The Death of Superman is yet again another entry into Warner Bros’ massively successful DC Comics line of animated adaptations of DC’s landmark stories. The movie is adapted from the comic book crossover event, The Death and Return of Superman – interchangeably referred to as The Reign of Superman – published in multiple DC titles beginning in December 1992 and lasting until October 1993. The movie rated PG-13 for violence and adult content is co-directed by Jake Castorena and Sam Liu and released directly to video on July 24th as a reintroduction to the mysterious and unstoppable villain, Doomsday, and a prelude to the upcoming follow-up titled The Reign of the Supermen set to release in early 2019.
Superman (Jerry O’Connell) finds himself in the fight of his life, battling on two fronts. On the first front, he’s fighting the threat his secret identity poses to his growing relationship with Lois Lane (Rebecca Romijn). And, on the second front, he’s battling an unstoppable monster from beyond the stars. Superman is, thus, faced with two world-shattering choices: 1) sacrifice his secret identity to save his relationship, and 2) sacrifice his life to save the people of Metropolis and potentially the world.
The film is the typical, loud superhero action-adventure with splashes of suspense and thoughtful drama throughout dealing with vulnerability and identity. It opens with a prologue-esque scene in which Intergang thugs kidnap and attempt to abscond with the mayor of Metropolis but not before tangling with the police and running afoul of Superman. The scene is the typical hero-interrupts-the-villainous caper, but the writers and director mask the overall cookie-cutter feel of the scene with the awesomeness of Superman’s power feats and the charm of his moral superiority. The scene reveals itself at the end as a segue to introduce the Justice League as well as introduce plot threads for future films, shedding its charm in the process.
Act I begins by presenting the subjective problem: Clark Kent’s trouble in his relationship with Lois Lane – the anxiety caused by secretly being Superman and needing to protect Lois from the dangers that it presents. The act juxtaposes Clark Kent’s secrecy toward Lois against Superman’s transparency to the world as he reveals in an interview the spacecraft that carried him to Earth. The act shows that Superman is willing to use his invulnerability – literally and figuratively – to make sacrifices for the good of the people but he struggles to truly sacrifice himself for love because of the unsettling vulnerability he feels. The act concludes with a brief interaction between Superman and Lex Luthor in which Superman expresses suspicions of Luthor’s involvement with plot threads from the prologue. The scene flatters Superman but is in no way advantageous to Lex Luthor’s character, giving the scene a feeling of marginal relevance.
Act II introduces the films objective problem in a typical monster-movie fashion by employing elements of suspense to build the tension of an eventual reveal of the principal antagonist. We see a crew of Astronauts conducting maintenance on a space station when a wormhole (called a boom-tube in DC Comics canon) opens in the fabric of space and hurls a meteor toward Earth, obliterating the station, the shuttle, and its crew in the process. The meteor lands in the ocean, capturing both the attention of the Atlanteans and of Lex Luthor who dispatches a team to investigate. At the site, Luthor’s team encounters a squad of Atlantean investigators before both parties meet a grisly end by the principal antagonist, unseen at this point, as Luthor watches intrigued.
In Act III, the antagonist goes full evil-guy by first doing slasher-flick stuff followed by monster-movie stuff, cutting a bloody swath across the eastern seaboard toward Metropolis. The Justice League is alerted to the murderous rampage and, without Superman, engage the monster in a brutal and ultimately futile clash. The action pauses as we get back to Clark Kent, who has been grappling with the decision of revealing himself as Superman, having lunch with Lois in an effort to reveal to her his alter ego and mend the rift in their relationship. Lois laughs at him when he tells her, and he takes off his glasses and bids her to look past his defenses and emotional armor. At that moment, we’re in the seat with Lois as she deals with skepticism that Superman, of all people, is the problem in her relationship. She nearly bursts with surprise when she sees the truth that had been in front of her the whole time. Clark and Lois are immediately interrupted by emergency calls – the former by Batman begging for aid because the entire league was leveled and the latter by the Daily Planet needing Lois to broadcast the bloodbath – leaving us with barely any time to absorb the gravity of the situation because we’re yanked out of the drama and thrust back into the action without looking back.
The danger doesn’t let up in Act IV as the superhero elements are combined with the monster-movie elements and we see the Justice League being fully dismantled and Doomsday not having slowed. Wonder Woman doesn’t let us down, though. Despite being injured, she goes in for round two with Doomsday, breaking bad in all of her mythological glory. Doomsday, ultimately, proves the victor and prepares to kill Wonder Woman when Superman shows up in the nick of time. He engages Doomsday, trading blows in titanic displays of power that devastate Metropolis. Midway through the fight, Luthor shows up in a battlesuit of his own design and gloats like a petulant child before going on the attack, driving Doomsday back while Superman takes a moment of respite. And, just as it seems that Luthor might pull off stopping Doomsday, Doomsday turns the tables on Luthor, plucking him from his battle armor with little to no effort. Yet again, in true Superman fashion, Supes saves Luthor at the last second and takes the fight to the monster once again. Superman and Doomsday pummel each other endlessly, Superman fatiguing and Doomsday showing no worse for wear. In the end, Doomsday stands over Superman in a crater, preparing to deliver the killing stroke on Superman. When, suddenly, a rock hits Doomsday in the head and bounces off harmlessly. Doomsday turns to find Lois, who was filming the event with Jimmy Olsen, standing there to defend and die for the man she loves. Doomsday turns from Superman and walks over to murder Lois. Superman, beaten within an inch of his life, musters every last bit of power and rockets at Doomsday with all of his might, ramming the beast, twisting its neck in an unholy fashion, and stopping it finally. Having been impaled during the final attack, Superman falls to the ground where Lois cradles him, telling him that she loves him for the first and last time.
The movie ends with a rapid-fire funeral with a eulogy delivered by none other than Lex Luthor; the Justice League watches him suspiciously to make sure we didn’t forget that Luthor is a bad guy. Then, telegraphing a set up for the next movie, we get a cameo of a shadowy caped figure flying away from Superman’s mausoleum in the middle of the night.
The script is good and follows the overall format of the source material from which it was adapted, taking creative liberties to make the story more personal as well as more relevant two decades later (except for the Blackberry that was capturing video…I don’t know what that was about). So, I give it a thumbs up. The voice-acting, however, was not nearly as solid. Jerry O’Connell did a fine job reprising his role as Superman and portraying the all-American do-gooder who was anxious about his girlfriend meeting his parents, fearing what she may learn. The same cannot be said for Rebecca Romijn as her portrayal of Lois lacked any charisma at all. As a matter of fact, Romijn was eclipsed too often by the supporting voice-actress Toks Olgandoye playing Cat Grant. Even Rosario Dawson, who provided the voice of Wonder Woman, offers a galaxy of more charisma with a fraction of the lines. Rainn Wilson’s portrayal of Lex Luthor was marginally better than Romijn but still managed to portray a weak Luthor who came off like Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory when he should have been more akin to the Butcher from Gangs of New York. Doomsday’s roar is great though! I think he was portrayed by the T-Rex from Jurassic World. Get him an Oscar!
The animation was top-notch, matching the art from Justice League War and Aquaman: The Throne of Atlantis. The world the movie took place in, though, was stale and sparsely populated. For a city with a population equal to New York City, Metropolis sure is empty. And, the devastating path that Doomsday carves on his way to Metropolis appeared uninhabited except for the occasional camper or bystander trying to capture crowdsourced video of the action. As such, the destruction levied by Doomsday seems far less impactful than it should have. Giving Doomsday the opportunity to rampage through crowds of people would have increased the stakes and the sense of urgency. In its current state, the fight with Doomsday seems more of a threat to Superman than to the population at large. The rating of the movie may have factored into this as Doomsday’s indiscriminate mauling of mass innocents may have driven the film into an R-rating, severely limiting its accessibility by a wide audience.
Overall, The Death of Superman is a good adaptation of the original event and a far better adaptation than Superman: Doomsday released in 2007 which departed heavily from the source material. However, this adaptation suffers a bit in its substitution of the current Justice League over the one from the actual book. Part of the mystique of Doomsday was his undisputed and brutal defeat of the Justice League before Superman’s arrival. Additionally, the movie gives off a vibe that it was trying to correct the mistakes of the controversial (and otherwise awful) live-action 2016 Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice feature film directed by Zack Snyder but not trying to overtly subvert it and draw the vocal ire of Snyder fanboys who would undoubtedly take to social media to scream their praise for the travesty we all watched in March 2016. All that said, the movie did several great things and kind of missed the mark on others for above-average marks instead of excellent.
I feel like the movie did Doomsday a solid, both in his adaptation and as a credible threat. It beats down the Justice League with little effort, looks downright badass with the red eyes and bony eruptions, and has a top-notch monstrous roar. It also sported the heat vision of its live-action counterpart. Although a departure from the source material, I feel the heat vision is a good addition as the Kryptonian origin makes the power sensible. This version of Doomsday is, therefore, enjoyable to watch and far superior to the live-action one.
The love story was a welcome addition. In the source material, Lois and Clark were an established thing, so they weren’t grappling with where to go next nor with the vulnerabilities that make surrendering to love difficult. In this movie, it’s easy to relate to Superman’s vulnerability and Lois’ frustration as they go through the anxiety of meeting parents and of revealing the deep truths of the self.
The Justice League was a bit lackluster and Luthor was disappointing—not awful, just disappointing. In the case of the former, the wholesale defeat of the Justice League in the source material was a major plug for the threat Doomsday posed. While the Justice League was defeated in The Death of Superman, the fight didn’t carry the same weight. I’ll point specifically to a frame in the comics in which Booster Gold was launched into the sky by the sheer power and impulse of a punch from Doomsday. Superman, rushing to the scene of the violence, caught Booster two states over. The movie could have mimicked this scene possibly with Cyborg or Green Lantern but neglected it altogether. Additionally, the arrival of Superman in the comics showed his reliance on his invulnerability in combat as he smugly shrugs off a punch to the gut by Doomsday. However, the following kick sent Superman careening through a house and demonstrated that Doomsday was holding back while it was breaking its foot off in the 1992 Justice League line-up. Perhaps Warner Brothers didn’t want to disrespect the Justice League dream team, which is fine, or it was the PG-13 rating rearing its ugly head again; either way, it didn’t deliver the same stakes.
In the case of the latter, simply put, Luthor doesn’t behave like a petulant child. He is self-aggrandizing, selfish, and self-promoting but he’s not a whiny, silver-spoon-in-his-mouth jerk hellbent on cackling his way into the hearts of the public. Luthor is a confident, calculated tycoon of an industrialist with a glamorous smile and a meanstreak and a complete lack of empathy—think: The Wolf of Wallstreet minus the raging drug use. Luthor wasn’t any of that in this movie, but he wasn’t awful either, he was just meh.
Finally, the funeral scene was brief and didn’t measure up to the strength of the source material’s Funeral for a Friend arc. The movie breezes through the funeral like it were rushing to get to the end so the shadowy caped-cameo could be made. To major points that stand out in Funeral for a Friend were the eulogy and aid offered by the recovering Justice League. In the source material, the President of the United States gave Superman’s eulogy suggesting the impact of Superman’s iconic heroism. Meanwhile, the Justice League returns to the scene of their battle with Doomsday to rebuild the house that Superman destroyed after he was kicked. You see, the family who lived in that house, a family that lost everything that day, sent a letter to the Justice League thanking them for saving the family’s lives. So, Funeral for a Friend was a heartfelt portion of the story that took the time out to appreciate not just Superman’s heroism, but heroism in general. Hopefully, the beginning of The Reign of the Supermen will dedicate a few more minutes to Funeral for a Friend.
All in all, The Death of Superman is a good, if not intense, adaptation of the source material. The movie updates the narrative for a modern audience and sets up The Reign of the Supermen well. The fans of the original story will more than likely find the movie enjoyable. For those disappointed by the live-action film, I feel like this animated adaptation captures what the live-action film refused to do. And, for new fans, I think they will experience a timeless event that has impacted comics since…especially with the Reign on the horizon. I just want to say that I’m excited to see who portrays Superboy.