This weekend, worlds collided on the big screen by realizing the dreams of countless playground and cafeteria fantasies: the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel threw down without a second though given toward rhyme or reason in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It may sound like an SEO-optimized court case, but rest assured there was nothing civil about a concept that director Zack Snyder introduced to fans with the infamous Frank Miller quote about Bruce Wayne’s hand around Clark Kent’s throat.
Indeed, Dawn of Justice is every bit as grim and contentious as that strangulation excerpt’s source material, The Dark Knight Returns, which crescendoed with Batman beating Superman within an inch of his life. And for audiences desperate to see Batman and Superman meet for the first time on film, there was a divisive amount of appeal to be found between the two heroes once considered inseparable friends in DC’s gentler times.
Then again, it is not really the first instance where Batman and Superman have met in a movie… or at the very least in a story marketed as one. In fact, as far back as when the Batman & Robin disaster was still fresh in fans’ minds, there was already a “film” about Batman fighting Superman—for a few seconds before both realized this absurd idea was dumber than a Lex Luthor plot about Frankenstein-ing Doomsday into existence.
First airing in October of 1997 on Kids’ WB, The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest (or simply World’s Finest in the more elegant marketing materials) represented Warner Bros. Animation’s first concrete attempt at world-building. By connecting the rather insulated storylines of Superman: The Animated Series, which began in 1996, and a newly revitalized Batman: The Animated Series after a two-year hiatus, Kids’ WB was combining two properties for maximum merchandising appeal. However, more importantly, they almost inadvertently were taking the first major step at creating what is now considered the DC Animated Universe, as definitive a realization of these characters as any medium has produced.
I was five-years-old when Batman: The Animated Series debuted in the autumn following Tim Burton’s more foreboding (and parentally forbidden) Batman Returns. Cleaned up for Saturday morning standards, Batman: The Animated Series still left a stirring impression on children and adults alike with its Art Deco grandeur and Fleischer Studios influence. I may have been too young to catch its allusions to The Maltese Falcon or William Blake poems, but instinctively, there seemed to be something more somber and brooding about its timeless imagery of police patrolling in zeppelins, and black and white television sets being used in every home, that stood apart from the show’s shiny contemporaries. Even then, I knew the series romanticized much from a bygone age.
What began as an aesthetic evocative of Tim Burton and Anton Furst’s gothic hellscape from Batman (1989) morphed into its own operatic melodrama that was accentuated by the black paper used for the animation, as well as Shirley Walker’s music, which stands proudly next to Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer’s caped contributions. For the character’s appeal in pop culture, The Animated Series offered an ironically mature counterbalance to where Warner Bros. was going with their Batman films in the mid-1990s, premiering even briefly on the Fox Network’s Sunday night primetime line-up and producing a feature length film called Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) while the live-action franchise conversely was going to Joel Schumacher land.
The Batman Superman Movie is not quite of that caliber and notoriety the Caped Crusader’s animated form enjoyed only a few years prior, but it was crucial to its legacy as it came about during the DC Animated Universe’s true birth—after Batman: The Animated Series had been discontinued.
When The New Batman Adventures debuted on the nascent Kids’ WB in 1997, the original series’ five-year contract with Fox Kids had run out. However, the series had stopped producing new episodes after only three since Warner Bros. Animation had moved on to the more efficiently top-down synergetic Superman: The Animated Series at the WB network. As a result, Batman had not had new episodes in two years (a lifetime in children’s entertainment), and Superman was the biggest icon on the proverbial WB cartoon lot. Normally, such rebranding details about a product considered to be a toy commercial are incidental, but Warner Bros. Animation went to great lengths to continue Batman: The Animated Series in a new form, and the way they intended to make it relevant again was by cross-promoting it with Superman’s red cape.
In actuality, The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest is only a three-episode arc from Superman: The Animated Series that (re)introduces Batman and his world to a new network and a 1997 demographic that might have been too young to recall Bruce Wayne’s cartoon glories from 1992. But what is remarkable about this World’s Finest animated incarnation is that it holds up as not only an efficient way to bump the characters of Batman and Superman together, but that it also does so in a surprisingly clever and logical manner.
Beginning briefly in Gotham City, the Joker (voiced by the invaluable Mark Hamill) breaks into an antique shop with his good time girl Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin). All they’re after is a green carving that has been mistaken as a Jade ornament. The Clown Prince of Crime is tired of having his clock cleaned by Batman, so he is going to take on another costumed do-gooder in a separate town. Unfortunately, for Mister J, Batman (Kevin Conroy) quickly deduces that the Joker has obtained a large chunk of Kryptonite and is likewise jetting to Metropolis.
For the rest of the movie’s brisk 60-minute run time, Batman, Joker, and Harley have entered Superman: The Animated Series’ more futuristic aesthetic, and are intermingling with its regulars, which of course include Superman (Tim Daly), Lois Lane (Dana Delany), and Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown). Wild card sociopath Joker and corporate boogeyman Luthor at first agree to team-up and kill Superman before inevitably double crossing each other. Batman and Superman, meanwhile, do battle for cool points in the costumes and Lois Lane’s heart when out of them. It’s short, to the point, and entirely what Warner Bros. Animation wanted when they rushed this “movie” out with nary a fraction of the tender love and care enjoyed by other animated Batman ventures, including the following year’s belated Batman & Robin tie-in, Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero.
Undoubtedly, the animation style of World’s Finest is indistinguishable from any other three episodes of Superman: The Animated Series or The New Adventures of Batman (right down to the unfortunate Joker redesign from the 1997 revival). As a result, it can often be overlooked when compared to the other straight-to-video Batman films of this era (not to mention Mask of the Phantasm).
Nevertheless, it offers a highly engaging, entertaining, and most of all retroactively refreshing interpretation of the Batman and Superman relationship.
When these three episodes aired as an event in 1997, Batman and Superman had come to represent political and ideological extremes in the comics for a generation of fanboys reared on The Dark Knight Returns. In other words, fans liked seeing a mutual disdain and weariness expressed by each hero for the other. It makes coming up with reasons for them to start hitting each other more acceptable. This continues to be relatively common in comics, even though Batman being able to actually stand toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel is always a tricky proposition that’s wholly reliant on “prep time,” or more acutely each writer’s belabored intent to create conditions in which a mortal can slap a god and not shatter his hand into fragments.
Whether it was due to needing to keep both animated series viable as popular products, or simply a rebuke of Frank Miller nihilism, World’s Finest conversely has none of that. To be sure, when Batman and Superman meet, there is a certain amount of aggression between the two, but only so far as Batman is willing to lord over a tiny piece of Kryptonite.
During that first encounter, Superman has extreme reservations about the Batman’s tactics. He comes across the Dark Knight sweating a suspect for information. Clearly, there is an obvious friction between the two superheroes and their different methods. Indeed, it is quite literally night and day since these are the times that each is first seen in their initial costumed sequences.
But the beauty of how the characters are handled in this manner is that other than a mere unexpected flip on Batman’s behalf of the blue boy scout, and a quickly returning shove, the “versus” of this storyline immediately came to an end. Batman does pull out Kryptonite for his requisite power-move moment, but it isn’t to humiliate or harm Superman. Rather, he gets his attention that the Joker is in Metropolis, and that the clown has about 50 pounds of this stuff.
From that point on, Batman and Superman are not at odds, but are rather tentative allies. One would hesitate to call them friends until perhaps the final scene of the movie, but both are presented as reasonable and adult enough to see the benefit in tempered cooperation.
The reason that it must be stressed that they do not have a real “fight” in the first DC Animated Universe world-building exercise is because of how much more useful it turned out to be for storytelling. Despite being a Saturday morning cartoon, the writers of both animated series show a real interest in logic as opposed to fan service. Unless one wishes to warp either character to extreme subversive interpretations of their default natures—which is perfectly acceptable—an amount of personality friction should not mean that they’re always a hair’s breath away from killing one another.
I enjoy The Dark Knight Returns as much as the next writer who contemplates superheroes far too much, but it’s a story where Superman is a U.S. government lap dog and a Ronald Reagan apologist while Batman is quite clearly a fascist. I would even go so far as to say that Tom Hardy’s Bane is closer to how Frank Miller envisions the Dark Knight than Christian Bale tended to be in the Christopher Nolan films. Of course, in such a striking and unique interpretation of the characters, a fight to the death is not only earned, but inevitable.
However, if one wishes to build a universe around these characters for the first time in sustainable renewed franchises, be they as animated cartoons or impending movie sequels, it seems to make more utilitarian sense to treat them as colleagues with differences of opinion as opposed to ideologues with their hands at the other’s throat.
Similarly, their reason for teaming up is streamlined Saturday morning cartoon logic, but it still makes sense. Lex Luthor has been unable to kill Superman, and the Joker makes an offer to do the deed for $1 billion. Batman chases his Moriarty to Metropolis, and after the Joker proves to be more dangerous than Jor-El’s only son anticipated, he reluctantly works with the a cowled specialist on the Arkham inmate.
In many ways, the Joker actually performs a similar narrative function to his role in Nolan’s The Dark Knight. He offers a crime boss to murder a superhero (in this case Luthor and Superman, instead of Maroni and Batman) for an absurd amount of money. He then turns out to be more insane than said crime boss realizes, and almost destroys the city. There’s even a scene where he crashes Bruce Wayne’s party to steal a dance with his girl… Lois Lane.
Yep, the only aspect of the whole Batman Superman Movie that falls entirely short here is the ridiculous love triangle between Lois, Bruce Wayne, and Superman. A top-of-her-career journalist willing to throw much of what she’s built away over a trust fund kid after only a few dates? Fortunately, Amy Adams did not go wide-eyed for Ben Affleck in this year’s film. But World’s Finest is still a children’s cartoon. Yet it still has a narrative clarity and cohesion that makes Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice‘s top-heaviness seem even more bizarre, particularly with the shoehorned in cameos of Apokolips, the Flash, and the rest of the Justice League.
Much like Batman v Superman, this animated film jump-started a connected DC universe in a different medium. And like so much else in the DC Animated Universe, the film was mostly executed with ease and precision. Other than the daft Lois Lane subplot, the only potential flaw for this cartoon-saga might have been the writers, which included Paul Dini, tipping their hand for a Batman preference, with the Caped Crusader getting all the best lines and spotlight bows over Superman. But even then, he’s still the Batman….
Otherwise, the movie represents the benefits the DCAU enjoyed for being separate from the comics. Much like Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, Warner Bros. Animation was free to cherry-pick its own streamlined path with little concern over which crisis was being adapted. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ pre-crisis Laughing Fish or Ra’s Al Ghul Bond-like epics could appear in Batman: The Animated Series next to the 1990s’ poster-boy for Gotham City ultra-violence, Bane. And while, they might be limited to exclude any back breakings or Barbara Gordon cripplings, The Animated Series was still incentivized to chart its own path with cleaner narratives and surprising results, such as Batman Beyond only a few years later.
In this vein, World’s Finest was free to reimagine a Batman and Superman relationship that stays true to the pop culture image of both characters (i.e. not Super-friends), but also did not feel beholden to the grim-dark grittiness that Frank Miller and Alan Moore ushered into the DC universe, especially as far as Mr. Wayne is concerned. By simply focusing on that relationship without fanboy WWE smackdown aspirations being serviced, it organically built a thriving Animated Universe without stumbling immediately into the eventual Justice League animated series with a sense of desperation. Conversely, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice clings to a violent elseworlds story about the end of the characters’ relationship, instead of the beginning of it.
By focusing on the need for a death match between the two heroes, the end result is merely deadly.
This article first published on March 26, 2015.