When I went to New York last week, I heard a lot of talk (primarily from people who don’t live in the city, to be honest) about good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods. Almost every single time, I’d make a snide comment in my head (never voiced, because it would not be well received) about how we wanted to be sure to stay in the Metropolis side of town, and not stray into Gotham. Yes, it’s pretty obvious to everyone that the cities of Superman and Batman are based on New York. I mean, ‘metropolis’ literally means ‘city’ and Gotham is just an old-fashioned nickname for New York. Frank Miller is quoted as saying that “Metropolis is New York in the daytime; Gotham is New York at night.” I’m pretty sure there’s at least one comic that establishes that Gotham and Metropolis are twin cities on opposite sides of a border – Metropolis in Delaware and Gotham in New Jersey (of course).
Of course, being basically clones of New York, each of these cities has one really distinctive thing to set them apart: their patron superheroes. Unlike in the Marvelverse, where it seems like everyone just operates out of New York and goes where needed from there, DC really has it set up so that Superman (and by extension, Supergirl, Krypto the Superdog, that whole gang) works primarily in Metropolis, and Batman (and the rest of the Batfamily) works in Gotham, and unless it’s a big crossover event, they don’t really cross paths that much. For the most part, they stay out of each other’s way. And each of them has really become a symbol of their respective cities. Batman really kind of IS Gotham, and Superman IS Metropolis, in a sense.
So here’s something I was thinking about for a large chunk of my time in New York (yes, I am a huge dweeb): what would happen if Batman and Superman switched places? What if the dark knight was the hero that Metropolis deserved; what if Superman tried to be a ‘big blue boy scout’ in Gotham? Of course, I am almost one hundred percent certain that this has actually happened in some comic, probably one of the Silver Age ‘what if’ issues. Hell, I’d be surprised if it only happened once. But I haven’t read those, so this is all going to be based on my own speculation, which in my opinion, makes it much more fun.
First of all, let’s talk about the type of threat these cities tend to face. It’s a pretty widely established idea that the presence of Batman is actually what draws all the ‘freaks’ and costumed villains to Gotham. Likewise, I doubt so many aliens and space-themed threats would be coming to Metropolis if that wasn’t Superman’s base of operations. In what is probably my favorite Batman comic that I’ve read, The Long Halloween portrays the shift in Gotham’s balance of power: Batman sets out to take down the mob and the gangs and the normal human criminals, but he does so as a weird bat suit guy, and more… creative villains start showing up not long after. Eventually, the mob is dethroned as the major threat to Gotham’s peace, because the ‘freaks’ are taking over the criminal world. I haven’t read anything like that for Superman, but I must assume that Metropolis was a reasonably normal place before he showed up and attracted all the supervillains of the galaxy.
I’m not sure how Batman would deal with intergalactic, planetary size threats. Batman is a street-level hero, not a space one. That’s not to say that his villains don’t pose huge threats, because they do, but not to the same scale as Superman’s. Supes’ villains may start their plans in Metropolis, but they tend to be pretty global in impact. I have no doubt that in-universe, Batman absolutely has plans to deal with all of those things. Batman has a plan for everything. I just don’t know what that plan would be. I just don’t feel like he could beat up Darkseid or General Zod, you know? But considering that he canonically has plans for things like “Superman turns evil” and stuff, he could probably manage. It’d be messy, but he’d get the job done. Superman, on the other hand, would be great at dealing with the villains of Gotham. A lot of the rogues gallery there is explicitly portrayed to be mentally ill (just look at how central Arkham Asylum is) (also this is another fucked up thing to talk about another day), and I’m pretty sure that ‘beat them up and imprison them again’ is not strictly speaking the best way to handle that. Superman would deal with that better, I think. Superman could rehabilitate some of those villains (I’m thinking specifically of Harley Quinn, but there’s almost certainly some others), and I feel like those he couldn’t rehabilitate would still be treated better. Just look at how Superman and Batman both dealt with Solomon Grundy: Superman determined him to be a significant threat and flew him to another planet to leave him there, a place where only he could survive and he could not leave. It was like a planetary version of being grounded. Batman later lures him into a furnace and burns him to death. Just a slight difference in approaches.
Another major point is the origins of both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent. Bruce Wayne was born and raised in Gotham (okay, at Stately Wayne Manor, which is probably just outside Gotham – you don’t get mansions like that in the city), he belongs there. He is used to the way the city works, and has been since he was a child. Clark Kent was raised out in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere and comes to the big city (did you know that Metropolis is sometimes called the Big Apricot? It’s true!) later in life. It’s a pretty classic American tale: “farm boy in the city, gets in over his head”. It’s a ridiculous stereotype that people from rural areas are more honest/nicer/better people than people from urban areas, but that’s actually alive and well in the Superman mythos. Superman is the best person around, and he was raised on a farm, but rather than losing that sincerity of character when he moves to the city, he brings it with him and makes the space around him better for his being there. But with the way that is, Batman is considered part of the fiber, the very existence of Gotham in a way that Superman is not of Metropolis. I feel like it’s known to the people of Gotham that whoever the hell Batman is, he’s not some weird foreign presence – he’s from the same place they are, or at least that’s my impression. Superman however, is pretty obviously an alien, or at least some kind of exotic, foreign thing. As such, he isn’t “one of us” in the same way that Batman is, although even then “one of us” is a pretty huge stretch. I can imagine Superman in Gotham, but I have trouble imagining Batman outside of it. He just wouldn’t fit in Metropolis; he’s too much a product of Gotham, a direct result of it.
The last big point for me, is how the people of these cities view their respective heroes. Superman is admired and adored in Metropolis; everyone knows who he is (if not really who he is). He is a public figure, operating openly in the day and not covering his face. People can say, “Superman? I love that guy!” and it’s not weird. Batman, on the other hand, is this shadowy, mysterious figure, working at night and hiding his face. He’s respected, perhaps, but also feared. I don’t think anyone in the DC universe thinks that Superman has any ulterior motives. What does this guy want? To help people, to save people, simple as that. What does Batman want? Uh… who knows? To help people, maybe, but also maybe he’s after something more, maybe even something sinister. No one really knows, not even those who work closely with Batman (I’m looking at you Commissioner Gordon, and I am excluding the Batfamily legion of heroes, because they definitely know). With Batman and the public, there’s always this element of “What the hell is wrong with this guy?” It’s something that’s not really there in Superman stories, at least not beyond one or two naysayers who are always presented as being wrong. I think the people of Gotham, after knowing Batman, wouldn’t really know what to make of Superman – “is this guy for real?” But the people of Metropolis, I can’t imagine them having any use for Batman. “What are you doing lurking in the shadows there? If you’re going to save us, you might as well show us your face.” Like, they would not have any patience for his melodrama, and they might be even more suspicious of him than the people of Gotham are, simply because they’d be used to the openness of Superman.
So I guess the point here is that I have some neat, fun ideas for Batman/Superman comics, and someone should hire me to write them. After sending me some copies of the old comics where I’m positive something like this must have happened before. Of course, I mean, the point is that Superman and Batman function best in their respective surroundings for a few very good reasons, and their narratives are shaped to support that, but it would be interesting to do an exploratory series where they do a superhero exchange program, and no really, I’m going to write this.