As the superhero movie flood continues, with no signs of slowing, filmmakers are discovering more and more of the things that make comics great. With the recent release of Superman v. Batman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War, Hollywood is beginning to explore the theme of the superhero rivalry. But while the conflict between freedom and security shown in Captain America’s conflict with Iron Man and the mythical between legend-turned-human and human-turned-legend expressed in Superman’s battle with Batman are fun, they’re far from the only great rivalries in comic book history. Let’s look at three of the best hero rivalries in comic history.
The moral dilemma: Daredevil vs the Punisher
The fundamental moral conflict between Daredevil, whose superheroic code forbids killing, and the Punisher, who sees himself as a soldier in a war against crime, with all that entails, is one of the main subjects of the recent second season of Daredevil. This conflict is most obviously expressed in a tense rooftop confrontation in which Farnk Castle tries to get Matt Murdock to admit that killing must sometimes be justified. Daredevil manages to get out of the scene with his moral position intact, which is not the way it happened in the comics — but then, Daredevil is the star of the show, while the original version of the scene appeared in Garth Ennis’ iconic run on the Punisher comic.
With their focus on street-level crimefighting and many similarities, it makes sense that the Punisher and Daredevil would be rivals; in fact, the characters are so associated thanks to Ennis that it’s easy to forget that the Punisher was originally introduced as a Spider-Man villain, one of a number of Spidey antagonists who chase Peter Parker based on the mistaken belief that he’s a criminal. As that Punisher — equipped with a range of high-tech gadgets and prone to shouting “blast!” — morphed into the darker character we know today, he became a much better foil for a morally-conflicted character like Daredevil.
The young rivals: Spider-Man vs the Human Torch
Jets and Sharks. Mods and rockers. Jocks and nerds. Some groups of humans seem destined to fight, and so when Marvel introduced two teen super-heroes from, shall we say, very different ends of the social spectrum, it seemed natural that the two would come into conflict. Over the years, Spidey and the Torch have come into conflict over and over; even in modern Marvel, where they’re presented as good friends, they still find ways to get into the occasional slugfest.
The rivalry between Spidey and Johnny requires ingenuity from writers and artists: after all, Johnny can’t ever hit Peter without risking burning him to a crisp, and there isn’t much Spidey can do to a guy who flies and is on fire. This leads to some beautifully balletic fight scenes and to some less-beautiful ideas, like Spidey’s asbestos webbing. I hope he’s been to the doctor about that.
The big one: Superman vs Captain Marvel
These days he goes by Shazam, but when he first appeared in 1940 the superheroic alter ego of young Billy Batson was called Captain Marvel. Caped, clean-cut and ready to sock evil in the jaw, the World’s Mightiest Mortal was pretty clearly a knockoff of the Man of Steel, who made his own debut in 1938. Captain Marvel — whose comic adventures tended toward zany, child-friendly fun — actually outsold Superman for much of the 1940s, until a copyright lawsuit by DC ended his publishing career for over a decade.
This real-world rivalry has often spilled over into the comics. The first and possibly most famous example is probably Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood’s parody ‘Superduperman,’ which appeared in the pages of Mad in 1953, right around the time that DC was taking the Big Red Cheese off the newsstands.
Other instances of the real-world rivalry making it into the comic pages include the climactic battle of Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come as well as an episode of the Justice League Unlimited animated show. If you want to pit Superman against a character who can actually stand up to him, after all, your options are pretty limited.
Despite the joy comics writers take in these knock-down hero battles, there will also be something a little sad about the Supes-Shazam rivalry, if only because it reminds us that comics can sometimes be a cutthroat business.