There aren’t a whole lot of things from the 1930s that are still around in their original form. Phones have gotten more advanced, cars have gotten more efficient, and polio is not nearly the concern it once was. But of the few things that have endured from that time of jazz, vaudeville, and economic stagnation, the most memorable constant that doesn’t involve an FDR speech is still Superman.
Across generations and multiple wars, both hot and cold, we all know what Superman stands for. He is the embodiment of an ideal. He stands for truth, justice, and the American way before the American way became associated with drone strikes and bank bailouts. He might be the most powerful being in the world, capable of moving planets and winning a fight with Lex Luthor by sneezing. But he still always does the right thing, using his power to help people. It’s the way we wish presidents, dictators, and prime minsters would behave. Most of them fail, but Superman still embodies the idea that power doesn’t shouldn’t keep people from doing the right thing.
So what if he didn’t have that power? Could he still help people? Could he do so without being outwitted and overpowered in a way that most would experience if they challenged Chuck Norris to a cage fight? Those are all questions that Batman/Superman Annual #2 attempts to answer and it certainly is a question that’s worth answering. Because if Superman can only do what he needs to do because of his powers, then that undermines his credibility in the same way Bruce Wayne being a lousy tipper would undermine his.
And that answer ends up making for an entertaining, action-packed struggle that once again shows that Superman’s greatest strengths don’t lie with his powers. He doesn’t just prove it to those he’s trying to help either. He also proves it to Batman. And when Batman is convinced of something, the argument is over. Even a creationist wouldn’t deny it at that point.
What makes this struggle so entertaining is that it doesn’t just put Superman in a position where he has to save the day without using his powers. It doesn’t involve him stopping an armed robber, getting a cat down from a tree, or helping an old lady across the street. He has to battle the likes of Bane, Killer Corc, Cheshire, and an army of Man-Bats. These are the sorts of battles that Batman might be used to fighting during his summer vacation, but it’s new to Superman. Even so, he finds a way to rise to the challenge.
The setup is pretty straight-forward. The Phantom King forces Superman to use his newly discovered solar flare power to save a city that had been devastated by Doomsday. This makes him vulnerable and since the Phantom King is still stuck in the Phantom Zone, he enlists some of Batman’s cast-offs to finish Superman off while he’s vulnerable. From a purely strategic point of view, it’s actually pretty brilliant. De-power Superman and then have him face the kind of thugs that give Batman trouble. Because if they can annoy Batman, they’re perfectly capable of maiming 99% of non-powered individuals.
But Superman proves he’s part of that tiny one percent that can handle himself without powers. And he does this while Batman keeps trying to take care of the situation himself. Whereas most are content to let Batman do what he does bast, Superman still seeks to help and he seeks to do it as Clark Kent and not Superman. It’s one of those rare instances where the strength of Clark Kent and the strength of Superman are really one in the same. It is possible for him to save the day without having to move planets or bend the laws of physics. And unlike Batman, he does it in a way non-brooding, non-Christopher Nolan manner.
At no point in the struggle does Clark Kent show any fear or hesitation to participate in this battle. Even though he’s as vulnerable as any unlucky tourist that ended up on the wrong side of downtown Detroit, he still carries himself with the strength of Superman. He does this even when Batman attempts to restrain him for his own safety. It’s a very unfamiliar and pretty humorous take on Superman. It would be like Adam Sandler attending the Oscars.
Moments like this help highlight the unique dynamic between Batman and Superman. Usually it’s Superman who has to do the heavy hitting in a struggle. This time Batman has to play that role and he plays it in a way that would make Christian Bale proud. But in the end, he still needs Superman’s help to finish the job. And this is what leads to the most defining moment of this story.
It’s not enough for Batman/Superman Annual #2 to explore Superman’s strengths, even in the absence of his powers. There have been stories about that since the Great Depression. The main strength of this story comes from revealing Superman’s greatest weakness and this time it doesn’t involve a glowing green rock. Even though Batman and Superman win the main battle, the Phantom King still wins the war. He does this in a way that plays to one of Superman’s most admirable traits. He trusts people.
It’s not a weakness in and of itself. We all need to trust others to some degree. Even Ayan Rand had to trust that her books wouldn’t become fodder for political attack ads, as misplaced as it may have been. But it’s a weakness that’s exposed in the worst possible way for Superman. It’s a weakness that the Phantom King exploits at the perfect moment when it seems as though Superman once again proved that he can be Superman without his powers. It provides an ending that has just the right impact after a battle that struck just the right balance.
Like the final play of this year’s Superbowl, Batman/Superman Annual #2 gave a thrilling ending that will thrill some and horrify others. And this time, it isn’t just the city of Seattle that’s horrified. The questions surrounding whether Superman can be who he is without his powers are all neatly answered. But the answer isn’t as comfortable as some probably wish it were. At the end of the day, doing the right thing for the right reasons is a great power to have. But not being bulletproof means it’s a lot easier for the wrong people to ruin your day.