In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman. Less than a year later, Bill Finger and Bob Kane created Batman. About 4.5 seconds after that, we imagine, people started arguing over which of them would win in a fight.
Over the past eight decades and counting, comics creators have taken the opportunity to pit DC's two most famous heroes against each other, but it wasn't until 2016 that we finally got to see a proper big-screen brawl. Still, the cinematic events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did little to quiet debate.
In the spirit of celebrating both the release of Zack Snyder's Justice League and the five-year anniversary of Batman v Superman, we figured we'd take a crack at it. We don't expect to settle the argument, but it might be fun to try.
BRAINS OR BRAWN?
That's really what the Batman vs. Superman debate comes down to. There's no question that Superman is stronger. In an all-out street fight, it's no contest. Supes could smear Bats into a thin paste across a 10-square-mile area, then atomize the jelly without breaking a sweat.
He wouldn't, of course, being the boy scout he is. That is unless he were under the influence of some outside force (which has happened more times than is worth mentioning). In a straight fight, Bruce Wayne is a feather against a 10-ton elephant. His only chance is in drastically tipping the scales by virtue of careful planning or technology.
Luckily for Batman, planning and tech are pretty firmly in his wheelhouse. In the case of BvS, Batman (Ben Affleck) builds himself a powered mech suit in order to go toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel (Henry Cavill). While the suit does increase Batman's strength, it isn't primarily intended as an offensive weapon. Instead, it protects Bruce from Superman's onslaught long enough for him to enact other plans. Still, one wonders how it even did that.
The suit's exact makeup is unclear and the creators have made no definitive statements on its construction. That said, the suit itself doesn't appear to weaken Superman, so we can probably toss kryptonite alloy out the window. There's also no indication that it utilizes any non-terrestrial or unknown materials. Instead, it's likely Wayne used mundane materials in novel ways. And that's where things start to fall apart.
While the suit takes a bit of a beating, it should have crumbled under Superman's strength. In the trailer for Dawn of Justice, we see Superman rescue a Soyuz spacecraft after an explosion on the platform.
The Soyuz weighs about 7 tonnes (15,432 pounds) and, for Supes, carrying it looks about as difficult as pulling a box of comics down from a shelf in the closet. He's carrying roughly 7,500 pounds on each arm and flying at the same time. And that's not even his greatest feat of strength.
Icebreaker ships are some of the most impressive vessels on the not-so-open seas. Even older models have truly impressive weights. The first diesel-electric icebreaker, the Ymer, clocked in at 4,330 tons, more than 600 times the weight of the Soyuz. More modern, nuclear-powered vessels can weigh up to 128,000 tons (256 million pounds). Even if we take the median weight, we're looking at Superman, in this film, dragging about 65,000 tons over his shoulder like a stubborn dog after a long walk.
A briefly seen newspaper headline suggests Superman shifted a tectonic plate preventing a natural disaster. The strength involved in such a feat would be staggering, but it isn't even necessary to calculate for our purposes. Superman's on-screen feats of strength are sufficient to illustrate that even a half-hearted blow toward Batman could have punched a hole clean through his chest.
That suit might as well be made of damp tissue paper for all it matters.
It's become synonymous with weakness for a reason. The Man of Steel, otherwise nearly impervious to harm, becomes weakened to an incredible degree in the presence of radioactive pieces of his home planet. But is there any real mechanism by which he'd be so affected? It certainly seems to work for his adversaries, evil (Lex Luthor) or just misinformed (Bruce Wayne) as they may be.
We know Superman derives his power from Earth's yellow sun. His cells, being fundamentally changed by exposure to a yellow star, are able to take in solar radiation and convert it to incredible energy.
In the novella Starwinds Howl, Elliot Howl explains a process by which the nucleus of each living cell jumps outward by one quantum level. The protons and neutrons loosen and expand the space between them. As a result, the organism becomes "harder, tougher, more durable." This is, of course, a whole lot of hokum, but given the context, we'll allow it.
In short, an organism that developed under a red star finds itself changed at a cellular level when exposed to a yellow star. Not only is that organism stronger, it also acquires the ability to convert solar radiation to super-powered energy. Subsequent exposure to kryptonite, in totally made-up theory, undoes this change, rendering the organism weak.
If kryptonite emits ionizing radiation, it could undo the cellular processes that enable the conversion from solar energy to super abilities. In the real world, ionizing radiation breaks up the DNA of cells, either killing them or changing them sufficiently to disrupt their usual processes.
Going back to Starwinds Howl, the author writes about inorganic material from a Kryptonian source, saying, "it tends to develop an unstable and unpredictable radioactivity at a molecular level. Rocks spray off a steady stream of isotopic particles that may have unpredictable effects on their surroundings."
It's a recipe for disaster. The same processes that allow Kal-El to attain his incredible abilities also allow for shards of his home planet to catastrophically disrupt the machinery of his cells. Once inside the influence of our sun, pieces of his homeworld become deadly poisons that not only negate his superhuman abilities but threaten his life.
That kryptonite exists on Superman's fictional Earth at all shouldn't be possible, given the distances and the probability that any piece of his home planet would make the trip and land. Though, that too is explained away as a consequence of an experimental warp drive used to bring Kal-El to Earth. Bad luck all around.
It's just this sort of poetic tragedy that allows Batman or any other foe to neutralize Superman's abilities. And it's a good (or bad) thing, too. It's the only way he's susceptible at all.