The Versus Problem: Why we love watching our superheroes fight each other

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“Who would win in a fight…?”

It’s the way millions of playground discussions begin, and have for decades. Pitting one character against another is a great pastime for nerds of all types, weighing the pros and cons of each before being forced to come to a decision on which one would emerge victorious. But recently it has crossed over from idle banter and comic book events into the mainstream with Hollywood getting in on the fun. Two new blockbusters, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Captain America: Civil War,” both have heroes fighting heroes as the centerpiece of their plots (and marketing). But what is it about pitting the good guys against each other that is so compelling to audiences? Why is this story such an interesting hook that it has been used by comic book companies for years and has now bled into their cinematic counterparts?

Part of it is an innate need in many to rank items – particularly those of a nerdier set, of which I count myself. Consider the popularity of top ten listicles, various award ceremonies, championships or March Madness; these are all ways for people to determine what is “the best” in any given facet of life. It’s an extension of those playground discussions, wanting to place an order (however arbitrary) on a subjective element and come up with something that resembles an empirical and objective judgment on that element. Is the Best Film winner at the Oscars really the best film of that year? Of course not, but it lends credence to one’s devotion if a film you love is recognized by many to be great.

The irony to this point is that, usually, there is never a clear winner in these match-ups between superheroes. In the comics, and now in their cinematic equivalents, the fights usually end as a tie or an uneasy truce formed before the final blow can be delivered by one of the costumed do-gooders. This was seen in Marvel’s “The Avengers” when, upon meeting for the first time, Thor and Iron Man fight it out rather than having a civil discussion. Captain America also gets dragged into the skirmish, but eventually becomes the voice of sanity and manages to stop the proceedings before any clear victor emerges.

All heroes get their moment to shine in the fight to show off their impressive skills and different fighting styles, but ultimately there’s no KO that definitively says this hero is better than that one. That’s how it’s been in the comic book pages since DC and Marvel created their respective shared universes; the publishers (and now the production companies) don’t want to alienate fans of either character, so they simply have it end in a draw, with the heroes forming an uneasy alliance and perhaps some reluctant sense of mutual respect. It’s usually the first meeting between the two heroes, so they are wary of another costumed person who could easily be a villain, and rather than talk it out, they resort to doing what they do best – beating the piss out of each other.

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There’s another reason why audiences lap up these superhero showdowns, but this one comes down to execution and skill of the artist. If done correctly, each hero represents something bigger than himself, so what audiences are seeing is not just a clash of titans, but also of greater themes and ideals. Batman and Superman should be diametrically opposed, as one operates in the shadows and administers vigilante justice, while the other becomes a shining ideal to which others should aspire in helping the world. True, they have the same goal of making the world a better place, but they come to that result from very different means.

So which is the better way of improving life and fighting crime: to use criminal methods against criminal elements, or to serve as an example for people to strive towards? It turns a philosophical question into a very literal pro wrestling match to see which is the better ethos. In theory, anyways. That’s how it has worked in comics like “The Dark Knight Returns”, “World’s Finest” and various “Justice League” storylines where the two combat each other. In practice, when both are glowering sources of dour moodiness like in Zack Snyder’s film, that metatextual element falls to the wayside as they are both different shades of the same gothy gray.

So who will win when superheroes fight each other? The clear answer is the audience, as they get to see their heroes at their most impressive, displaying their great combat skills, and at their most petty, resorting to violence rather than talking out their problems. Fans may not get that power ranking they so richly crave, but they get fodder for their arguments as to why Ant-Man is actually an impressive character, or how non-powered Bruce Wayne can fend off the last son of Krypton. And on a higher level, they get to see these various philosophies pitted against each other, only to learn that each side has its merits and drawbacks. And so, even though it seems like a simple cash-in to have two capes fight one another, there’s a lot going on when superheroes brawl – far more than ever dreamed of when those playground discussions first began.

  

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