Heroes punching heroes - the best superhero rivalries in comics

Civil War #1 cover
Civil War #1 cover (Image credit: Leinil Francis Yu (Marvel Comics))

Heroes fighting heroes is a staple of Marvel Comics storytelling, and in 2022 the publisher is leaning heavily on the trope, pitting Thor and the Hulk against one another this spring in 'Banner War' and then upping the ante in the summer when the X-Men, the Avengers, and the Eternals face off in a three-way grudge match in its big summer event Judgment Day.

So while everyone can name their favorite superhero BFFs or superhero romantic couples, all that in-fighting leads to famous superhero rivalries as well. And they're not just limited to Marvel Comics. DC also has its share of characters that push on another's buttons. 

Some are friendly rivalries and some are romantic rivalries, but others often turn violent, and in the case of one or two, the Earth can shake when the rivals find themselves at odds. 

So here are the most memorable superhero rivalries for the ages, conflicts both minor and major that readers look forward to whenever the characters meet.

Batman and Guy Gardner/Green Lantern

Justice League #5 excerpt

Justice League #5 excerpt (Image credit: Kevin Maguire (DC))

While Batman has often been shown to have a healthy mistrust of most Green Lanterns, the real pinnacle of this rivalry is (or was, depending on the whims of continuity) typified in Batman's relationship with Guy Gardner.

In the Justice League relaunch that followed DC's Legends event, Batman was one of only a few veteran members on a team full of rookies and dark horse choices. He quickly took over leadership of the team, and his no-nonsense style rankled the team's resident Green Lantern (Guy Gardner), so much that he actually challenged Batman for leadership of the team.

It didn't take long to settle that dispute. Batman felled Gardner with a single punch, which, in addition to rendering him immediately unconscious, calmed his brash attitude for a short time. Of course, it wasn't long before he and Batman were back at each other's throats, sparking a longstanding tradition of Batman not really getting along with various Green Lanterns.

Daredevil and Punisher

Daredevil #257 cover

Daredevil #257 cover (Image credit: John Romita Jr. (Marvel Comics))

Daredevil is a no-nonsense crime fighter who, though he has had bouts with depression and darkness, falls into the non-lethal camp of superheroics. Punisher, on the other hand, is almost the exact opposite. More of an anti-hero, and occasionally even a villain, the Punisher takes a 'kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out' attitude to taking a bite out of crime.

Needless to say, this rivalry isn't a friendly one. They've crossed paths time and time again, occasionally on opposite sides of the same fight, but often intense, short-lived team-ups that seem to last only until Punisher does the inevitable, proving once again that leopards don't change their spots - or in this case, blood spatters.

While there are numerous Punisher/Daredevil stories worth reading including the opening arc of Ed Brubaker's Daredevil run, where Punisher gets himself arrested to help a reluctant DD survive in prison, the first is probably still the best. In Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen's Daredevil #182-184, the Punisher has one of his first appearances after showing up as a Spider-Man villain. He and Daredevil try to take down the same drug dealer and, well, let's just say they both wind up with more than they bargained for.

Superman and Shazam

Kingdom Come #4 excerpt

Kingdom Come #4 excerpt (Image credit: Alex Ross (DC))

The rivalry between Superman and Shazam (formerly known as Captain Marvel) dates back over 80 years and extends beyond the bounds of comic books. Though they originally existed in different publishers' universes, DC Comics (then called National) quickly sued Captain Marvel publisher Fawcett over the latter's infringement of their creation's theme and superpowers. 

In those days, characters like Superman were popping up left and right, but only Captain Marvel was regularly outselling the Man of Steel, leading to National's obvious consternation.

Mad Magazine, then published by the controversial EC Comics, took the opportunity to lampoon the situation by creating a story with Superduperman and Captain Marbles, obvious pastiches of the two heroes, duking it out. Since then, and since DC's purchase of Captain Marvel years later, the trope has extended into numerous media outlets including mainstream and Elseworlds stories, and even cartoons and animation.

Perhaps the best example of this rivalry, outside of Mad, is Alex Ross and Mark Waid's Kingdom Come, a story set in a bleak future where a retired Superman once again dons his cape to stop a new generation of heroes from wreaking violent havoc. In Kingdom Come, a brainwashed Captain Marvel becomes an aging Lex Luthor's secret weapon against Superman, setting the stage for the story's most devastating and climactic moment, in which the pair square off. 

The idea of Lex Luthor manipulating the two into combat was also used in the episode 'Clash' of Justice League Unlimited, another great example of the rivalry.

Wally West/Flash and Kyle Rayner/Green Lantern

Green Lantern #67 excerpt

Green Lantern #67 excerpt (Image credit: Paul Pelletier (Marvel Comics))

Wally West and Kyle Rayner have a lot in common, but almost couldn't be more different. Both are legacy heroes, carrying the names and powers of men who were some of the most powerful and well-known superheroes of their day, and both live in the shadow of those men. However, where Wally West (AKA the Flash) was mentored by his predecessor and grew up as a hero, Kyle Rayner never knew Earth's previous Green Lanterns and became a hero in the shadow of his predecessor's fall from grace.

In the mid-'90s, when Grant Morrison sought to revive the flagging Justice League franchise by focusing on its most popular core members, they naturally chose Flash and Green Lantern, who, at this point, were Wally West and Kyle Rayner, since Barry Allen and Hal Jordan had died in previous years. The tension between the two was almost immediately palpable, with Kyle seeing Wally as an irresponsible motormouth, and Wally seeing Kyle as an undeserving successor to Hal Jordan.

Though the woes of rebirths, returns, and reboots have driven this pair apart in recent years, there's no denying the rivalry and camaraderie present between the two while they were Earth's Green Lantern and Flash. The early issues of Grant Morrison's JLA illustrate their relationship the best, even including simple moments such as the pair bickering over constantly being teamed, or trash-talking over video games.

Captain America and Iron Man

Civil War #7 cover

Civil War #7 cover (Image credit: Steve McNiven (Marvel Comics))

The two cornerstones of Marvel's Avengers, and possibly even its wider universe, Captain America and Iron Man are most often staunch allies. But sometimes even the best of friends can become bitter rivals. Sometimes, all it takes is a simple difference in ideology to push a disagreement into all-out war.

While some of the conflicts on this list can be described as friendly rivalries, and the occasional feud between Cap and Iron Man can often be called that as well, in Marvel's Civil War, a dispute over the registration of superheroes, and the public reveal of their identities brought the two beyond blows and into full-scale combat, with both sides essentially picking teams and going at it, leading to numerous consequences like the dissolution of the Avengers, and the deaths of several characters, including Captain America himself.

Though Cap has since returned, and the pair have essentially reconciled, there are still moments of incredible tension. Recently, Iron Man went so far as to have Dr. Strange erase numerous memories from Captain America's mind in a bid to prevent him from taking possible drastic measures to save the world. So long as Captain America is an idealist, and Tony Stark is willing to take the low road, the pair will remain, on some level, rivals.

Namor and the Human Torch

Marvels #3 excerpt

Marvels #3 excerpt (Image credit: Alex Ross (Marvel Comics))

In the earliest days of Timely Comics, the company that would one day become Marvel Comics, the most celebrated characters were Namor the Sub-Mariner, an anti-hero from the depths of the ocean, and the Human Torch, an android that burst into flames on contact with oxygen. Going against the oldest of elemental truisms, Timely soon found that fans loved it when fire and water mixed, bringing the Torch and Namor together in the pages of Marvel Mystery Comics.

The rivalry between the Torch and Namor has seen some retcons, some expansions, and some flat out re-writings, there has always been a classic kind of rivalry between the man from Atlantis and the flaming android, generally stemming from their aforementioned fire/water dynamic, and from their proximity to each other as two of the premiere characters from a company that already knew how to break molds.

Though the rivalry has, in a way, continued into the present day, with Namor often coming into conflict with the Fantastic Four, the team of the current Human Torch, Johnny Storm, there is no better story than the first knock-down, drag-out fight between Namor and the original Torch. 

After some build-up, the conflict between Namor and the Torch came to a head in a breathtaking battle that took them to all ends of New York City, taking readers on a tour of actual landmarks and locations, sparking a tradition that defined Timely's successor, Marvel, as the home of heroes who live in the 'real world.'

Spider-Man and the Human Torch

Spider-Man Human Torch #1 excerpt

Spider-Man Human Torch #1 excerpt (Image credit: Ty Templeton (Marvel Comics))

Peter Parker and Johnny Storm might be the quintessential friendly rivals of the superhero world. In fact, their relationship might be even better described as friends. Possibly even best friends. Best friends who drive each other up the wall, and who take great delight in each other's consternation and misery. You know, like your friends.

Almost since they met and realized they were of similar age, Spidey and the Torch have had a strong back and forth dynamic, with each making the other miserable at every opportunity, but still knowing that they can count on each other when their backs are against the wall. They both have something that the other lacks. Spider-Man is smart, scientific, and responsible, while Johnny Storm is easy-going, affluent, and successful. The only thing they really share is their quick wit, which is most often used to hurl usually good-natured barbs back and forth.

In fact, when Johnny Storm was seemingly killed preventing an incursion from the Negative Zone, it was Spider-Man who he hand-picked as his successor among the Fantastic Four. The best story of their rivalry, however, came afterward in FF #17, where the pair become a superhero odd couple, culminating in a wild party attended by a host of strange creatures from the Negative Zone, resulting in strange post-party encounters for both Spidey and the Torch.

Hulk and Thing

Hulk & Thing: Hard Knocks #2 cover

Hulk & Thing: Hard Knocks #2 cover (Image credit: Jae Lee (Marvel Comics))

It's a simple question and one that's been asked since the early days of Marvel Comics: Who is the strongest? The challengers are the Hulk, whose rage causes his strength to increase in rapid increments, and Ben Grimm, the Thing, whose rocky hide and bulky frame make him one of the toughest heroes in all of Marveldom. And how do you settle such a question? Through well-measured, scientific tests? Feats of strength? Nope. By punching each other back and forth until one of them flinches.

While the pair have clashed numerous times, it seems the answer is almost always the Hulk, though Ben Grimm's craftiness has occasionally given him an edge. But the answer being obvious does not stop fans from asking, or from enjoying the results. In fact, the rivalry is so prevalent, that it even shows up outside of comic books, such as the pair's hilarious continued encounters in Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes season 2.

Perhaps the best stories, though, are the ones that truly typify the conflict, showing the differences and similarities between Hulk and Thing. Their first encounter in Fantastic Four #12 is great fun, featuring some of Jack Kirby's best renditions of the Hulk. Fantastic Four #112 is also excellent because of the altered dynamic between Bruce Banner, the Hulk's human form, and a human Ben Grimm who suffers uncontrollable changes into the Thing.

Wolverine and Cyclops

X-Men: Schism #4 excerpt

X-Men: Schism #4 excerpt (Image credit: Alan Davis (Marvel Comics))

All for the love of a woman – that's what the rivalry between Cyclops and Wolverine comes down to. Well, maybe not all, but certainly mostly. Though she's almost always been seen as the careful, high-minded Cyclops's true love, Jean Grey also found herself the object of the passionate, primal Wolverine, a dynamic that causes sparks to fly in all directions, especially between Wolverine's claws and Cyclops's optic blasts.

While she never had as deep a relationship with Logan as she has with Scott, Jean remained compelled by Wolverine's animal magnetism, which stood in stark contrast to Cyclops's measured, reliable nature. When an affair between Cyclops and the former villain Emma Frost drove a wedge between Jean and Cyclops, followed swiftly by Jean's death, the conflict between Wolverine and Cyclops finally came to blows, eventually escalating into a breaking of ranks between the pair.

While the events of the X-Men: Schism and the subsequent Avengers vs X-Men are not directly tied to Cyclops and Wolverine's shared love of Jean Grey, it certainly didn't put any dampers on their rage for each other when mutant terrorism caused numerous governments to begin building and employing sentinels. When the dust had cleared, the pair had broken the X-Men in half, with Scott remaining on the west coast in Utopia, the world he helped build for mutants, and Wolverine returning to New York to found his own school for young mutants, called, what else, the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning.

The feud seems to be over - for the time being at least - as Wolverine, Cyclops, and Jean Grey have been shown in recent X-Men comics as a romantic throuple of their own.

Batman and Superman

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #4 excerpt

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #4 excerpt (Image credit: Frank Miller/Lynn Varley (DC))

The best of friends, the worst of enemies. Two sides of the same coin. One represents the absolute pinnacle of human potential, while the other is an outside force dedicated to humanity's betterment. Superman and Batman have, in their long, storied histories, almost always been the strongest of allies, each providing the other with what they lack. But, as has been seen over and over again, sometimes the best of friends can become the worst of enemies.

Over the years, the trope of Batman and Superman turning on each other or simply starting as enemies has become almost as prevalent as the idea of their friendship. They've come to blows in numerous media, and rumors of a Superman vs. Batman film predated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice going back decades.

While stories like Red Son have shown alternate visions of a world where Superman and Batman are on opposites sides of a conflict, to say nothing of being actual enemies, perhaps their best known, and best told fight took place in Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which depicted a bleak future for Gotham City, in which Batman leaves retirement to take on the encroaching criminal elements once and for all. 

In the story's climactic moment, Batman dons a suit of battle armor, aggressively attacking Superman, who is acting on behalf of the government to take Batman down. Batman eventually wins (though not without cost) suggesting that all the power in the world is no match for human ingenuity and an uncompromising will to win.

George Marston

I've been Newsarama's resident Marvel Comics expert and general comic book historian since 2011. I've also been the on-site reporter at most major comic conventions such as Comic-Con International: San Diego, New York Comic Con, and C2E2. Outside of comic journalism, I am the artist of many weird pictures, and the guitarist of many heavy riffs. (They/Them)