Note: I'm no comic book expert, but these represent my thoughts as a general fan of both characters.
It was recently announced at the San Diego Comic Con that the next Superman movie would feature the Man of Steel battling the Dark Knight [note: an entirely new Batman, as the one from the recent trilogy is set in too realistic a universe]. It's a battle fans have waited a long time for; while it's been done in the comics before, never have these two titans faced off on the silver screen. Of course, there are some immediately apparent issues: Superman's strength and abilities are godlike, whereas Batman is a mere human (albeit a supremely intelligent one with an insane amount of money). I don't want to think too much of how the battle will play out, but I'd imagine it'd be something like this comic by Julia Lepetit and Andrew Bridgman on Dorkly:
All this talk about the upcoming movie got me thinking about another battle these two have had, one they've been engaged in for much longer: the title of greatest superhero. In other words, not simply who would win in a fight, but which character is the better superhero overall.
Anyone who knows me personally knows that Superman is my unhesitant answer. He's the first, he's the strongest. As the years go on, however, I seem to represent a more significant minority. After all, Batman is almost undoubtedly the more popular character in the public mindshare, something that reflects current storytelling trends in popular entertainment. Batman is human, he's relatable, and he suffers from the same moral issues we all face in our day-to-day lives. He's also closer to the archetype of the antihero so many find appealing, yet still remains a good-guy; perhaps 'Byronic hero' is a closer description. People just seem to be attracted to that sort of darkness, and the ethical dilemmas Batman is frequently asked to resolve seem to be intrinsic to his very character.
This makes the Caped Crusader, in some ways, easy to write for. So often confronting enemies with natural abilities much greater than his, you expect him to struggle. Set in a universe where characters can run faster than the speed of light or repair rips in reality with their bare hands, Batman represents the perpetual underdog, and an unyielding example of what humanity is capable when the odds are stacked up against it. Of course, this isn't always the case. The other part of Batman's appeal is that his recurring villains are often simply criminals with no special powers; these tend to be the ones that place him in moral catch-22s. He's vulnerable to, yet capable against, enemies from everyday mobsters to galactic overloads. He strives for the general idea of justice in a world filled with darkness, including his own. This all makes for prime entertainment fodder.
Where does that leave Superman then, the over-powered, endlessly-charming, always-does-the-right-thing boy in blue? How do you build up drama in a story where you know, incontrovertibly, that Supes will win? Perhaps more importantly, how do you do this when you know he will win the right way? It seems about as easy as walking on a millimeter thin tightrope. I wont even bother addressing Superman's strength here; he'll virtually always find a way to be powerful enough to fight a given enemy. Coming up with a moral script is more troublesome. If you allow him to defeat an enemy without questioning the right choice, the story becomes boring and predictable. On the other hand, make him choose an action that isn't obviously the correct ethical one, and you're accused of going against what Superman's very character stands for. I mean, if Superman makes a mistake, it's probably because he was being mind-controlled. Go figure.
Therein lies the issue. With both characters you know the good guy will win, but with Batman, you're less sure how. But I don't think Superman's story woes are enough to dismiss him as inferior, because ultimately he is the unyielding monolith against which all other superheroes are measured. I feel that pressure is taken for granted, and it's the appreciation of it that makes me side with Superman.
Batman's ethical conflicts are captivating, but there's something to be said about the hero who has the ability to obliterate anyone in his path, yet still chooses to do the right thing in virtually every possible instance. After all, the physical confrontation between Superman and Batman is only interesting because we know objectively that Batman is orders of magnitude weaker; we expect Batman to somehow have to overcome that weakness in order for it to be a compelling match. It's not Superman's fault he is so powerful, but it is his responsibility to make the right choices with that power, something he does unrelentingly.
This is why at the end of the day, Superman is the unwritten leader of the Justice League, why he's the last character called in to save the day. Superman leads by example, is an ideal for humanity to strive for. And I don't know about you, -- this is now purely personal -- but I'm a bit tired of the recurrence of the dark, gritty, brooding hero in the media. It's refreshing to have someone who just does the right thing because it's the right thing, and not spend half an hour on melancholy exposition internally questioning the validity of his choice.
In some ways, then, I think the two characters have become inextricably intertwined as DC's representation of Good. If Batman represents humanity's struggle to maintain justice in within its own darkness, Superman represents justice at peak form.
Which one ends up being more interesting? Well, that's up to you.