East vs. West. Saiyan vs. Kryptonian. For many reasons this seems to be the most popular fictional battle of heroes for fans of both Western comics and Japanese manga. One search for “Goku vs. Superman” on the internet will lead you to a seemingly endless amount of threads on comic book forums discussing the fictional clash of titans. It makes sense, in a lot of ways, Goku and Superman are direct parallels to one another: both are aliens who crash on Earth after escaping a dying planet, both fight to uphold peace and justice in the universe, and both are fearless in their struggle against evil. However, as you might imagine, debate on this fictional matchup can quickly devolve into insults and emotions. For most fans these characters were introduced to them at an early age, and so hold a special place in their childhood. No one wants to admit that his or her favorite hero would be defeated in a one on one match. However, there’s one huge problem when discussing this fictional battle: Superman has been around since 1938. This creates a lot of complications, as there are so many iterations of Superman it’s hard to know where to start. Each iteration of Superman fluctuates wildly in capability: the original iteration of Superman that debuted in Action Comics #1 can only jump 1/8 of a mile, yet Silver Age Superman can sneeze away a whole solar system. As you might imagine this can confound the matter greatly. The best of example of the confusion and chaos this can cause can be found in the wildly popular YouTube video “Goku VS Superman DEATH BATLLE.’ In the video the narrators combine several different iterations of Superman together to form their argument for why Superman would win. While I don’t necessarily have a problem with the outcome, the methodology behind it does seem a bit disingenuous.
On the other hand, Goku has the benefit of being written linearly by one author: Akira Toriyama. While the nebulous idea of “power levels” in Dragon Ball can sometimes bog people down, it doesn’t have to. Since it’s impossible to figure out exactly what one unit of a “power level” is, most people resort to comparing feats of power and strength when determining the winner of this match up. Prior to Dragon Ball Super many Superman fans scoffed at the idea that Goku could even compete with the weakest iterations of Superman. I’ve always found this absurd, since most characters in Dragon Ball could very easily destroy a planet from very early on in the manga. However, with the release of Dragon Ball Super, Goku has reaches unprecedented levels of power. After becoming a Super Saiyan God through an ancient ritual Goku nearly destroys the entire universe in his clash with the God of Destruction, Beerus. With these new feats Goku becomes a much more formidable opponent.
This allows him, realistically speaking, to surpass many iterations of Superman, even the likes of Post-Crisis Superman (who died in a brawl defeating Doomsday).
Of course, there are still other versions of Superman such as Thought Robot Superman who were basically designed to be unbeatable (Thought Robot Superman breaks the 4th wall and can feel the pages of the comic turning—no, really.) It’s hard to imagine Goku will ever reach the heights of Thought Robot Superman, but there’s still plenty of Dragon Ball Super left to go!
Ultimately, the winner of this matchup is less entertaining than the idea itself. Two noble heroes, who would probably never have a reason to fight, duking it out. Both are the quintessential heroes of their medium and both will have an enduring legacy for years to come.