The Batman/Superman Movie: World’s Finest began as a 3-part episode of Superman: The Animated Series. It was released on DVD as a combined one-hour film in 1997. This excellent story has a strong 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as opposed to the pitiful 28% score that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice received. World’s Finest was written by Alan Burnett, who wrote many of DC’s best animated movies, including Batman: Under the Red Hood, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, Superman Unbound, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and others. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was directed by Zack Snyder, who made Watchmen, Sucker Punch and Man of Steel.
So why is World’s Finest better than Dawn of Justice and what can it teach DC during their revamp period? First of all, the makers of World’s Finest realized that the key to a great Batman and Superman story is to focus on their differences. They don’t physically fight but the drama comes from contrasting their opposite natures, techniques and viewpoints.
The two heroes have often been described as “two sides of the same coin”. They are both brave costumed super heroes but in most ways, they are opposites. This does not merely refer to the fact that Superman has unlimited strength and numerous super powers while Batman is just an incredibly well-trained and brilliant human man. They also have different skills. For instance, Superman’s senses enable him to read information directly from machines and, with careful usage of his heat vision, he can even reprogram machines. Batman is a genius polymath, as well as being a detective, escapologist, linguist, tactician and master of disguise.
Their greatest difference is in their outlook and attitude. Superman is traditionally optimistic and positive, inspiring hope to the world. He sees the best in people and tries to be an example, always motivated by the desire to help people and prevent tragedies. Batman is a dark and grim hero with a deeply personal vendetta against criminals. Although he has a great love for humanity, his life is rooted in the dark side of human nature. He understands the evil inherent in the human mind in a way Superman never could. In essence, Superman sees the victims while Batman sees the criminals.
When the 1990s versions of Superman and Batman look at each other, they see what they try hard to avoid in their own lives. Superman sees a man so locked into his obsessive behavior that he has no real connection to the world; Batman sees an overconfident man with great power but no plan (Superman reacts but does not plan.) However, they also see what they are personally missing. Superman admires Batman’s self-made abilities while Batman sees Superman’s amazing powers, which could certainly be handy in his quest to save Gotham city from its epidemic of crime. Each has a certain amount of envy toward the other.
In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the differences between the two are not very clear. Both are grim, glum, angst-ridden figures who see their heroic roles as a burden. They will both kill. Neither is trusted by the people or by the government. Neither ever smiles. They are both easily manipulated and overly quick to fight. There isn’t much difference between them at all. Add to that the fact that Zack Snyder decreed they shouldn’t talk much because “Guys in super hero costumes trying to act serious looks ridiculous”. The result was all action but no drama, characterization or interesting interactions.
Another good aspect of World’s Finest is that Lois Lane was utilized so much better. She adds an extra layer of competition between the two heroes when she develops a crush on Bruce Wayne. Although she is in love with Superman, she realizes that he will always have to put the good of the world ahead of her. Thus, when handsome Bruce Wayne arrives and shows an interest in her, she quickly becomes drawn to him. This Lois displays an attraction to Alpha Males, like the mighty Superman and the rich and powerful Bruce Wayne. Bruce begins by using Lois as a source of information to learn more about Superman but he comes to actually like her fiery, feisty personality and beauty. Clark has to watch while his rival romances the woman he secretly loves. In Dawn of Justice, Lois really has no purpose. She’s there because she’s expected to be there. Her investigation in the movie leads to nothing. When she stupidly tosses the Kryptonite spear into the well, it’s only done to put her in peril at an inopportune moment.
The villains are also much better in World’s Finest. Lex Luthor is written as cool., classy, authoritative and insidious. The Joker is wild and funny, creating chaos for both profit and for fun. The battle between their sidekicks Harley Quinn and Mercy is a fun moment. In Dawn of Justice, Lex Luthor is portrayed as a combination of Luthor and the Joker. He is rich and influential but also demented and sadistically psychotic. Mercy is killed off before she gets a chance to make an impression, and Doomsday is wasted in the final half hour of the film. The “Doomsday/Death of Superman” storyline could have been a whole movie by itself but instead it’s squeezed into a subplot. The villains in World’s Finest get sufficient screen time and remain true to their source material.
The story holds together much better in World’s Finest. The plot is linear and logical and makes sense. The bad guys have clear agendas and their actions jibe with what they want. Even the Joker, crazy as he is, remains consistent. In Dawn of Justice, Luthor’s plans and motivations seem to randomly change scene-by-scene. Unlike World’s Finest, which is trying to tell a story about the meeting of two heroes, Dawn of Justice is a two-and-a-half-hour composite trailer, interested in World Building and setting up future DCEU films, rather than being a coherent movie.
World’s Finest is about heroes learning a lesson. The duo quickly realize that their pointless competition is not useful and that each of them has something useful to offer in a partnership, even a temporary one. They learn the lesson that the villains could not learn. Luthor and the Joker are too petty to ever get along and eventually turn on each other. Superman and Batman learn to respect each other and start to work together. They even display some teamwork. Clark and Bruce part on good terms. In Dawn of Justice, Batman and Superman spend most of the movie in a contrived blood feud, which abruptly ends when they realize that their mothers have the same name. Then they join Wonder Woman in fighting Doomsday and Superman dies. There is no logical build or dramatic narrative that leads to any development in their relationship. Its ultimately unsatisfying and hollow.
World’s Finest gets it all right, including the tone, which is sufficiently hopeful while still being serious. Burnett’s script has heart and soul. The characters are handled properly and the narrative is well structured. Both the villains and supporting cast are fully-formed characters, not caricatures. Everything is done so much better than in Dawn of Justice.
If Geoff Johns and the new DC Film Division want a blueprint to look at for how they should set up the DCEU, they could do a lot worse than studying The Batman/Superman Movie: World’s Finest. It’s everything Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice should have been, but wasn’t. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the effort to find.