In all the hubbub, furor and hullabaloo about Batman v Superman, very few people seem to remember this isn’t the first movie where Batman and Superman share screentime. The actual first movie came out in 1997, was less confrontationally called The Batman/Superman Movie, and oh—it was animated.
Well before the Justice League cartoon, DC animated universe co-masters Paul Dini and Bruce Timm brought Batman and Superman together for their first-ever meeting that wasn’t in the comics or a Super Friends cartoon. Okay, technically the movie is three episodes of Superman: The Animated Series, edited together to form a single story, which barely makes it to the 60-minute mark. But if BvS was too dark and dour and, well, murder-y, for you, then it’s absolutely worth seeking out.
The movie—subtitled “World’s Finest,” after the 1950s comic that featured the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight working together on the regular— is almost everything you could want from their first encounter, managing to incorporate not only both heroes, but also their alter-egos, their two greatest villains and Lois Lane in a story that works so organically, it almost seems effortless.
When the Joker steals a kryptonite statue, Batman immediately knows the only reason the villain would bother is because he plans to do something to Superman. So Bruce Wayne travels to Metropolis under the guise of meeting Wayne Corp. business partner Lex Luthor, an event covered by reporter Clark Kent, who’s suspicious of anyone who works with Luthor. Bruce also begins romancing Lois Lane, since everyone knows Superman has an uncanny tendency to rescue her, in hopes of tracking down Superman and thus finding the Joker and stopping whatever he’s up to. Which happens to be murdering Superman for Lex Luthor, for a huge load of cash. Lex accepts the Joker’s offer, just so long as he isn’t tied to anything.
This set-up, established in a mere 12 minutes, already makes a great deal more sense than BvS’ plot. But a better comparison between the two movies is how they portray the first meeting between the two heroes. Here’s World’s Finest:
Let’s just briefly assess how perfect this scene is. Batman is trying to terrify criminals into giving him information—standard Bat-operating procedure. Superman arrives, not to start punching things, but simply to tell Batman that he won’t tolerate his vigilantism. Batman throws Superman, proving he isn’t cowed by all his superpowers, and Superman is too surprised to react (although of course he’s not hurt). So Superman instantly shows his physical superiority with a (very much pulled) punch… at which point Batman reveals he’s prepared, as always, with a shard of kryptonite, knocking Superman on his ass.
The two don’t really know each other, and what they know about the other they don’t like. But here’s the key: Batman throws the shard of kryptonite in a glass of liquid, neutralizing its radiation. All because, despite their differences 1) Batman knows Superman is not the enemy here, 2) Batman wants Superman to know he’s not the enemy either, and 3) because Batman is not a homicidal asshole. Compare this to their first meeting in BvS, when they simply threaten each other like bullies trying on the playground, trying to establish dominance.
Also, there’s literally not a single scene in Batman v Superman that comes close to being as perfect, in character, and funny as the two heroes discovering each other’s identities. You can see it for yourself in the video above as Superman uses his x-ray vision to look under Batman’s cowl and discovers Bruce Wayne. But when Superman arrives at Clark Kent’s apartment and changes out of his costume, he discovers a small bat-tracker on his cape. Superman spies Batman watching him from an impossibly far distance away.
And even after recognizing each others’ skills, Batman and Superman aren’t suddenly buddies. It’s only when Lois Lane is kidnapped by the Joker that the two first work together, albeit inadvertently. The Joker has rendered Superman powerless with a large hunk of kryptonite. When Batman arrives, also intending to rescue Lois, the Joker locks down the Lexcorp warehouse they’re all in and releases one of his deadly gases—a two-tiered trap for both heroes. But Batman uses his smarts to dissolve the kryptonite, which allows Superman to regain his power, and he knocks a giant hole for the heroes and Lois to escape through. Realizing that the Joker and Lex Luthor are working together, and seeing how they complement each other, Batman and Superman decide to cooperate as well. Just like that. Because they aren’t dumb, and, I can’t state this enough, they aren’t violent assholes.
World’s Finest is by no means perfect. It falls victim to the endless need of giving Batman a romance, although it makes a reasonable sense for Bruce Wayne to fall for the tough, talented Lois Lane, and for her to fall for the handsome, charming billionaire (and the scenes where Bruce macks on Lois right in front of Clark Kent are endlessly entertaining—see the video above). More grievously, the last act pits Batman and Superman against a horde of generic Lexcorp robots, a fight which is largely toothless. Also, the final battle is mainly between Batman and Joker, and between Superman and a giant generic Lexcorp robot, which feels too mundane for this monumental first team-up. I’ll happily cede the advantage here to BvS’ Doomsday battle.
But that aside, World’s Finest beats Batman v Superman in every other category: entertainment, authenticity, making sense, humor, being viewable by children whose favorite characters are Batman and/or Superman, fun, ability to actually see what is happening on screen, etc. Right now, it’s a mere $5 to purchase on DVD at Amazon, and even less to rent. If you’re still on the fence, just look to the titles: One is called “World’s Finest.” The other doesn’t even know how to spell “versus” correctly. You don’t need to be the World’s Greatest Detective to solve this mystery.