The Batman/Superman friendship/rivalry has been a dynamic that has enthralled comic book fans for decades and, as evidenced by Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s a relationship that is only captivating audiences worldwide more and more. But while BvS has both enthralled and appalled fans with the first ever live action meetup between these two iconic superheroes, it isn’t the first time they’ve met on screen.
That honor, and the distinction of being the best team up between the two, goes to the animated film Batman/Superman: World’s Finest.
Let’s travel back to 1997 and the second season of Bruce Timm’s Superman: The Animated Series, the follow-up cartoon to the beloved Batman: The Animated Series, for the debut of World’s Finest. Comprised of an epic three-episode story arc and also edited into one giant animated film, World’s Finest is the showdown between The Dark Knight and The Man of Steel that fans deserve. Featuring some of the greatest characterizations of both the heroes and their greatest villains, fans left disappointed by the latest DC Comics blockbuster should look to this animated adventure for a truly fantastic story.
Just as BvS’s title is evocative of the narrative within that film, Batman/Superman: World’s Finest says everything you need to know about this story. Written by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, and Rich Fogel, the story here is just as much about the conflict between its two heroes as it is about their eventual partnership. Indeed, the focus is not on who is greater, but rather on how these two titanic superheroes are both amazing in individual ways, leading to an even greater team.
Dark Knight Meets Man of Tomorrow
When Superman: The Animated Series originally aired, it had been one year since the end of B:TAS. And while the team behind the show had made it clear that this was a spinoff of The Dark Knight’s animated adventures, the connections were tenuous at best. But that all changed with the debut of World’s Finest, which saw villains Joker (Mark Hammill) and Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) come to Superman’s home town of Metropolis for a nefarious scheme. Of course, their presence attracts Batman (Kevin Conroy), who comes to town as both his dark alter ego and as businessman Bruce Wayne. His arrival sparks a showdown between The Dark Knight and Superman (Time Daly), who views the gothic vigilante as a dangerous loose cannon in his city. Meanwhile, Bruce and Lois Lane (Dana Delany) begin a romantic relationship and Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown) seeks to use the resulting chaos to his advantage.
When S:TAS premiered, it pushed the art style of B:TAS in a new direction, using more angular line work and brighter colors to evoke a more joyful tone that paid tribute to the classic Fleischer Studios animated serials of 1940s. As such, when Batman entered the series, he sported a brand new design, not only adopting a similar angular feel, but wearing an updated costume featuring a chest-wide black bat symbol without the yellow oval and a two-tone gray and black coloring. When the character’s series would be revived as The New Batman Adventures, that look would carry over, tying the two series closer together and eventually leading to the Justice League series that would follow.
While this debuted as a typical episode of S:TAS, it wasted no time getting right to the Batman-centric story, as it’s actually Joker’s theft of a Kryptonite-composed dragon sculpture and Batman’s investigation that kick off the story. Immediately injecting B:TAS characters is a smart move, as it immediately gives the audience what the promotions have been promising, instead of relying on an end of act one reveal that shortchanges both heroes and villains. But it also doesn’t detract from Superman’s role in the story, as this is very much a two-hander narrative, with both heroes given equal screen time for maximum effectiveness within the story.
Timeless Character Interpretations
Even if you have never seen an episode of either hero’s cartoon, this storyline works perfectly on its own. That’s most certainly due to the way that Timm and company were able to capture the heart of every character that came to life on their shows. Heroes, villains, and supporting characters come fully formed, embodying the true spirit of their comic book counterparts and playing off one another in fantastic ways. With Batman, Joker, and Harley Quinn coming to Gotham, the characters give the Superman regulars new personalities to bounce off of and help to vary the tone of the show to a much greater degree than normal.
And the interpretations of both heroes and villains here have defined the characters to audiences for generations. What more needs to be said about Mark Hamill as The Joker than what has been echoed time and time again? His evocative and charismatic take is both dizzyingly funny and disturbingly dark, which is everything The Joker should be, yet is rarely captured as a cohesive whole. As Luthor, Brown is commanding, condescending, and highly intelligent, the case of another character being done right by Timm’s animated world when no live action version has ever done the same. And, of course, fan favorite Harley Quinn gets to shine as the comedic relief, even if Sorkin doesn’t have enough time to showcase the character’s complete range.
As an outsider within the S:TAS world, Batman/Bruce fulfills a more antagonistic role, employing a brasher tone in and out of costume. While that is a slight change from the more restrained yet warm personality of B:TAS, it helps create greater friction between the protagonists. Of course, Conroy’s voice work as both sides of the character is stellar as always here, with the shifts in vocal range given a unique presence to both Bruce Wayne and Batman, while keeping them as two halves of the same person, with his intelligence and physical superiority on display throughout this adventure. He’s the definitive Batman. And while the same can’t be said for Daly’s Superman, he’s only second to the iconic Christopher Reeve. Both staunchly upright yet charismatic in his heroism, this version of Superman isn’t the boring stiff that so many see him as. And Clark Kent isn’t the bumbling buffoon that many people think of when considering his alter ego. Much like the Batman seen here, Superman and Clark Kent are part of a cohesive whole, with both sides being true to the core of Kal-El, even when they present very differently from one another. Having both sides of both heroes play off one another means we are able to see the full range of these characters and their relationship with one another.
Clearly, the core of World’s Finest is the ever-evolving relationship between Superman and Batman. With the two heroes meeting for the first time, we see how both men can be understandably wary of one another right off the bat. This isn’t a matter of seeing one another as a threat that needs to be stopped like in BvS, but is instead two men with very different methods and personalities coming to blows in their pursuit of the same goal. In fact, the battle between these two heroes only consists of a single attack from each side as they collide during a wonderfully atmospheric battle within a nightclub. Far more interesting is how Superman quickly discovers Batman’s secret identity through x-ray vision (Batman’s reply of “You peaked” is simple and charming), which is quickly one-upped by The Dark Knight tagging him with a tracker to follow him to his home as Clark Kent, leading to the slow reveal of Batman watching him from afar just long enough to let Superman know that they are even.
The strength of the narrative and the joy of simply seeing these characters in such an authentic and lovingly-crafted way mean that the shortcomings of World’s Finest are not only few and far between, but inconsequential when they do show up. The clearest issue is the relationship between Bruce and Lois, which moves at fast enough speeds as to make even the most lovesick fans worried for their mental and emotional wellbeing. While that romance is created to cause more friction (Superman and Lois have only flirted by this point in the series) and give Batman greater ties to the established characters, it seems like the two go on a single date before discussing marriage. That’s a romance that would give even Disney princes and princesses cause for concern. In addition, the continuing battles with generic robots are too run of the mill to be exciting in a story that sees the two greatest heroes of all time finally teaming up. But that’s thankfully balanced by the evolving antagonism of Luthor and Joker, with the flying wing finale in particular making up for these miniboss detours.
As a story comprised of three episodes, the World’s Finest narrative is neatly broken up into three acts for its one-hour animated film. In part one, Superman and Batman fight while Luthor and Joker team up to take them down. In part two, the heroes form a grudging partnership in order to survive the team that seeks to destroy them. In part three, The Dark Knight and The Man of Steel become true friends as Joker and Luthor have a falling out that could destroy all of Metropolis. That simple storyline is just enough for the ambitions of the creators here, as it’s more interesting to see how everyone interacts with one another than to see some complex mystery unfold. Even though both of these characters were seen on screen in their animated forms dozens of time before and would be seen dozens of times after, there’s something innately exciting about seeing them together in World’s Finest that was never completely captured during BvS. That’s because these are the truest versions come to life, complete with complex histories and a lack of burden placed on what their story together could mean for future narratives. The DC Cinematic Universe has not, and possibly will not ever, capture that same sense of joy and wonder that filled B:TAS, S:TAS, and their spinoffs.
The quality of the team-up seen here would only lead to more fantastic stories in the years to come, but Batman/Superman: World’s Finest is a must-see classic for anyone invested in these characters and the dynamic between them that has engrossed fans time and time again.