of lists out there, capturing every single time they've fought. Our favorite is by Graeme McMillan over at "The Hollywood Reporter." This isn't that. This isn't mind-controlled superheroes and temporary alternate universes. Instead let's look at the most interesting reasons these two heroes have fought, and what we got out of watching the spectacle.
1. World's Finest Comics # 151 (1965)
In "The Infinite Evolutions of Batman and Superman," the two are transformed by an evolutionary ray from Krypton. Batman evolves 800,000 years to be super-intelligent and high-brow, complete with an engorged cranium. Superman devolves into a caveman with a beard and limited grammar. They fight because Batman doesn't want anyone to rival his new supermind, in a classic bout of anti-intellectualism versus erudite snobbery.
2. World's Finest Comics #240 (1976)
When Superman is made the king of the shrunken Kryptonian city of Kandor, he becomes increasingly unstable. His new subjects call upon Batman to free them from Superman's tyranny. Is this a class uprising in revolution against royalism? Or just sci-fi zaniness?
3. World's Finest Comics #302 (1984)
An actor with a terminal illness decides to give the performance of his life by tricking the heroes into thinking he's two different aliens. Robin, Batgirl, Jimmy Olson and Supergirl all get involved, only to find that their mentors had seen through the hoax and decided to play along nicely. What's really interesting is how the actor attempts to deceive them, highlighting differences in what motivates the heroes. Batman thinks he's assisting an alien space cop hunting a dastardly criminal, while Superman believes he's defending an alien politician in exile from assassination.
4. The Dark Knight Returns #4 (1986)
The most obvious influence on "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," Frank Miller's revered story has an aging Batman return to active duty as an independent populist. Superman has become a tool of government authority and is branded as a fascist, a sell-out and a joke. They clash when the U.S. president sends Superman to end the Dark Knight's rise, and we get a 1980s vision of totalitarian oppression against self-reliant arrogance.
5. Man of Steel #3 (1986)
In John Byrne's reboot of Superman's origins, the writer reimagines the Last Son of Krypton's first meeting with Batman. Catching the Dark Knight beating up a criminal informant, Superman assumes he's an outlaw who should go to jail. But Batman bluffs his way out of arrest by claiming he's set a remote bomb to kill an innocent person. Labeling him an "inhuman monster," Superman later learns that the intended victim was Batman himself in testament to his "ends justify the means" approach. They part ways amicably, but not before discussing the effects of government corruption and the differences in their compassion for the mentally ill.
6. Batman #428 (1988)
After Robin is murdered by the Joker in the landmark "A Death in the Family" storyline, Batman chases his rival to the United Nations only to discover he's been appointed the new ambassador of Iran. Superman warns Batman of Joker's diplomatic immunity to defuse an international incident. This isn't really a fight per se, but Batman punches Superman in an outburst of grief and rage. Superman just rolls with it because he's a good friend. Not only does it bring up the Iran Hostage Crisis, but it highlights the conflicts between justice and the law.
7. Superman: The Animated Series, "World's Finest" (1997)
This animated movie tells yet another story of the duo's first meeting. It's pretty much everything you'd want from a team-up, including a brief spat where they argue over outlaw vigilantism after a brief scuffle. Most of their conflict, however, comes from Bruce Wayne's flirtations with Lois Lane, taunting Clark Kent because he already "had his chance" with her. But there's an underlying theme of corporate contributions to the military industrial complex, as Lex Luthor's weaponized robot spiders from a joint venture with Wayne Enterprises.
8. JLA #44 "Tower of Babel" (2000)
Batman villain Ra's al Ghul steals Batman's secret plans to defeat the Justice League of America, disabling these allies while he simultaneously confuses human brains by scrambling their language centers. To take down Superman, Batman has developed an experimental Red Kryptonite that cripples his cellular structure with transparent skin. The whole "Tower of Babel" story calls into question the stability of their relationship, with the secrets they keep and how they misjudge one another.
9. Lex Luthor: Man of Steel #3 (2005)
Lex Luthor manipulates Batman into mistrusting Superman. The conflict is a larger metaphor for Luthor's belief that no one should be born into greatness. Instead, he (and seemingly Bruce Wayne) argue for meritocracy over manifest destiny. Through this viewpoint, Superman is seen as a natural disaster waiting to happen.
10. Superman/Batman #78 (2011)
In a standalone story written by Joe Kelly called "Who Would Win?" two kids argue for their respective heroes in combat. Their imaginary version basically comes down to power versus preparation. Superman argues in favor of regulation, while Batman claims "there are no rules in war." In the end, everyone wins as the kids realize their friendship is more important than the competition. And the story features Batman hilariously saying, "So long as there's crime on the streets I have no time for nooky."