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Illustration featuring several famous characters coming together to do battle Illustration: Jackie_Ferrentino for Polygon

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‘Who Would Win?’ is a wonderful vice that must be enjoyed responsibly

The answer shouldn’t be that everybody loses

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

It might be hard to believe in the era of Ubisoft NFTs and Chipotle-branded TikToks, but there was a time when companies had blogs. And in those innocent, bygone days (specifically, 2011) a blazing flame war erupted in the comments of DC Comics’ The Source, forcing DC employees to shut down the blog’s comments section. As far as I’m aware, it was never turned back on in the history of The Source.

One eternal question spans all of pop culture: "Who would win?" That's why we're dedicating an entire week to debates that have shaped comics, movies, TV, and games, for better and worse. Prepare yourself for Polygon's Who Would Win Week..

Ignited by preview pages of Superman #709, the comments section had devolved in ways predictable to internet arguments: name-calling, swears, personal imprecations, attacks on creators. What topic could possibly have been so controversial as to prompt this ultimate bucket of sand? Why, a tale as old as superhero time: “Who would win in a race, Superman or the Flash?”

Who would win … Batman or Superman? The Avengers or the X-Men? Sonic or Mario? Goku or Saitama? For some, these questions stoke the creative and collaborative parts of their brains. Exploring the possible answers has led to enduring, valuable stories in every medium — and fun popcorn experiences, too. It’s also simply a social pleasure, exploring the stuff you love from new angles, sharing those angles, and gaining a deeper appreciation for it whether people agree or disagree.

But for others, “who would win?” incites flashbacks to disrupted forums, ruined afternoons, and strained friendships. Because for a third group of people, the eternal question awakes something dark and antisocial.

That’s because “Who would win?” games are an indulgence, and like any vice, it has a dark side.

The quantitative and the qualitative

Superman strains to put a hand on a speeding Flash’s shoulder, thinking “Always wondered... just which of us... was fastest...” in Superman #709 (2011). Image: J. Michael Straczynski, Chris Roberson, Eddy Barrows, Allan Goldman/DC Comics

Boil any “who would win?” question down to its essence and you will find one drop of truth left in the pot. The speculation is born from a desire to take the qualitative — elements within popular works of fiction (like characters or factions) or shared perceptions of real things (like “the Xbox” or “Star Trek”) — and transform it into the quantitative. To take the subjective, and transform it into a single objective reckoning; a shared foundation that can be used to build a collective fantasy.

The curators of these fictions, their creators, occasionally offer official answers to “who would win?” questions. Superhero power levels rose to prominence when characters like the X-Men jumped from the pages of comics to Marvel trading cards. Decades of multiverse-bridging competitive-brawler video games like Super Smash Bros. have explicitly enticed players with the fantasy of finding out “Who would win, Samus or Link?” (But the game developers don’t actually provide an answer, because the most enjoyable fighting games are ones where each fighter’s moveset allows for any preconceived notion to be upended by the right combo.)

But having to obey ironclad rules about how much the Hulk can lift can be a hindrance to someone who’s actually writing Hulk comics. To a fan, the answer to “who would win?” can be a statement of “fact,” but to a creator — of a comic like Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, or a movie like Godzilla vs. Mothra, or a game like Kingdom Hearts (in which Donald Duck can battle Cloud Strife) — the answer has to be a story, a setup, a collection of characters. And in stories, the pressures of narrative structure and audience expectation are far more real than any made-up power levels on a trading card or fandom-accepted rules.

Fans might point out that if Superman can run faster than the Flash, what is even the point of the Flash? But in a creator’s eye, the possibility that Superman could be faster makes for conflict and uncertainty — or maybe it’s just fun to write a Flash crossover with a superhero who can actually keep up with him.

“Who would win?” speculation isn’t for creators. It’s for fans, the Star Wars nerds who compare Force powers and saber colors, the My Hero Academia, X-Men, or Justice League geeks drafting their ideal superhero team, or the WWE diehards sharing their dream matches. It’s all literally fun and games — until fans start to make their answer part of their personal identity. That’s when the defeat of their favorite becomes a referendum on their person. When enthusiasm devolves into tribalism, tempers flare, blood pressures rise, and placid references to Goku’s power levels become flashpoints. Oh, and one more thing: brands make money.

Tribalism is bad, but it’s great for capitalism

If an audience’s primary way of engaging with their fandom is the collection of their products, for reasons like sentimental value (Funko Pops), social collateral (limited-edition statues), or simply to keep up one’s personal expertise (comics), that’s good for a Brand. But if that enthusiastic community feels compelled to compete with another in items owned, books devoured, movies viewed, box offices broken, Rotten Tomato score rankings — that’s great for a Brand.

History suggests it’s terrible for anyone who has to interact with that fandom, like the folks running DC’s Source Blog. As a DC Comics fan who occasionally reviews superhero movies, I can’t tell you how tired I am of hearing that Marvel pays critics to give the MCU good reviews and the DCEU bad ones.

But what business would balk at a completely external, free driver of engagement with their product? It’s a fan base that, if the Brand is in any way perceived as losing, feels as though they, personally, are losing, too.

Collection and consumption are not the only way for fandoms to engage with the object of their entertainment. But not even curative, creative, or transformative fandoms are immune to the siren call of “who would win?” After all, what is “Team Edward vs. Team Jacob” or “Peeta vs. Gale” if not “Who would win at being the best boyfriend?” The versus scenario still makes a highly sought-after official branded T-shirt, so that no one at the midnight premiere will have any confusion about where you stand on the matter.

Take the lesson from this pitch perfect parody/slash historical reenactment video from Rainey Ovalle. Those two gentlemen are having a “who would win?” discussion that, while they ultimately agree that Midoriya of My Hero Academia would not win in a fight against Saitama of One Punch Man, Midoriya has a long way to go before he’s fully in control of all the powers of his unique and legendary Quirk. Maybe someday, he’ll get there. Which is the core thematic throughline of My Hero Academia in the first place! This is social bonding! It’s critical engagement! This is exactly what is ruined when the breathless Goku stan arrives.

“Who would win?” must be enjoyed responsibly. It must not be taken too seriously. It must not necessarily be canon. And we should be wary of how it plays into the capitalist forces around us. But it should be enjoyed.

Just please don’t get so mad about the Flash that I have to shut down comments on this post.