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This is the year we make our heroes beat-up each other: Superman fights Batman; Captain America (and friends) fights Iron Man (and friends); Daredevil fights the Punisher; Deadpool fights Our Sense of Decency and Good Taste; the Flash and Supergirl team up to fight our Suspension of Disbelief. Such concepts bring up questions from my non-cool (read: non-nerdy) friends ,who ask, “Why would good guys fight each other?”
Good question, actually! In fact, the hero vs. hero concept is an old one, not just in comic books but in literature as well. In comics, of course, it’s quite prevalent and we’re seeing a glut of it at the moment. Perhaps it’s the nature of the superhero: take a handful of guys in funny outfits who are fighting crime for a variety of personal reasons and you’re bound to find conflict. Crime-fighting vigilantes are already working on (or past) the fringes of the law, which puts them in highly subjective and nebulous territory.
Once you’re out there, you’re going to come at odds with others who’ve made the same choice for different reason.
For example, in his first comic book appearance, the Punisher was actively hunting down Spider-Man. The former was under the common mistaken impression that Spider-Man had killed Norman Osbourne. And being the Punisher, seeking justice means trying to kill Spider-Man. See? Conflict!
However, having our protagonists become mutual antagonists serves a purpose as well. It helps us to ask questions that are more difficult to wrestle over than if it were placed in a simple protagonist vs. antagonist set-up.
In Daredevil’s second season, the conflict brings up the concept of justice and how two very different vigilantes pursue it. Daredevil works outside the law but, once criminals are subdued, he brings them back to it by handing them over to authorities and the courts (often worse for wear). For the Punisher, this is not enough. The system itself is corrupt and flawed and can’t be trusted. For Daredevil, the Punisher goes too far in killing as a first (and largely only) option; for the Punisher, Daredevil doesn’t go far enough and just perpetuates the problem, telling him:
I think you’re a half-measure. I think you’re a man who can’t finish the job. I think that you’re a coward.
In Captain America: Civil War, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark wrestle with the question of who these super beings are beholden to. What happens when their abilities seemingly get out of control and people are hurt? Who’s responsible? Who keeps them in check? These answers aren’t easy (though I dislike the solutions this film offers on either side). Superman v. Batman asks much the same questions, just not as well.
In some ways, too, this need to see our heroes fight is reflective of our times as well. Look at our primaries, where we’ve had hotly-contested nominations on both sides. Our nation is strongly divided between progressives and conservatives and each of those sides is riven with internal conflicts. These groups and sub-groups come to near blows, and their fringe elements are sometimes accused of abetting the real enemy. We all agree that something is wrong, what precisely it is and what to do about it often leads to conflict.
If you want to know why our heroes fight each other, it’s because we fight each other and they’re our champions. They fight each other because, in the pursuit of what’s good, we can’t even agree on what is good.