Did you like BATMAN V SUPERMAN? Did you hate it? Well, whether you did or you didn’t, what if the fight between the two of them was better than what you saw? What if that fight between the two that was better than what you saw was something you could see right now? Good news!! It totally is!
Whoa, whoa, hold on a sec there, Saturn Girl… before you try and take a swing at predicting the future, I’m not actually talking about THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. (Though that does deserve all the praise it gets and have inspiration drawn from it.) I’m talking about another Elseworlds story, and the first time I saw Batman actually V Superman.
SUPERMAN: RED SON is one of those all-time great Superman stories in its own right. An Elseworlds twist on a classic origin– if Superman landed in the Ukraine instead of the American Midwest– that has remained a hallmark since it’s publication in 2003. It was written by Mark Millar and pencilled by Dave Johnson for the first two issues and Killian Plunkett for the third.
Normally this is a story that I would say is a “must read” in the sense that you should read it in its entirety to appreciate it, but today I’m feeling punchy, so we’re skipping to the meat and potatoes of Issue #2. Here, Superman has firmly established himself as leader of the Soviet Union. And while he’s not lacking a similar code of ethics like we’ve seen in the Superman of the Justice Lords (killing AND lobotomy brainwashing!), he’s also never faced an actual challenge in his life, and never genuinely been threatened with defeat. He has, however, made his fair share of powerful enemies in his rise to power.
Batman undergoes a pretty significant change in this world, as well. He’s the son of poor revolutionaries, orphaned by the Soviet secret police. And while as an adult he’s not wealthy and he doesn’t lead a double life, he does still retain a characteristic cunning capability. This Batman blames the political regime for his parents’ death, a regime now headed by Superman, and is pushed to confront him beyond his usual acts of urban terrorism.
There’s this plan, you see, a joint effort by American scientist Lex Luthor and traitorous KGB leader Pyotr to depose Superman. And in a world without traces of Kryptonite, they’ve finally found a weakness– red sunlight. Almost universally consistent in every Superman version to hit a comic book page, his powers come from his body’s cells absorbing the radiation of Earth’s yellow sun. Krypton, in the thriving time before its destruction, saw the rise and set of a red sun. It’s the one thing short of magic that makes Superman as strong as your average human being (albeit one in really good shape). With a flick of a switch, he loses the super and becomes just a man.
Ushanka-wearin’ Batmankoff sets into action with a couple of tricks here and there that you might expect. The red sun lamps for the winning edge, the usual batarangs. But he’s a little more unhinged and a little more violent than your vanilla Batmen, so that means jagged homemade brass knuckles and an intestinal-suicide-bomb contingency plan. Hoo boy! It surprises probably no one that the next time we see him, he’s already tied up Soviet Wonder Woman with her own lasso and using her to lure Superman into a trap.
So he turns on the lights. And punches the Kryptonian’s lights out.
He hits him so hard he can’t even believe it. And Batman doesn’t just kick his ass physically, he gives him an equally powerful and excellently demeaning lecture about humanity’s struggle against an obscenely powerful alien overlord. Since there’s a third issue to round out the miniseries, and it is a Superman miniseries, you can probably guess who wins and who ends up a big red mist in Siberian snow. But it’s a defining moment for DC’s trinity in this world, and one that comes at great cost for all three.
And that’s why this fight is my favorite. Not violence for the sake of violence. Not hero versus hero. It’s a clash of ideologies and a literal test of strength for these characters. … huh. I just realized this is Lex Luthor manipulating Batman into trying to kill Superman. Did you read this Snyder? Wasn’t riffing on Frank Miller’s work enough?