“Who would win in a fight – Wolverine or Martian Manhunter?”
So went the classic comic book store conversation, fans’ need to compare and re-imagine their favourite superheroes turning into offbeat and imaginative fights of fancy. Characters who’d never really come into conflict or even meet would be thrown against each other in endless hypothetical battles, with complex sequences of moves and use of superpowers discussed in great detail by the juvenile experts in the local Forbidden Planet. God, I loved it.
But nowadays, I’d quite happily never think about another superheroic clash in my life. It was fun back then to ponder these ideas, because they would never actually go anywhere – but fast forward a few years and those clashes are serious business. You can’t swing a cape at the moment without hitting some battling superheroes, with Batman v Superman dragging itself to the cinemas this weekend, Daredevil currently duking it out with The Punisher on Netflix and Chris Evans’ campaign against Robert Downey Jnr and his cronies soon to hit screens in Captain America: Civil War
In comics this trend has been going on even longer, whether it’s the 2006 Civil War comic Marvel’s latest is based on, the more recent Avengers vs X-Men miniseries or any number of one-off stories over the years where heroes turn on each other over temporary disagreements. Overall, what was once an idle topic of conversation has become a mini-genre worth millions of dollars.
Of course, the appeal of these stories is obvious – apart from the bombast and excitement of any fight between superpowered beings, and the question of the outcome, there’s also an extra frisson and taboo from seeing good guys battle, friends become enemies and the simple lines of good vs evil sliding into morally ambiguous territory.
But in my mind it’s become a lazy excuse for drama, bringing a medium capable of telling complex and emotional stories down to the level of “my dad can beat up your dad”. Superheroes are supposed to stand for something better than base human urges but increasingly they act like thugs, solving disputes by beating their rivals into submission.
Of course this wouldn’t necessarily matter if these were compelling stories, but for the most part these sort of clashes generate nothing but cheap shocks. Batman’s longtime rivalry with Superman might be held up as some kind of ideological conflict, but in their newly-released film this is tossed aside and a much more tenuous excuse for their battle is wheeled out. In the end no great questions are resolved or conclusions reached, they just stop fighting.
Meanwhile, we can already assume the upcoming Civil War is likely to have little impact on the Marvel cinematic universe considering that they’re all teaming up again for two-part epic Avengers: Infinity War, and the “great conflict” between the military oversight-favouring Iron Man and the libertarian-ish Captain America is hardly a well-developed, organic musing on governance that’ll open all our minds to new ideas.
In fact, crowbarring the conflict in has necessitated an awkward reversal of the film characters’ natural positions (Captain America likes being given orders, and Iron Man is a cool maverick) in order to make the comic adaptation work. Evolution of characters’ opinions is one thing, but having them conveniently SWAP opinions is another.
And even when it comes to comic books, few fans would number Civil War, Avengers Vs X-men or most other hero fights on their list of favourite stories once the initial fun shock value of seeing them battle wore off. It’s become a tired trope, and one that seems increasingly cynical as it pops up again and again and AGAIN.
The one exception could be Frank Miller’s near-sacred 1986 Batman story The Dark Knight Returns, which features a brawl between Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent that was the key inspiration behind the new Dawn of Justice movie – but The Dark Knight Returns’ tale of old age, corruption and brutal justice is about so much more than that one fight, which only lasts a few pages in a single issue.
In fact, if Miller had written an entire comic book about Batman and Superman just fighting, it wouldn’t have become the classic it is today, and ironically Batman vs Superman would almost certainly not have been made – at least not in its current form. Miller’s fight works because it has both emotional truth and narrative purpose – a desperate, near-psychotic future Batman taking on government stooge Superman partly to stage his own death – but its success seems to have spawned a generation of copycat fight stories that have neither of those good qualities.
The cumulative effect of all this in-fighting is that superheroes look less like protectors of the world and more like mobsters, taking down rivals who oppose their way of doing things in order to keep their power and control. What separates them from the supervillains they’re supposed to oppose, or even any random person committing assault on another? To use an analogy of real-world crimefighters, how often do you see different police forces have occasional bloody turf wars because they don’t like their colleagues’ methods?
Of course, the argument can be made that superheroes can’t be compared to cops – Batman vs Superman in particular makes the case that they should be treated more like gods (some heroes like Thor and Hercules literally are deities). In the legends of ancient cultures powerful, dynamic figures were always duking it out while watching over humanity, and what are heroes like Batman and Superman but our own versions of these tempestuous, mythical characters?
I don’t buy this, though – superheroes shouldn’t be like gods, at least not any more. Superman may have inspired America with his ultimate power in the 1940s, but for over 50 years the comic book world has been ruled by characters like Batman and Spider-Man instead. And the reason for their success is that they’re resolutely human, from Batman’s psychological trauma to Spider-Man’s struggle to balance his personal life with his deeper problems (and inability to turn up on time to parties, which we can all relate to).
And if superheroes are supposed to be human, then we have to ask – would we solve disagreements by beating the crap out of each other? And would we respect those who do?
I don’t mean to be a buzzkill here – I love a great big superhero fight as much as the next person who wasted their formative years in Forbidden Planet – but I just feel like any merit this oft-repeated story once had is long exhausted by now, with diminishing returns every time it’s trotted out. It becomes almost patronizing –“What, how can these HEROES be fighting EACH OTHER?!?!?!” – when we’ve seen it countless times and its no longer surprising or interesting.
In future, it’d be great to see something different in superhero movies – because in my mind, when our heroes start fighting each other we all lose.
Though I still maintain that Martian Manhunter would DESTROY Wolverine…