Let's You and Him Fight: A Superhero vs. Superhero Slugfest Primer

As 'Batman v Superman' brings intra-superhero sights to the big screen, a look back at the sub-genre's comic book roots.
George Perez/Marvel Entertainment/DC Entertainment

If Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice can claim anything this far ahead of its release, it's sparking a new trend: that of cinematic superheroes following their comic book brethren and beating the hell out of each other.

Following in the footsteps of next year's Zack Snyder-directed follow-up to 2013's Man of Steel, Marvel has Captain America: Civil War also primed for 2016, centering around an ideological disagreement between Cap and Iron Man, and this week's Sony/Valiant movie deal made mention of plans for Harbinger Wars, which will pit nanotech-fueled soldier Bloodshot against the superpowered teens of Harbinger. If it takes three examples of something to officially become a trend, it appears that we've really got something going here.

In some ways, this shouldn't come as a surprise; hero vs. hero conflict has been part of superhero comic book DNA for more than half a century, ever since the Fantastic Four tussled with the Sub-Mariner back in the fourth issue of their Marvel Comics series. Before the Marvel era, superheroes tended to respond to each other with friendly respect and suggestions of forming Leagues or Societies dedicated to pursuing Justice together; contrary to what the teaser for next year's movie might suggest, when Batman and Superman first met, they were more eager to team up and compliment each other than trade blows. By contrast, the F.F. came into conflict with the Sub-Mariner, Hulk, Avengers and X-Men within the first three years of Marvel's existence, in addition to squabbling amongst themselves.

The sight of superheroes tricked into fighting each other was always so successful that such events became more common and larger in scope. Marvel's first multi-series crossover was "The Avengers/Defenders War," a six-issue storyline which ran across The Avengers and The Defenders for four months in 1973, paving the way for similar conflicts all the way up to more recent "event" titles like 2006's Civil War, 2011's X-Men: Schism and Avengers vs. X-Men, the latter of which ran through multiple issues of 13 different series in 2012. (Although, along the way, the trickery aspect of the equation disappeared; no longer was it required that heroes be fooled into conflict, now they can fight just because they're all just acting like jerks.)

Amusingly enough, the plot that two superheroes or groups thereof would end up fighting due to either miscommunication or scheming by a villain was so popular at the publisher that it soon gained the nickname of the "Marvel Misunderstanding," even when used outside of the company. In fact, the formula was so popular that other publishers quickly adopted it, albeit to lesser levels.

As DC's Justice League of America series continued to introduce alternate worlds, it allowed for misunderstandings between heroes that were best resolved through violence, just as new heroes would run into each other with suspicion that the other was up to no good, ensuring that fights would ensue. In the 1990s, upstart publishers like Image Comics and Valiant would produce attention-grabbing crossovers like Deathmate, which allowed entire universes' worth of heroes to fight each other. By removing villains from the equation, the theory seemed to go, the readers' loyalties would be split, and an element of sports-like competition could be introduced between fans of one particular character rooting for their hero to drop his opponent, while that character's fans felt the opposite.

Given how widespread the practice of hero vs. hero fighting remains in comic books, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the trope is now making the jump to the big screen. In many ways, it's the logical next step after origin stories and complicated, cross-story continuity. It's worth wondering whether the movie audience will be as receptive to what is ultimately a very limited concept — "they're supposed to be on the same side, but they're not! What happens next?!" — as comic book fans have been.

The real test of that won't come for some time, however; Batman v Superman will have the novelty of a "new" idea for the genre, while Captain America: Civil War will likely be a success based on the audience's affection for the Marvel brand alone. But after those first two entries, whatever comes next will have to struggle to overcome audience familiarity and apathy. As number three in the lineup, Harbinger Wars probably should start planning some big twists and surprises.