Superheroes and professional sports have a lot in common. Astonishing feats, heated rivalries, appalling fashion choices… it’s all a rich tapestry. And on more than a few occasions, they have crossed over to create some of the weirdest moments in pop-culture history. Some have been memorable, others merely baffling, but with the big game this weekend, we figured we’d celebrate 10 of the most notable mash-ups before the comic book world and the world of sports. Presented in descending order below. #AFJ4LIFE
10. Triple-A Baseball Heroes
In 2007, Marvel released this, um, thing as a free giveaway to a number of minor league baseball stadiums around the country. It featured various Marvel heroes taking in a ballgame, only to be called into action when the Hulk goes nuts on the Sandman in the bleachers. As a naked piece of cross-promotion, it’s amusing enough… though not nearly as oddball as its cover suggests. (It also commits the unforgivable sin of putting well-established Mets fan Peter Parker in a Yankees shirt.)
9. Kickers Inc./ NFL SuperPro
If it’s weird you’re looking for, Marvel put out a pair of comic book series that veer into the crazy weeds quickly. The first, Kickers, Inc. involved a team of former football players imbued with superpowers who open up a heroes-for-hire gig in Marvel’s then-freshly-minted New Universe. It barely lasted 12 issues, but at least it had the benefit of being a genuine attempt to tell a superhero story instead of a brazen sports-related cash grab.
The same can’t be said for NFL SuperPro, which concerns a sports reporter whose football career was cut short while saving a child from injury. A garden-variety Bizarre Chemical Accident imbues him with superpowers, and he dons an indestructible football uniform to fight crime under the handle SuperPro. It was basically an excuse to slap NFL logos all over the pages, and like its predecessor died a swift and ugly death.
DC is no stranger to naked cash grabs, but they have a villain who does much more than just sell comics at ballparks. Lawrence Crook, a disgruntled ex-athlete who turned to a life of crime, specialized in sports gimmicks and sports-related crimes: starting with a polo match all the way back in All American Comics #85 published in 1947. He’s not exactly on the varsity squad of all-time villains, but he’s hung in there through the years and made memorable animated appearances in The Brave and The Bold (seen above), Young Justice, and Justice League Unlimited.
7. Plane Rescue Superman Returns
Bryan Singer’s reboot of the Christopher Reeve-era Superman never quite caught fire with the fans, but even the harshest critic has to smile at the film’s show-stopping set piece involving the Man of Steel’s (Brandon Routh) rescue of a crashing plane. He sets it down in Metropolis Stadium in the middle of a baseball game… prompting Perry White (Frank Langella) to wonder how they’re going to get the jet out of the park. It’s a clever bit from an underrated chapter in the Superman film franchise.
6. Superman-Flash Footrace
One of the joys of superhero nerd-dom is arguing which character is stronger, tougher, faster, etc. Nowhere has this come to life more readily than in the perennial (and much loved) footrace between Superman and the Flash. The notion first took place in 1967’s Superman #199, when the UN proposed a race around the world for charity. The first race ended in a tie… as did most of the subsequent races, which DC trucked out every few years to give fans something to talk about. The match was re-imagined in a great episode of Superman: The Animated Series in the 1990s, and again as the capper to last year’s live-action Justice League movie. The notion never quite goes out of style and remains one of the more cheerful evergreens of the DC Universe.
With their NFL tie-in foolishness safely behind them, Marvel again took up the pro-athlete-turned superhero notion with Mosaic, first published in 2016. Former pro basketball played Morris Sacket gains the ability to jump from person to person while his own form is long gone. The comic benefits from using his basketball skills as a character trait instead of a forced gimmick for his powers, and improves upon the limp storytelling of the NFL SuperPro era.
4. Fear of Victory
Batman: The Animated Series stands as one of the high points of the DC Universe in any format, and this late-inning entry to the show’s inaugural season remains a favorite. It features the return of the Scarecrow: betting big against favored athletes only to ensure they choke in the clutch thanks to handy use of his fear gas. The real twist comes when Robin gets a whiff and needs to fight it off to help bring Crane to justice. The clever premise was typical of The Animated Series at its best, as well as giving the Scarecrow a scarier look after a less-than-thrilling early appearance.
3. The X-Men Play Ball
This is Marvel’s answer to the Flash-Superman footraces: getting Xavier’s gang out onto the diamond for a powered-enhanced nine innings of fun. It started way back in X-Men #110, with Nightcrawler on the mound and Colossus at the plate, and repeated itself at least four other times in various X-Men comics (three of them penned by series stalwart Chris Claremont). It’s still one of the more charming concepts in the long history of Marvel’s Merry Mutants.
2. The Stadium Destruction in The Dark Knight Rises
Expectations for The Dark Knight Rises were already sky-high when an early trailer for the film revealed what turned out to be the film’s most spectacular moment: the demolition of Gotham Stadium’s playing field as part of Bane’s (Tom Hardy) effort to bring the city to its knees. Beyond the concept itself (still touching on troubling vibes 11 years after 9/11) it was director Christopher Nolan’s tracking shot that gave the sequence its haunting power: following real-life NFL star Hines Ward as he runs the kick back… and the field disintegrates behind him. The film itself didn’t quite live up the hype (I’m not sure any film could have), but it’s still a respected part of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and the sequence hasn’t lost a bit of its power.
1. Superman vs. Muhammad Ali
The Man of Steel has a habit of teaming up with real-life celebrities (as recently as a series of AmEx ads featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Patrick Warburton), but none measured up to Supes the way Muhammad Ali did. With pencils by Neal Adams and a story by Adams and Denny O’Neil, the oversized Superman vs. Muhammad Ali is actually a great deal of fun, with the two teaming up to stop an alien invasion and decide which of them is really “the greatest.” Ironically, delays pushed the release from late 1977 to early 1978… shortly after Ali lost the heavyweight title to Leon Spinks. (He took it back a few months later.) That said, the issue is still a fan favorite: taking full advantage of its strange concept and turning it into a one-of-a-kind entry in Kal-El’s long history (good enough to earn a space in DC’s 75th Anniversary short).