And so it has come to this. Starting with an initial pool of 32 costumed crimefighters, our Superhero Showdown bracket game has slowly but surely whittled the playing field down to two final contestants. The greatest and most popular heroes in comic book history have all fallen by the wayside: Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, the unexpectedly popular upstart Hellboy, all of the Marvel superheroes. We are left now with a final face-off that defines the whole history of superherodom. In one corner, wearing very bright colors and an All-American smile: Superman, the Kansas farmboy, the hero of glittering Metropolis, blessed with every superpower you can imagine. In the other corner, wearing very dark colors and a cynical grimace: Batman, the big-city billionaire orphan, dark avenger of bleak Gotham, blessed with no superpowers besides boundless vengeful determination.
The time has come, fellow comic book fans. Scroll down for quick biographies of our final two contestants. Ponder these two superheroes: Who they are, what they’ve done, what they mean for you and for society. When you’re ready, cast your final vote. The poll will remain open until noon on Friday [UPDATE: Voting now extended through Tuesday, September 4!] at which point we will finally be able to announce — scientifically and irrefutably — the identity of the greatest superhero ever.
And be sure to click on the bracket image below for a look back at all the match-ups in our Superhero Showdown!
Origin Story: On a dying planet, a child is shot into space by his parents, given a chance at a new life on in a faraway place. The orphan’s ship crashlands in Kansas, where he’s discovered by a childless, utterly American couple. Oh, and when he grows up, he’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive…
Costume: You could argue that all superhero costumes are just riffs on Superman’s iconic look: The bright colors, the cape, the color-matched boots and exterior underwear.
Coolest Power/Ability: Anything you can do, Superman can do a million times better. He’s superstrong. He’s superfast. He can fly. But Supes also has a whole array of more subtle powers, and of that bunch, it’s hard to argue against the eternal usefulness of heat vision.
Defining Stories: Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow,” and Grant Morrison’s “All-Star Superman” are both fantastic modern explorations of the Superman myth — at once playful, deconstructive, and tragic.
Cultural legacy: Superman is the foundation for pretty much the entire superhero genre. Many major characters that came after him directly riffed on his iconography. (Just look at the number of characters on our bracket who grew up as orphans.) Richard Donner’s 1978′s Superman movie established the basic template for the superhero-movie — a genre that has now conquered Hollywood. Superman is also one of the most famous fictional characters ever. In the last quarter decade, though, Superman’s actual cultural influence has been significantly eclipsed by his darker, grittier, less impenetrably invincible buddy Batman. Can next year’s Man of Steel return the character to his past prominence? —Darren Franich
Origin Story: After watching a thug named Joe Chill kill his parents in cold blood in Crime Alley, Bruce Wayne devoted his life and considerable fortune to the cause of justice – and vengeance – in perilously bleak Gotham City by becoming the caped crusader known as Batman. To some, the dark knight is a criminal vigilante, just as gonzo wrong as the baddies he fights (and inspires). To others, the hero is an aspirational icon, bringing hope to a hopelessly corrupt world.
Costume: The model for all masked avengers. Sporting a black hooded cape and gray body armor with the ominous insignia square on his chest, Batman dresses for effect – that effect being terror. Inspired by the fearsome flying rodents that live in the cave underneath Wayne Manor, Bruce plays the part of mythical bogeyman to Gotham’s underworld – part Dracula, part Jungian shadow.
Coolest power: What makes Batman so cool is that he has no powers, save his smarts, brawn, and the array of gadgets and tools (but no gun) on his utility belt.
Defining stories: Detective Comics Nos. 27-33 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; Batman Nos. 1-18 by Kane, Finger, various; “Strange Apparitions” (aka Detective Comics Nos. 469-476) by Steve Englehart and various artists, most notably Marshall Rogers & Terry Austin; Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller; Batman: Year One by Miller and David Mazzucchelli; “No Man’s Land” written and drawn by many; “Hush” by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee.
Cultural Legacy: Been to a movie theater lately? Batman was created in response to the success of Superman, but also represented a philosophical rejoinder to the Man of Steel, a mythic do-gooder devoid of super powers (besides the extraordinary wealth) whose idealism was shaded with troubling anger. Still, until Spider-Man came along in the early sixties, Batman best represented one of the basic appeals of the genre: He made the whole superhero thing look like nifty-cool fun – Sherlock Holmes in a cowl. Since the seventies, Batman has darkened and coarsened as the culture as darkened and coarsened. Indeed, his indisputable greatness lies in the elasticity of his symbolic value, in his ability to reflect changing notions of good and evil, and of heroism itself.—Jeff Jensen