It’s the fight that has often defined the very nature of DC’s two best-known heroes for a generation. It’s the fight that stretched each character’s combat potential to its very limits. It’s been referenced, applauded and adapted again and again over decades.
We’re talking about the epic conclusion to the seminal 1986 Frank Miller comic book classic—the fight between Superman and Batman at the very end of The Dark Knight Returns.
For those who may have grown up in a post-Dark Knight world, the idea of Superman and Batman being at odds and even coming to blows strikes about as natural as everything else they’ve done. Superman is all about bringing justice in the sunlight of day with reassuring power and a welcoming smile. Batman represents striking vengeance in the night, combining his vast intelligence and willpower to wage war on his city’s criminals. They’re light and dark, natural opposites, and as such, it’s unsurprising that they’d be at odds.
But for those who had read DC comic books for the fifty years prior to Dark Knight Returns, a depiction of the Superman/Batman relationship as anything other than the best of friends was downright shocking. Since 1941, readers would see the two heroes smiling side-by-side on the cover and in the pages of World’s Finest Comics. These happy images of Superman and Batman (and Robin) hanging out, competing at sports and working together informed decades of what became one of the strongest friendships in comics. Back then, it only made perfect sense. Superman had the supreme power and Batman had the supreme intellect. Crime, no matter how hard it fought back, couldn’t stand a chance.
Together, Superman and Batman’s friendship was seen as the bedrock of DC’s world of heroes. So, what happened?
The Reason to Fight
In 1986, Frank Miller wrote and illustrated what is now seen as one of the best comics ever published—Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Its conceit is that in the modern day, Bruce Wayne is fifty-five years old and has been retired as Batman for over ten years after the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. Gotham has sunken further into criminality and chaos, with its super-villain fraternity replaced by a gang of violent young punks known as “The Mutants.” DC’s other superheroes have largely vanished from the public after increased scrutiny from the world at large led to a general fear of their existence.
When this older Bruce has a spiritual reawakening and returns as Batman, the public reaction is loud and immediate. Initially Gotham’s citizens come to love and praise his reignited war on crime, as the Mutants are publicly defeated and their leftover members fashion themselves into the “Sons of the Batman,” a gang that follows Gotham’s legendary protector rather than the destructive Mutant leader. Before long however, the government grows concerned and President Ronald Reagan enlists Superman—who has been working exclusively for the American government over the past decade as a purchased agent—to publicly put down Batman.
Superman, who had warned Bruce that he would be called in to stop Batman sooner or later, arrives in Gotham hoping to reason with his former friend. But Batman, adorned in a fully plated and electronically charged protective armor, is more than happy to give the Man of Steel everything he has before his aging body finally gives out on him.
Both contenders have mindsets going into the fight. Superman, despite resenting Batman’s stubbornness and unwillingness to listen to anyone, would rather not pound him into jelly. He resents being used by the government and knows that if it weren’t him going after Batman, someone else would. As such, he’s hoping to inflict the bare minimum of pain. Just enough to bring Bruce to his senses.
Batman, however, has been waiting for this. He’s completely disgusted by Superman acquiescing to the government and maintains that those with the power to do what they were born to do should use that power how they see fit. He also knew that eventually the government would send Superman to destroy him, so he comes into the battle with contingencies he put into place years ago. His armor is protective and designed to boost his offensive capabilities, which he unleashes when Superman’s in a weakened state after having survived a nuclear warhead.
There’s also the arsenal Batman throws at Superman, though it’s repeatedly made clear these serve as distractions more than anything. With Carrie Kelley’s Robin piloting the Batmobile (now reconfigured as a gigantic tank), Superman is hit with a missile that’s said could sink a battleship, but it’s barely even felt by him. Batman attempts to shoot acid into his face and hurl grenades at him yield even less impressive results.
Some of Bruce’s arsenal proves effective. Batman fires a sonic weapon—a terrifying device that shatters every piece of glass in the surrounding area, giving Superman a nosebleed. He also manages to stun him by electrocuting his face with the power diverted from a nearby electrical outlet and fitted to his suit. These are momentary victories though, as Superman quickly dispatches these weapons once they’re used. The sonic gun is destroyed and Batman’s armor is dismantled in the blink of an eye once Superman realizes he’s taking punishment. In seconds, Superman effortlessly breaks Batman’s wrist and three of his ribs.
Batman’s last trick is a synthesized version of kryptonite, delivered via arrowhead courtesy of Oliver Queen, the former Green Arrow who is implied to have felt Superman’s governmentally sanctioned wrath some years back. The kryptonite weakens Superman enough to take some more hits and bleed profusely, but he’s still able to sense Batman’s rapid heart rate, which begins to go into overtime. Just as Batman has the Man of Steel by the throat, he suffers a heart attack and collapses into his opponent’s arms.
Aftermath and Legacy
In the end, Batman’s supposed death was revealed to be a ruse—something to get the government to stop worrying about him. Superman realizes this and wordlessly agrees to the secret. Batman, Robin, Green Arrow and the Sons of the Batman continue their war on crime in secret, underground and hidden in the shadows.
But that’s in the context of the Dark Knight Returns story. Outside of this Elseworlds alternate universe, Superman and Batman’s relationship changed dramatically. Beginning with John Byrne’s The Man of Steel #3, the dynamic of the World’s Finest team shifted to one where Superman started seeing Batman as a more antagonistic crimefighter who blatantly operates outside of the law. Batman’s appraisal of Superman grew over the years into a wariness of the devastating potential he had for destruction should his mental faculties ever become compromised by evil. Their friendship started over from scratch, beginning with an uneasy partnership and hard-built trust, but indeed a trust built over time.
In Action Comics #654, Superman trusts Batman with a piece of Kryptonite, should he ever be used by someone else against the Earth. The two would work together on the various iterations of the Justice League and reveal to each other their secret identities years before they would to other members of the Leagues.
In other words, their friendship did return, but with it was a distinctive wariness and distaste for each other’s methods paired with a reluctant respect. Superman would offer his assistance in various Batman storylines such as “Bruce Wayne: Fugitive” and “No Man’s Land,” while Batman would mourn his friend when he was temporarily killed by the monster Doomsday and attended his funeral. When Lex Luthor, president of the United States, went mad with power, Batman helped Superman bring him down. Despite their differences, the World’s Finest Team remained DC’s best duo, no matter how much they differed in their respective outlooks.
But it’s no longer an easy alliance and nowhere has this been clearer than when they’re brought to the screen. In the three-part Superman: The Animated Series episode “World’s Finest,” Batman and Superman meet and come to blows before working together to stop Lex Luthor and the Joker. Their pre-1986 friendship and Dark Knight Returns battle was later brought to life in the Silver Age-styled series Batman: The Brave and the Bold, in the episode “Battle of the Super-Heroes!” Most famously, their famous comic book battle was brought to life in a way that was clearly influenced by Frank Miller’s book in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, complete with Bat-Armor and Kryptonite gas. Heck, even the DC comedies got in on the action. Batman and Superman’s fight was even referenced and parodied in Lego Batman, Robot Chicken and Teen Titans GO!
More than any other hero/villain battle or hero vs. hero fight, DC’s top two titans stand alone as having a match so indelible to the masses, that it’s influenced their depictions throughout various iterations and media. A hard fought battle between two friends, the compelling nature and circumstances of the fight keeps it as arguably not only DC’s most famous battle, but the most famous fight in all of comics.
Batman Day 2022 is on Saturday, September 17th. For more information, along with exclusive videos, features, articles and more celebrating the Dark Knight, visit our official Batman Day page.
Donovan Morgan Grant writes about comics, graphic novels and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @donoDMG1.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Donovan Morgan Grant and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.