Feature artwork by Cap Blackard (Purchase Prints + More)
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Art is subjective. Music and movies aren’t about competition; they’re about artistic expression. Well, for those of you who know better than to believe those lies, welcome to another installment of Vs. This time, in the spirit of the upcoming Batman v Superman showdown, we pit different generations of Batmen and Supermen against each other to finally determine who is the World’s Finest.
May, 1939. June, 1938. Within a year of each other, the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel came into being. Batman and Superman have been interpreted a lot of different ways in the nearly 80 years since they came into being, by a lot of different faces. Icons of the American comic book industry have worked on one or both characters, whether writers or artists or the many other minds that bring the collective dreams of decade after decade of reader to life.
And all that started long before the filmic adaptations began. Since then, many actors have donned the cape and cowl, or the cape and tights, and to wildly varied returns. Some performances hit the mark, others didn’t, and still more found notes to hit with the characters that audiences had never seen or imagined before. Batman has been a do-gooder and a brooding near-antihero and a madman and a Lothario. Superman has been imagined as a true hero, a complicated symbol of social upheaval, a living legend, and, on one unfortunate occasion, an alcoholic.
With just a week left until the long-awaited Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice reaches theaters, we at CoS decided to imagine some all-time matchups from the filmic (and televisual) corners of the DC Universe, pitting Batman against Superman through the ages. Truly, this is a debate that will never be entirely settled, not even after Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill wage the latest battle between superheroes. But that won’t stop us from giving it a shot anyway, and we’re sure it won’t stop any of you from continuing the battle long after our remarks have been made.
In this battle of heroes, who will emerge as the World’s Finest?
Adam West v George Reeves
Here you go. The original knockouts, the first of DC’s finest onscreen. In black trunks, at a lanky 6’2” and weighing in at an assumed 180, Adam West is the Dork Knight, Batman. And in red undies, although it’s kinda hard to tell in the black-and-white television era, George Reeves is the ultimate do-gooder, Superman. It’s the iron jaw versus the flat tummy. The Bat-Dancer against the pajama man who jumps out windows. Who wins here? Who’s the better DC proto-hero?
Gloves up to West and Reeves for stepping out in a big way with their iconic incarnations of DC’s duo. These two had real courage (as far as acting goes, anyway) for getting in front of cameras and somehow making mass-appealing magic out of odd men in tight costumes, tapping into then-under-realized franchising potential. The two busted crime and filled air time with their respective original television series, and Reeves and West have endured in the pop canon for their classic incarnations. Tonally, the two actors displayed reverence for their respective comic origins, although their shows couldn’t have felt more different.
Adventures of Superman debuted on ABC in 1952 in black-and-white to commercial acclaim, and lasted for 104 episodes (long enough to eventually be broadcast in color TV in full blue-and-red glory). Reeves, with his twinkling smile and can-do attitude, pretty much set up the model for how to be Superman. Winking, but not cutesy. Barrel-chested and bigger-than-life in his cape, yet polite and adorably timid as Clark Kent. Reeves was classy all the way and perfect in the role, and in a time when comics were strictly kids’ stuff, Reeves elevated the material to giddy highs. He was like John Wayne in a sense, or maybe even a Hardy Boy, helping folks out with gumption and stoicism.
Reeves braved modern life in Metropolis while palling around with his cutie pie Lois Lane and dumb surrogate Jimmy Olsen. But this Superman was all about helping trapped dogs or sailors. This Superman stopped robbers, crooked politicians, plane crashes, and even asteroids. But Superman also had time to help prize horses (seriously, in Season 4’s opener, “Joey”) and solve lighthouse mysteries (Season 1). This was before comic adaptations as battles. There was no Lex or Kryptonite poisoning; Superman was just a really great fella, doing his job well, and Reeves embodied an aw-shucks, bygone-era fortitude. He did everything but dance…
Fast forward to 1966. Superman had already flown away in 1958. Batman swung onto the airwaves on ABC, and it was a goofy, great show. Taking a literal, almost Roy Lichtenstein-like cue from the comics, famed writer Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s take on Gotham’s good guy was hysterically corny, and has endured for its camp qualities and screwball sensibilities. Today Batman can’t be discussed without the words “parents” or “dead,” but in ’66, Adam West was a nut for all intents and purposes. And he was sublimely silly. One second, Batman’s wiggling fingers in front of Jill St. John. The next, Batman’s cracking jaws and dropping onomatopoeias. And then right after all that, Batman’s apprehending famed director Otto Preminger as he’s dressed down as Mr. Freeze. It was all so much, and West bathed in the colorful glow of retro playboy shenanigans. ’66 Batman has lasted for its cheeky ways, and even recently inspired a new DC homage comic based on the old show. While it could be purported that West inspired the dumb-ass romps of Joel Schumacher and worked to lower the esteem of comic adaptations in a way, there’s no denying how sensational he made being the Batman look. This Batman, as West once put it on The Simpsons, was “Pure. West.”
While both Reeves and West had single-film forays (Superman and the Mole-Men and Batman: The Movie, respectively), they’re both best appreciated as TV superstars. While the characters had been adapted in various forms before, Reeves and West truly were the first big things in the world of Superman and Batman adaptations.
World’s Finest: George Reeves
Michael Keaton v Christopher Reeve
The age of cinematic superheroes truly began with these two.
Two cinematic titans lifted and held the superhero film torch for decades before the days of shared universes and cross-branding: Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie and Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Both were influential tentpoles for the superhero genre in different ways: Superman showed that superhero films in general could be successful, crowd-pleasing special-effects blockbusters, while Batman proved that the same success could come from ambitiously dark and eccentric takes on comic book crime fighters.
When Superman: The Movie hit screens in 1978, its marketing made the ambitious promise that, after seeing it, “you will believe a man can fly.” While that campaign promise held true with Superman’s impeccable mix of then-groundbreaking special effects and John Williams’ stirring score, at the center of it all was Christopher Reeve’s iconic performance as Superman. Volumes have been written about the inherently uncomplicated nature of Superman as a hero, and Reeve admittedly takes that to its furthest extent in the Donner films.
Reeve’s Supes is a tried-and-true Golden Age hero through and through, with a smile cheesier than a Wisconsin dinner table and the kind of confident line delivery you’d expect from the old Max Fleischer cartoons. Reeve essentially plays Superman like Cary Grant with a cape, and it gels perfectly with Donner’s old-fashioned aesthetic. After all, this is a film where Superman can just spin the world backwards in time to save Lois Lane from a car crash and a minute later drop off Lex Luthor at a federal prison to await a “fair trial.” Reeve’s Superman, like the Donner films, exists in a world where the compass of justice always points north, and problems are solved through the sheer will of American morality.
While Reeve’s Superman represented the onetime American ideals of both the immigrant experience and the inherent authenticity of small-town, Midwestern values, Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne offered a more distant, complicated hero. While Reeve is front and center in his Superman films, Keaton lurks in the periphery of Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, his furrowed brow and steely eyes doing most of the work while showier villains like Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Danny DeVito’s Penguin take center stage.
This doesn’t diminish Keaton’s power as Wayne, though; Burton’s distance from the character works well to keep him as a tortured, Charles Foster Kane-like soul, making his own motivations as impenetrable to us as they are to the other characters in the films. Far from the gee-whiz breeziness and the chiseled jaw of Reeve, Keaton’s comic sensibilities make him a gleeful maniac in some of Batman’s best scenes (“You wanna get nuts!” he manically screams at Nicholson’s Joker. “Come on … let’s get nuts!”). These moments of chaos give us a glimpse of the kind of troubled mind that made him Batman in the first place.
One way to judge the legacy of these two performances is to recognize the approaches that came in their respective wakes. Reeve’s wide-eyed enthusiasm can be seen in Dean Cain’s more laconic, laid-back portrayal of the character in the long-running ’90s TV show The Adventures of Lois and Clark. Meanwhile, Keaton’s successors in the Batman film series, under the supervision of Joel Schumacher, never quite captured that dark, dangerous magic. Both Val Kilmer and George Clooney turn Bruce Wayne into funhouse-mirror versions of themselves (Kilmer the self-serious ham, Clooney the smirking Lothario), but were both undeniably influenced by Keaton’s own tenure as the World’s Greatest Detective. In many ways, the Schumacher films owe more to the 1960s TV show, though they expand upon Burton’s Gothic leather-daddy aesthetics.
Both Reeve and Keaton left indelible marks on the superhero world, setting the molds for the two major approaches that superhero films would take. Reeve’s traditional approach gave his Superman the breeziness we expect out of modern Marvel movies, while Keaton’s brilliantly sociopathic performance created the mold of the dark, gritty superhero we’ve come to expect with Batman. Because of these shades of madness, and the comparatively complex material he had to work with, Keaton narrowly wins out.
World’s Finest: Michael Keaton