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Superman Vs. Batman: Who is the real "Man of Tomorrow"?

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

Both born in the Depression Era, Superman and Batman proved to be polar opposites from the start; one an outsider sent to save humanity, the other the pinnacle of human ability mental and physical. While the popularity of these two characters and their dominance in media has shifted time and again, in the final years of the 20th century and to the present day, encapsulating almost 25 years now, the scales have tipped clearly in the Batman’s favor. What happened? How did Superman, once billed as the “Man of Tomorrow” become almost anachronistic?

1983. Coming off the successes of the mostly-serious first two films, Superman III starring Christopher Reeve and Richard Pryor is released. While the highest profile credits; director, producers, writers and such, seemed unchanged, looking behind the scenes results in that stomach-dropping feeling that things are about to get worse. While Richard Lester is listed as the director of Superman II, pre-existing material from Richard Donner, the director of Superman, and Tom Mankiewicz, the “creative consultant” (we’ll get into this in a bit), help to form, or at the very least inform, the final product. New scenes had to be added to Superman II for Lester to claim sole director credit, and with Mankiewicz leaving with Donner, this task fell to the remaining credited writers, David and Leslie Newman. But again, these new scenes would be informed by what was already put to film. It’s easier to continue after someone has laid the groundwork for you than it is to build a house on your own. Looking back on the development of the Superman script will shed some light on this. Announced with the most fanfare as one can for a writing credit, perhaps even more so given this author’s prior box office hit, The Godfather, Mario Puzo received top billing as writer of both Superman and Superman II. Afterward, under the direction of then director Guy Hamilton, the script was reworked by the Newmans and Robert Benton. These passes of the script are widely accredited for injecting a lot of camp, for example Lex Luthor eating Kleenexes or Superman swooping down and grabbing Telly Savalas by mistake. Circumstances forced Hamilton’s exit and enter Richard Donner. Donner brought in Mankiewicz to overhaul the script, in which much of the camp was excised though as is present in the final product, some still remains. For that, Mankiewicz was given the above “creative consultant” credit. All that makes it sound like I’m getting off point, but here’s the pay off. The two major proponents of “verisimilitude” were gone. With their departure, the return of camp was inevitable.

Stepping out of the comic-sphere though, this shouldn’t be unexpected. After all, again, we’re talking early 80s here. Comics were still regarded as children’s entertainment and while social commentary and more complex themes were not completely alien to comics, this maturity was not nearly as widespread as it is now. So, under this social conceit, the creative people now directly involved without counterbalance and the pressure from the mere presence of an A-list comedic talent in Pryor, in hindsight it’s not much of a surprise Superman III turned out as it did. The rift between box office returns and critical panning suggest that most viewers went in based on the quality of the first two films and, with those returns, showed that there was still money to be made from this franchise.

1987. Reviewing Superman IV: The Quest for Peace really is like trying to beat up someone that’s already in a coma. Instead, let’s look and see what happened. Christopher Reeve wanted Superman to become topical. By this point, in the comic world, we’ve gone through the Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot. Frank Miller, Alan Moore and others were reshaping the way people looked at and read comics. The aforementioned social stigma associated with the comic medium was shifting, pulling its way out of “kids’ stuff”. Under these circumstances, Reeve’s desire for the character fits in with the times. Still, you know what they say about good intentions. Moving past the core of what ended up being the script, Superman IV ends up offering us nothing new in regards to its story. Every beat of the story can be traced back to something that occurred in the previous three films, from the green crystal, flying with Lois, fighting a doppelganger to using the very non-Superman powers first displayed at the end of Lester’s theatrical cut of Superman II (telekinesis, for example). Granted a film can survive this if it excels in all or most of the other areas. Sadly, Superman IV fails here as well. The Salkinds, producers of the first three films, sold their rights to Cannon Films, who were most noted for low budget films. Cannon, it’s safe to say from both their history and what ended up on the screen, simply were not prepared for the cost needed to make the special effects of a Superman film work. Lastly, as one can certainly go on and on, to tie in with the shift in comic book culture, the writers and filmmakers were guilty of continuing to write a pre-Crisis Superman in the post-Crisis age. Of course, this wouldn’t make much difference to the majority of moviegoers, as they would’ve fallen outside of comic culture, but to start with the kernel of an idea of a more mature Superman only to then step backward was a missed opportunity. As everyone knows, the movie tanked and people moved on.

1989. The spreading appeal of works such as The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One leads to looking beyond Superman and to DC Comics’ then number two hero, Batman. Darker in tone, coinciding both with the character and the post-Crisis world, the writers behind the Batman film avoided the camp of the 60s TV show. Like the first Superman film in 1978, the first Batman film benefited from a script that took itself seriously, tight direction, cutting edge effects for the time and an excellent ensemble cast. And again, as with the first Superman film, wild success followed…as did sequels. The success of the first film allowed Tim Burton more freedom with the sequel Batman Returns. Although successful as well, Batman Returns ended up splitting both critics and viewers. Had the material become too dark, too weird, too Burton-y? These are arguments that continue to this day. Still, the film proved successful enough for not only a sequel but also an animated series for Saturday morning. Here, we come to a fork in the road. Batman: The Animated Series would continue on to become not only a classic on its own, but also to spawn a Superman series, Batman Beyond, a futuristic take on the hero and, of course, Justice League. The films, however, like Superman before, would begin their downward spiral.

By the close of the 1990s, two more Batman films had been produced; Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Batman Forever introduced a new Batman as well as new creative staff behind the camera. This was the result of both the studio reacting to the debate over Batman Returns and creative fatigue on the part of Burton and Keaton (as well as other factors I’m sure). Here, the film series begins to falter due to a classic case of overcompensation. The studio wanted, and director Joel Schumacher delivered, a film lighter in tone. Strangely, there are many things that are parallel between this third Batman outing and Superman III; the pressure of the presence of an A-list comedian (Jim Carrey and Richard Pryor), a change of writers and directors that leads to an incredible shift in tone and, perhaps most telling, the rift between box office draw and critical opinion. This last similarity led to the same trap that brought us Superman IV…there was still money to be made. Thus, Batman & Robin flew into production. To risk sounding like a broken record, reviewing Batman & Robin is, again, like beating up someone that’s in a coma. In a way, its problem ends up being the opposite of what felled Superman IV. Too much money was thrown at it with the expectation that it would pull down the same amount of box office windfall as its predecessors. Given the box office return on Forever, studio executives felt that the new tone was what audiences wanted and let the pendulum’s momentum continue. The problem is, this brought Batman right back to what the 1989 film’s production tried so desperately to avoid; camp. It went back to pre-Crisis in a post-Crisis world, and at this point, the readership for comic books had aged and matured far more than back in Superman IV’s day. And so, another franchise fizzled out.

In the background, ever since the success of the first Batman film, Warner Bros. was looking for a way to return Superman to the big screen. While those attempts could fill a book all their own, especially the Tim Burton/Nicholas Cage headlining attempt, none of them gained enough traction to being filming, falling apart at various stages of production.

2001. It almost seems obligatory, doesn’t it? Watch any special feature on any DC comics DVD that deals with recent productions and there’s always that moment when Publisher Dan Didio comes on talking about the major cultural impact of September 11th, 2001. And of course, there was a cultural shift. Some aspects of which have been talked about repeatedly. However, this shift also impacted the relationship between society and the two heroes that are the subject of this article. As mentioned at the start, these two were born in the Great Depression and on the ramp up to World War II. Many historical commentators point to this time as a time when Americans didn’t know whether or not their way of life could survive. And while both Batman and Superman were born from this crucible, it was Superman that was widely embraced. Why? Well, everyone would produce their own answers. I would speculate that people latched on to Superman because he was the embodiment of what they were not. He was powerful. Nothing could stop him. He fought for social justice, tearing down slums with his bare hands and taking on corrupt government officials. Batman was just solving mysteries. Now back to 2001. America is attacked on its own soil. Thousands die. Once again, it seems as though the American way of life is under attack. Clearly, we’re not invincible…at least, not anymore. And any notion of invincibility seems either at best quaint, or at worst, foolishly and recklessly naïve. Instead, the public wants vengeance and dons a mentality that the ends justify the means. So the notion of “Truth, Justice and the American Way”…which was already considered to be dated in our cynical times was completely dropped. Clark Kent and his alter ego no longer symbolized American sentiment, thus losing his title of “the Man of Tomorrow”. One could argue, rather successfully, that this happened back in the 80’s. Sure. But 9/11 had most Americans, just as Bruce Wayne did back in 1938, swearing a candlelight oath to make war on all criminals…which, of course, included terrorists.

The way events unfolded after that day only helped to cement the fact that Superman had become the Man of Yesterday and Batman the Man of Tomorrow. Superman was unequaled might in the service of right. That worked in the WWII and Cold War context. The enemies were clear and we had the Atom Bomb and increasing technological advancements. But pure might doesn’t serve well in Afghanistan. Just ask the Russians. In addition, well, that’s the thing with terrorists, the enemy IS NOT clearly defined. Instead, covert methods are needed…the power that comes from being in the shadows. Batman.

This is reflected in the films that came into this post-9/11 world and how audiences reacted to them. Batman Begins arrived on theatre screens in the summer of 2005 with Superman following a year later in the summer of 2006. Now, for some arithmetic…Batman Begins ends up pulling in a total worldwide gross box office of approximately $374 million, Superman Returns pulls in $391 million. Well, that looks good for Superman, right? Looking deeper tells a different story. Batman did better domestically than in foreign markets whereas Superman did about equally in both. Ultimately what did Superman in was the budget. Batman only cost $150 million to make, Superman $270 million. Batman was more profitable. To drive home that point, the sequel to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, pulled in just over a billion dollars worldwide, whereas Superman Returns earned the ire of the very vocal internet, in spite of mostly favorable reviews from critics. There are a lot of reasons, just within the film, why Superman Returns didn’t take off…and believe me, I’ll definitely go into that in another article, but to continue in the theme of this current article, Batman better reflected the times, whereas Superman was still trying to put an end to Lex Luthor’s crazy real estate schemes. Batman Begins, as well as the two other films that followed, had not only embraced the realism of DC’s post-Crisis era but also the reality of the post 9/11 American culture. Superman Returns, however, was caught pondering mature, philosophical and unanswerable questions all the while being stuck in the original 1978 movie’s pre-Crisis timeline. And so, Batman would get a full trilogy in by the time a rebooted Man of Steel took flight.

And even in the aftermath of Man of Steel it seems like there’s no way for Superman to escape the shadow of the Bat. With the movie’s success, a sequel to Man of Steel was green-lit pretty quickly…but there’s a catch. The sequel was to be Superman vs. Batman (or whatever they end up calling it). This can be taken in one of two ways: either Warners wanted to fast-track their way to a Justice League film in order to compete with what Marvel Studios has been doing with The Avengers or, as one could safely infer from what’s been brought up in this article, that maybe the suits at Warner Bros simply don’t have the confidence that Superman can sustain a franchise of his own…that he needs Batman’s help if he’s going to stay in the public eye. In fact, a passage from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, where Batman, using kryptonite and powered armor, had just finished beating Superman was used to unveil the project. Since then, filmmakers have set out to say that while this scene will not happen in the movie and that it was simply used to set up the adversarial tone between the two characters that will exist in the film, it makes it clear who the audience is pulling for…who the real Man of Tomorrow is.

I could close with a bunch of social commentary and what have you. Instead, I leave you with some simple comparisons between the two heroes. Superman soars above the clouds, Batman lurks in the shadows. Superman inspires hope, Batman instills fear. Superman’s Metropolis symbolizes that the world will get to be a better place while Batman’s Gotham shows us that we’ll be lucky to even keep civilization afloat amid all the corruption. Of course, Batman’s world better reflects our own, but is that what we want of our dreams and aspirations? Just to keep our heads above water? Or do we want things to be better, to strive for the ideal…even though we may never get there? Given how the “American Way” has become more in line with Batman’s way of doing things, sadly the answer appears to be obvious. So decrees our “Man of Tomorrow”.

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