How does one adapt a storyline that introduced four new characters, ran across multiple comic book titles, and is over four hundred pages long, all in a ninety-minute animated film? Well, with the Reign of the Supermen we get to see Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment giving it their best shot, but do they hit the mark? Working as a direct sequel to their 2018 animated feature Death of Superman, this film encompasses the events following Superman’s death at the hands of Doomsday, and his inevitable return, but to capture the scope and grandeur of the “Return of Superman” storyline, major changes had to be made, some working quite well, while others I’d have to say we’re a little less so.
The film opens with the world mourning the death of Superman, though some people believe mankind should step up and be their own superhero self-help talks alone will only get you so far, and without Superman around, crime in Metropolis has begun to get out of hand. Filling in the red boots of the fallen Last Son of Krypton are four very different heroes; first we have The Eradicator (Charles Halford), a visor-wearing Superman with a very “Dirty Harry” approach to meting out justice — as in he kills bad guys without a second thought; next there is Superboy (Cameron Monaghan), a hormonally challenged clone of Superman who seems more interested in hitting on women than fighting crime; then there is John Henry Irons AKA Steel (Cress Williams), a man in an armoured suit who is trying his best to stop high-tech weapons from flooding the streets; and finally there is Cyborg Superman (Jerry O’Connell and Patrick Fabian), who is the most disturbing of this quartet of Supermen, and not just because of his half-robot look.
The Death of Superman told a very condensed version of the original comic book story, but with Reign of the Supermen, we not only get an immensely abridged version of what comic book readers had experienced back in the 90s but we are also given a completely new story, with an entirely different villain … well, kind of. The first act of Reign of the Supermen does move several beats from the source material, with the various “Supermen” fighting over the rights to be the one and only Superman — except for Steel who just wants to honour the fallen hero — and we do get a nice added moment with Lois Lane (Rebecca Romijn) sitting down with Wonder Woman (Rosario Dawson), as they bond over their past relationships with The Man of Steel, but once the backbiting and super punching over “Who is the real Superman?” plays out, the mystery is basically forgotten by the screenwriters, as at about the thirty-minute mark the movie essentially chucks what was found in the comics into the dustbin.
I will now discuss key differences between the comic books and this animated adaptation, obviously, this will include spoilers, so stop reading now if you want to enjoy the full “mystery” of the Reign of the Supermen untainted. In this movie, we find Lex Luthor (Rainn Wilson) promoting his new hero, Superboy, who is sponsored and bankrolled by LexCorp, but the press conference is attacked by the Eradicator, who is looking to kill Lex — Luthor being a known if unconvicted criminal — which then leads to a massive super brawl, for as it turns out John Henry Irons/Steel was also in attendance — he’s there looking into LexCorp’s weapons turning up in the hands of criminals — and so Superboy, Steel and then Cyborg Superman all battle it out with the Eradicator. It’s the timely arrival of Cyborg Superman that drives away the Eradicator, and it is this victory which puts the cyborg ahead of the running for being The Real Superman, and this angers Luthor to no end, him wanting his “Superboy” to be the one and only hero of Metropolis. To fix this, he gets Superboy the top spot in The President’s security detail, for the ceremonial launching of the Justice League Watchtower, but when a boom tube opens, and Parademons terrorize the event, Superboy is defeated and Cyborg Superman is declared the “real” Superman when he saves The President of the United States.
Note: In the original comics, it was President Bill Clinton who declared Cyborg Superman to be the “real” Superman, after being saved by him during a terrorist attack, while in the animated film we get President Dale, who is clearly a stand-in for Hillary Clinton.
Getting the Justice League out of the way was an important element in both the comic and this adaptation — they are a force to be reckoned with and having them around would certainly complicate any evil plan. In the comic book, they were told by Cyborg Superman that the aliens, who had attacked and destroyed Coast City (killing over seven million people), had fled into space, and that Cyborg would stay and fight the Eradicator, who he claimed led the alien assault, while the Justice League would pursue the alien armada into deep space.
In Reign of the Supermen there is no destruction of Coast City — an event which set up the rise and fall of Hal Jordan — instead, the Boom Tube that had opened, and let the Parademons in, collapses and falls onto the League, appearing to have killed all of them. This is all kinds of bullshit. Are we to believe that none of the Justice League could move out of the way of a slowly falling portal? That they just stood around like a bunch of idiots?
The movie then diverges even further from the source material, by having Cyborg Superman create a new peacekeeping force, one to replace the presumed dead Justice League. This is done by turning regular people into a modified meta-human army he calls his Cyber Corp, using some advanced form of superpower-giving technology. Lois, of course, recognizes these modifications as being of Apokoliptian nature, and that the true villain of this piece is of course the villainous Darkseid (Tony Todd), and also discovers that Cyborg Superman is actually Hank Henshaw, who died in The Death of Superman after the Man of Steel was a no-show when his space shuttle was destroyed by meteors. In this adaptation, Henshaw has become Darkseid’s lackey, just to get some sweet revenge on Superman.
Now Darkseid is easily one of the most prominent villains in Superman’s rogue’s galley, a villain who can give the entire Justice League a run for their money, but he was not the architect behind the attack on Earth in the comics. In the Return of Superman storyline, Hank Henshaw was still revealed to be Cyborg Superman, also still pissed at Superman for supposedly letting him and his crew die, but he was no puppet to Darkseid. He had posed as Superman to destroy his reputation and had forcibly recruited the alien warlord Mongul, as part of an elaborate revenge plot against Superman’s adopted home, but still, he wasn’t Darkseid’s puppet.
Making Darkseid the “man behind the scenes” completely undercuts the threat of Cyborg Superman. When the actual Superman (Jerry O’Connell), who eventually wakes up from his Kryptonian healing matrix takes on Cyborg in this movie, he’s not fighting the chief threat to Earth, which would be Darkseid, instead, the film ends with our hero basically fighting a mechanical henchman. In the comic storyline, Cyborg Superman was so powerful that he had made Mongul his bitch, an alien who had in the past gone toe to toe with the real Superman, and only the team-up, consisting of Superman, Superboy, Supergirl and Green Lantern, was able to stop Cyborg Superman’s plan to turn Earth into a new Warworld.
In this movie we later discover that the Justice League weren’t actually dead, but simply trapped in another dimension, to eventually be saved by Lex Luthor hacking a Mother Box, and they spend the last act of the film working with Superboy and Steel to take down Cyborg Superman’s lame Cyber Corp, while a weakened Superman — death and rebirth takes a lot out of you — dukes it out with Cyborg Superman aboard the now launched Watchtower. Superman wins by stabbing Cyborg in the head with a crystal from the Fortress of Solitude, which contains the Eradicator’s essence — him having been revealed to be a Kryptonian defence system all along — and thus the day is saved.
Aside from containing four new Supermen, and the revelation that Cyborg Superman was actually a villain, there really aren’t too many similarities between this animated movie and the comic books it was supposedly based on. In the comics, Supergirl was key to taking down Cyborg Superman, yet she doesn’t even warrant a cameo in Reign of the Supermen. In the comic book, Superboy was not a clone created by Lex Luthor — he was a clone to be sure, but he’d been grown in the Cadmus labs after they’d briefly acquired the corpse of Superman, and not by LexCorp. In the comics, Luthor did want Superboy to sign with LexCorp and fight alongside Supergirl — who post-Crisis on Infinite Earth was not Superman’s cousin but actually synthetic protoplasm created by Lex Luthor — but the young and impulsive clone ended up signing with a shady entertainment lawyer.
There was simply no way that a ninety-minute animated movie was going to be able to encompass the four hundred-plus pages that made up the epic tale that is The Return of Superman, but in truncating the backstories of the four Supermen, the film is left feeling a little hollow, and with the Justice League crammed in — and embarrassingly disposed of — in such a lazy fashion, the Reign of the Supermen was bound to come across as a rushed and haphazard endeavour. On the other hand, the animation is quite nice, giving us some really fun action set pieces, and the voice casting is still one of Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment‘s best achievements, and I really look forward to more of Tony Todd as Darkseid.
Comic book purists will find much to gripe about with this adaptation, and its rushed characterizations will bother others, but there is still much to enjoy with this outing, I just think the Reign of the Supermen would have worked a lot better as a two-parter.
Reign of the Supermen (2019)
Movie Rank - 5/10
At ninety minutes Reign of the Supermen is one of the longer DC animated movies, but even at that length a lot of the source material was forcibly ditched, resulting in a shallow movie with some cool action sequences.