Looking back over the last twenty-five years, it’s hard to imagine just how big an impact The Death of Superman comic had when it was initially released. Not only were many comic fans shocked, but it became a media circus across the board – which I always found especially weird when you consider that in over eighty years of comics, he’d already died several times and he always came back – so it was almost a given that this story arc would eventually get adapted into a movie. However, it is 2018, and we are now looking at a third attempt at telling this seminal moment in the life of The Man of Steel.
In 2007, Bruce Timm helmed the direct-to-video animated movie Superman: Doomsday, that didn’t just tell the story arc of The Death of Superman, but for some reason included Lex Luthor creating a clone of Superman (which did not happen in the comics) and completely ditches the Justice League’s involvement, all in a 77 minute running time. The next attempt at an adaptation of The Death of Superman was Zack Snyder’s live action film Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice in 2016, where the fight with Doomsday came across as more of an afterthought than anything pertinent to the two hours preceding it. Once again, the source material was abandoned, and Lex Luthor is still making a clone – this time from the corpse of General Zod and not Superman’s – that becomes the monster Doomsday.
Co-directed by Jake Castoren and Sam Liu, this third telling of The Death of Superman – once again from Warner Bros. Animation – has been marketed as a film that would be “closer to the source material” and would be spread out over two films, concluding with Reign of the Supermen in 2019. Now, as the original story ran from 1992 to 1993 – with dozens of crossover titles – there is no way even two 88 minute animated films are going to be completely faithful to the comics, but I have to give the filmmakers props for trying. The voice acting is excellent – featuring many actors who have lent their voices to many DC animated projects over the years – and the level of animation and action on display is simply fantastic, but when all is said and done, did they manage to capture the true scope and emotional impact of the original Death of Superman?
A lot has happened with DC comics, and their animated counterparts, over the past twenty-five years – The New 52 and the DC Animated Movie Universe have both radically changed past continuity – and those changes pretty much prevent Jake Castoren and Sam Liu from being all that faithful to a comic book that was written twenty-five years ago. The roster of the Justice League is always changing – so no Blue Beetle or Guy Gardner in this movie – and back in 1993, when Doomsday entered the picture, Clark Kent and Lois Lane had already been married for a while. In this version of The Death of Superman, much of the running time focuses on the relationship between Lois (Rebecca Romijn) and Clark (Jerry O’Connell), with the crux of it being the fact that she doesn’t know his secret identity yet – that the eventual big reveal happens at Bippo’s seafood restaurant was a strange choice – and though the romantic banter in this movie works rather well – I particularly enjoyed the “Meet the Parents” scene where Lois has dinner with Martha and Jonathon Kent, and gets some of the dirt on Clark’s past loves – it does lessen the final impact of the movie when you have Superman dying mere moments after telling Lois his big secret.
What makes this version really stand out, is that the film’s PG 13 rating allowed the producers to not “pull any punches” as blood does fly, and the collateral damage among the populace gets pretty intense – Note to Self: Don’t go camping in the DC Universe because apparently you will either be killed by a bear or a rampaging monster – and throughout the film’s running time, you never lose the sense that people are dying all around you. But for me, the highlight of the film was in seeing the Justice League basically getting decimated in their battle with Doomsday – each member being taken out in brutal moments – as it makes that final fight with Superman that much more suspenseful. Seeing the Green Lantern (Nathan Fillion) and The Flash (Christopher Gorham) getting taken out so fast is shocking, and it quickly illustrates what a true threat Doomsday actually is – the fight between Doomsday and Wonder Woman (Rosario Dawson) was even more epic and beautifully choreographed by the animators – and when the League goes down you just know shit is about to get real.
The film does make a couple of odd choices – mostly stemming from the lack of Superman’s screen time than anything else – with the first one being the opening scene where Intergang attempts to kidnap the Mayor of Metropolis. The crooks are led by Bruno “Ugly” Mannheim (Trevor Devall) – outfitted with high-tech weapons and armor provided by Darkseid – and the street battle between Intergang and the police goes on for a surprisingly long time – with some cops clearly losing their lives – before Superman eventually shows up. So, what took him so long to get there? Was he off-world fighting alien warlords with the Justice League? Could he have been in the middle of a hot date with Lois? Sadly his tardiness is never addressed, and I would have let this whole thing slide if it wasn’t for the fact that in a later scene, a NASA spacecraft his ripped apart by asteroid fragments – caused by the approaching Doomsday, who in this version arrives via meteor – and we get this chilling moment where the shuttle pilot ensures his crew that Superman will save them, “Be calm everyone, he’s on his way, I know it.” — he’d mentioned to them earlier that Superman had saved his life in the past — so he’s positive the Man of Steel will not let him down, but Superman is a no show, and all of them die. That’s pretty damn dark. Where was Superman during this tragedy?
As fast as Superman is, he clearly can’t be everywhere – though with his ability to reverse time that shouldn’t even matter – but when guys in robot suits are shooting up City Hall, and blowing up cop cars, you’d think that would be something Superman would respond to ASAP, and a space shuttle rescue is almost a signature thing for him, so what are the filmmakers trying to say? Is it pushing some kind of message that the people of the world shouldn’t rely on Superman, that he is a crutch we can’t trust? That is certainly an interesting idea to explore – worthy of its own movie, even – but the issue is never really addressed here. We don’t even get a moment of Superman reflecting on the deaths of the astronauts, as he seems to have never been aware of the incident at all. How is that even possible? Even stranger is that when Doomsday makes landfall – his asteroid prison having landed in the ocean – Wonder Woman tells him not to cancel his lunch date with Lois, that the rest of the Justice League can handle it.
Worse is that Superman only learns of the Justice League getting their collective asses handed to them when Jimmy phones Lois, to let her know of the battle. Doesn’t Superman have something called Super-Hearing? How is the Daily Planet ahead of Superman on this? Yet it isn’t until Clark overhears the cellphone conversation between her and Jimmy that he takes off to help. So, does this mean that his Super-Hearing is only good for eavesdropping on a person’s phone conversation – a person sitting across the table from him – but it’s not strong enough to pick up the explosions and poundings his teammates were getting at the hands of Doomsday? When the first three League members go down under the monster’s fists, Batman requests back up, but somehow Superman isn’t on the phone tree for this kind of thing.
One of the hardest things for comic book writers to come up with are threats that require the entire Justice League, and not just leave it for Superman to handle. Growing up watching The Super Friends, it was always kind of embarrassing that almost every problem that they’d face, Superman alone could have solved in a heartbeat, which makes the threat of Doomsday – a being that does eventually kill Superman – something that should have been on his radar a little faster. Was the rest of the Justice League trying to prove their worth by not immediately calling him in?
When the movie ended I was left with the conclusion that if Superman had been with the Justice League from the outset, their combined might would have put Doomsday down, without anyone having to die.
The Death of Superman is certainly a much closer adaptation of the comic book arc than the previous two incarnations – seeing the Justice League battling Doomsday being a key factor here – and the final fight between the two titans is superbly done, but it still fails to capture the scope and emotional impact of the comic book. There are some strange choices made by the writers of the adaptation – like once again Luthor (Rainn Wilson) making a clone of Superman – but overall it’s still a pretty solid movie — probably the best we’re going to get — and I do look forward to next year’s adaptation of the Reign of the Supermen.