By Paul Casey
Ben Affleck is Batman. Commence some teeth gnashing about how he lacks the essential nature of the character, followed by oppositionist chatter in favor. Here’s the thing, though: it doesn’t matter one bit who you cast in this Superman/Batman crossover. You can have Michael Keaton return to play an elderly and run down Frank Miller-style Bruce Wayne, or convince Christian Bale to lose all of his sense and diminish the great work he did with Christopher Nolan. You can give George Clooney another shot unhampered by a bad movie, or you can agree that Michael Fassbender is amazing in everything and just hire him. Superman/Batman remains an inherently bad idea, regardless of how it is executed and there are decades worth of comic books that confirm it.
This is how it goes: DC Comics decides that a Big Event is necessary to get their sales back to where they want them to be. The reason why characters have to cross over into each other’s titles is not important, only that you get that cover with Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman arm in arm fighting yetis or God(s) or Sasquatch or Scooby Doo. It is important that the Big Event has grave ramifications which will alter the very nature of reality to make the prospect of buying the excruciating number of tangentially related issues appear more reasonable.
Certain comic book fans like to pretend that Superman and Batman have chemistry, that the times when they wind up on the same page are more than a shabby attempt to prod dollaroos from oily-fingered fans. Superman and Batman are no more creatively suited a pair than Batman and Scooby Doo, and very possibly less.
Scooby Doo and his buddies live to debunk the supernatural, after all. In every episode the gang deflates the spurious claims of fairground owners, faux-vampires, faux-werewolves, and most faux varieties of monsters. The bad things do not come from out there in space or through another dimension. They come from within the brains of hucksters. Those willing to take advantage of the credulous are the threat. Like Batman they have an appreciation for detective work, and the importance of having a think before resorting to destruction of an entire city in order to pinch a few bad guys. They work within their limitations, and the writers and artists who create their adventures are expected to do the same.
Philosophically, Superman and Batman have nothing in common. Batman was created specifically to counter the notion that a super hero had to be something bordering on a God. His nature as a character and the parameters that determine everything significant about his world come from his mortality. The notion that he is a hero is reliant on that fact. The villains he fights are almost entirely geared towards the idea that in Gotham City, there are no Gods, there are no folks who can bend time or create alternate realities. The Joker is a good match for Batman because he exists within that same framework. His power over the people of Gotham has nothing to do with the supernatural but with the nature of terrorism, as shown so brilliantly by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.
Even those who do stretch into the realm of the fantastic, like Clayface or R’as Al Ghul, are seen as exceptions from the nature of the world. There is some shock at mortality being twisted though, importantly, not entirely removed. When Superman comes to visit, Batman is suddenly weary at the notion of yet another God/alien/vibrating hypnotic butt cheek who can sing Cole Porter tunes. “Oh Jesus, who is it this time? Oh, he has created a version of me that can fly through the sun? Which means I can also fly through the sun and use the sun as my base of operations? Wait here, just let me get my Kryptonite underwear in case we need to fuck.” The intrigue to be found in Batman’s world is made mundane with a flick of Superman’s cape.
When you put Superman with Batman, you need to do one of two things. Either you raise Batman up to Superman’s level or you bring Superman down to Batman’s level. There are very, very few examples of the latter. People want to see Superman fly, spin the world around, and fight a volcano. They want to be lifted up and told that everything is going to be okay. Superman should never be a cynical character or used to tell cynical stories. He is a joyously life-affirming character, which is why some people have such a hard time stomaching him. A great Superman story has to disregard all calls for reality and craft something that provokes that feeling of childhood and the ability to believe in something that you wish were true but know is not. It is a belief in the basic goodness of life.
The only genuinely successful use of Batman and Superman together are those that subvert and alter the essential nature of their characters. Frank Miller looks on Superman as a fascist in The Dark Knight Returns, and because it is a Batman story which exists outside of continuity, Superman can be Bruce Wayne’s ultimate challenge. Superman is perverted and altered to fit the story. Then you have something like Mark Millar’s Red Son, which pulls much the same trick and makes Batman fit into a Superman story, again outside of continuity. As with DKR, Batman is a dissident, fighting against a corrupt system but is this time used to emphasize something about the nature of Superman. Both stories also show why continuity so frequently harms creativity. These stories are not playing. There needs to at least be the possibility that Superman can fail. That The Joker can be defeated. Defeated as in dead. Dead as in not coming back a few issues later. There needs to be the possibility that Batman can die. Die as in not coming back a few issues later.
In both stories, Batman and Superman have some elements of their character that are recognizable, but none of those other elements which conflict with the telling of the story. If Mark Millar had to pretend that Batman could match up with Superman in a fight because of some dubious creative get-out-of-jail card—he’s smarter somehow! He tied some Kryptonite to a balloon!—the story of Superman as an all-powerful God aiding a corrupt regime could not have been told. Superman would have been diminished to ensure that fans of both characters felt their chosen team was getting the respect they deserved. Think of it in the same way as two agents fighting for their client’s screen time, making sure that they get the right billing on the poster and that their client gets to appear as strong and likable as the other star. DC does not want to alienate either fanbase, because the only reason they are invested in telling a Superman/Batman story is to combine the money both bring to the table.
Raising Batman up to Superman’s level requires abandoning Bruce Wayne’s world, from Gotham City, to the villains who populate it, to the kind of concerns he has. The number one concern being: Don’t die. Palling around with a God does rather lessen the fear of death. Everything gets smaller and less threatening. The bright blue glare of Superman means nothing can hide. His X-Ray vision sees everything. His super hearing hears everything. He is as close to an omnipotent God in a hero as you can get. So you have to raise the stakes. If The Joker is involved, he has to be given something more. He has to be close enough to a God to threaten Superman or he can’t have a legitimate place in the story.
And you know what happens when you put Batman back into that world where The Joker is just a man? You have Batman acknowledge that he’s just been fighting Gods at the edge of the known universe and he doesn’t give a dick about a little mortal. You acknowledge it because you have just sworn that this Big Event meant something significant and that it would have tangible impact on the world of the characters.
The movies of Christopher Nolan were the last place where a fan of Batman could go and not have the integrity of the character and the world imagined by Bob Kane shat upon. Now DC sees fit to carry over the creative bankruptcy of comic book continuity and Big Events into the movies. You could have an ending that was actually an ending, not just a set-up for the next big crossover. Perhaps with someone talented this Superman/Batman film could be something interesting. That would require someone who was willing to take risks. They have trusted Zack Snyder to do this though, a person who can just about translate the woman-hating/meathead work of Frank Miller but who lacks the ability to do anything with humanity. The characters originate from incompatible philosophies. They don’t have any chemistry together, but they get in bed anyway because the money is good. Superman/Batman is a cynical grab for cash. The actors cast won’t change that.