Batman and Superman were the best of pals from the 1950s through the early ’80s, fighting crime side by side in the classic comic book series “World’s Finest.” They also got along swimmingly in the pages of Justice League of America, and in the nostalgic cartoon favorite Super Friends.
This all changed in 1986 with the cancellation of World’s Finest, the debut of John Byrne’s Man of Steel Superman reboot and the advent of a four-issue series that changed the industry forever: Frank Miller’s dystopian, decidedly adult The Dark Knight Returns, in which a retired Batman, wearing armor fortified with synthetic kryptonite, beats government toady Superman to a bloody pulp.
The Dark Knight Detective and the Man of Steel have squabbled ever since, culminating this weekend in the highly anticipated film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which the heroes duke it out big time before setting aside their differences to face Doomsday.
This clash of the titans got us to thinking about other conflicts and rivalries in popular culture, from comics to movies to television to sports.
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More clashes in the comics
Every superhero worth his or her weight in product tie-ins has an archvillain.
When Superman battles Lex Luthor, it’s brawn versus brains. When Batman squares off against the Joker, readers sometimes wonder which character is crazier, such as in Alan Moore’s controversial graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (1988).
Spider-Man tangles with the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus on a regular basis, but his most persistent nemesis is Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson, who smears his name in print.
Some of the best four-color fights of all time are between heroes, such as when the Hulk, one of the strongest characters in comics, squares off against Thor, the Thing or Wolverine. Entire teams have fought one another as well, such as the Justice League versus the Avengers and the X-Men against the Teen Titans.
In the humor comics arena, Betty and Veronica have fought each other for Archie’s love since the early 1940s, and Leroy and Loretta Lockhorn (of The Lockhorns) have waged a war of words since 1968. Dennis the Menace has been pestering his long-suffering neighbor Mr. Wilson seemingly forever.
For real-life drama, look no further than the actual comic book publishers. While DC (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) is a perennial second place in terms of sales to Marvel (Iron Man, Spider-Man, the X-Men), the companies have remained rivals for decades.
Cinema has a colorful history of epic battles, many of them mentioned right in the title. These include such films as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), Freddy vs. Jason (2003) and Cowboys & Aliens (2011).
While Godzilla has tangled with many monsters, including Mothra, Megalon and Mechagodzilla, he fought his most famous foe in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962 in Japan, 1963 in the U.S.). A number of changes were made to the American release, but contrary to popular belief, King Kong wins in both versions.
In the Oscar-winning Rocky (1976), the title pugilist loses in dramatic fashion to the flashier Apollo Creed. However, the Italian Stallion bounces back against the same foe in Rocky II (1979).
Other memorable movie matchups include Lee mixing it up with Han in Enter the Dragon (1973), Will Kane dueling Frank Miller in High Noon (1952), Luke Skywalker facing Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Daniel in the ring with Johnny in The Karate Kid (1984), Ripley confronting the Alien queen in Aliens (1986) and Optimus Prime brawling with Grimlock in Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014).
On May 6, Captain America and Iron Man will go head to head in Captain America: Civil War.
Cartoon characters were seemingly born to battle.
Popeye debuted in 1929 in Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre comic strip, and he starred in a number of theatrical shorts during the 1930s and ’40s, but many people were introduced to him via the TV cartoons of the 1960s. A typical episode would find big, bulky Bluto pummeling Popeye until the Sailor Man would gobble a can of superpower-inducing spinach.
Tom Cat and Jerry Mouse had theatrical origins as well, but we remember the tangling twosome from Saturday-morning television. Tom would terrorize Jerry with guns, explosives and other violent means, while Jerry would respond in kind (so to speak) by decapitating, burning, electrocuting or otherwise destroying the doomed feline. Indeed, Tom knew there was more than one way to kill a cat.
Other classic cartoon clashes include Bugs Bunny fighting Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote setting traps for the Road Runner, He-Man pitting his sword against Skeletor and the Super Friends battling the Legion of Doom. And you’ve got to love the decidedly violent “Itchy and Scratchy,” the cartoon within a cartoon from The Simpsons, which was inspired by Tom and Jerry.
Live-action television has had its share of memorable confrontations as well.
In the original Star Trek, the Federation battled the Klingons and the Romulans. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Federation formed an allegiance with these former foes to fight a mutual threat: the Dominion.
Although not as pervasive as in film, there are certain TV series that mention the adversaries in the title, such as Ash vs Evil Dead and American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. The latter, one of the best shows currently on television, is a thoroughly detailed account of the famous murder trial.
Some of the most intense TV battles are off screen; they are instigated by fans arguing over which is better: The Beverly Hillbillies or Green Acres? Ginger or Mary Ann? The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family? Good Morning America or Today? Letterman or Leno? Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel? Seinfeld or Friends? Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones?
Real-life corporate takedowns
Corporate battles have played out before the public many times, from Ford and General Motors to AT&T and MCI, from Apple and Microsoft to Visa and MasterCard.
In March 1985, Nike introduced the Air Jordan, a black and red shoe endorsed by Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time. The popular shoe, which has had many iterations over the years, not only helped the company overtake its rival Reebok, it “created celebrity athlete culture as we know it today,” Fortune wrote.
Adidas bought Reebok in 2005, but Nike remains the king of athletic shoes.
In 1989, the Energizer Bunny was created as a cooler, shades- and flip-flops-wearing alternative to the Duracell Bunny, which debuted in 1973.
During the 1990s, Burger King claimed it had “the taste that beats McDonald’s,” while Sega assured video game fans that the “Genesis does what Nintendon’t.”
Perhaps the most iconic corporate clash of all time is that of Coke versus Pepsi. Pepsi usually places second to Coke in sales, but The Coca-Cola Co. has blown it on more than one occasion.
The most infamous example was New Coke, introduced on April 23, 1985, to appeal to fans of the sweeter-tasting Pepsi. The marketing campaign went down like the Hindenburg, and the original formula returned a mere three months later, rebranded as Coca-Cola Classic.
Ali vs. Frazier. Wilt vs. Russell. Bird vs. Magic. Navratilova vs. Evert. Venus vs. Serena. Palmer vs. Nicklaus. Brady vs. Manning.
Rivalries among individual stars are some of the best reasons to watch sports, but rivalries and close matches between teams keep viewers captivated decade after decade.
Each October, more than 90,000 fans — half clad in crimson, half wearing burnt orange — cram into the Cotton Bowl to watch the Red River Showdown, one of the greatest traditions in sports.
The Oklahoma Sooners can take some consolation in boasting the widest margin of victory in a game (in 2003, they won 65-13), but the Texas Longhorns lead the famous college football series 61-44-5.
The Dallas Cowboys have had epic clashes against numerous rivals, but none was more dramatic than the 1967 NFL Championship game between the Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers. Played at Lambeau Field on Dec. 31, the so-called Ice Bowl, where temperatures reached 13 below zero, ended in defeat for the Cowboys after Bart Starr ran a quarterback sneak late in the fourth quarter.
Brett Weiss is the author of “Retro Pop Culture A to Z: From Atari 2600 to Zombie Films.”