The Many Deaths of Superman On Screen
As 1993's The Death Of Superman completes its journey to the screen, we look at the various adaps of the Man of Steel's not-so-final battle
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This feature contains major spoilers for Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Justice League, among other Superman films and TV shows.
Superman has died before and he will probably die again. And yet, despite having been adapted for the screen before, the release of The Death Of Superman animated movie and its sequel Reign Of The Supermen (which will screen in theaters in a special double feature this week) marks the end of a long journey through development hell for one particular version of the Man of Steel’s demise.
DC Comics’ penchant for Elseworlds, “What If” imaginary stories, and other out-of-continuity escapades mean that writers have been killing off the seemingly invulnerable hero for a long time. For instance, Superman #149 tells an entertaining imaginary story in which Lex Luthor formulates a cure for cancer, seemingly just to gain Superman’s trust and get close enough to eventually murder him.
Although that kind of story is better written and executed, the iconic “Death Of Superman” story is the 1992-1993 arc of the same name, which attracted an unprecedented amount of mainstream media coverage when it was first revealed. In terms of story, the arc saw Doomsday, a monster contrived purely for this story, arriving on Earth and making short work of the Justice League before going mano-a-mano with Superman. In front of the Daily Planet building, the two finally exchange lethal blows.
January 1993’s Superman #75, an issue comprised entirely of splash pages, sold more than six million copies as a result of the hype surrounding it. Unsurprisingly, sales fell off for the rest of the arc. If everyone had kept reading, they’d have found out about the emergence of four would-be Supermen, ranging from John Henry Irons’ Steel to the alien Eradicator. That’s before the real Kal-El makes his inevitable return, because comics.
Published during a period in which stories were partly been driven by the booming speculators’ market for comic books that featured momentous stories or the first appearance of particular characters, The Death Of Superman is the definitive blockbuster arc of the era. And that has definitely been reflected in the disproportionate amount of times it has been adapted since then.
The trouble is, for all that it’s an iconic story, it’s not an especially interesting one. The demise of one of the most beloved and recognisable characters in fiction at the hands of a brand-new monster, which the writers specifically created to knack him, over the course of a four-issue brawl still feels deeply uninspired.
Still, more than 25 years since it was published, the arc’s status as a landmark has been cemented in the Superman canon, and with that status, there have been several attempts to adapt the story for the screen. Some came to fruition, some spectacularly did not, but in all cases, we have to wonder – what does it mean to kill Superman?
Death and Returns
Certainly, when Warner Bros bought the film rights to Superman back from producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind in 1993, they were looking for a hit to match 1989’s Batman. With Superman #75 so blatantly in the pop culture consciousness at the time, a project labelled Superman: The New Movie quickly became Superman Lives, the definitive tale of development hell in modern motion picture history.
As detailed in the excellent 2015 documentary The Death Of Superman Lives – What Happened?, the big-budget project would have used the death and return of Superman as the start of a fresh new take on the character. Counter-intuitive as that seems, it also had to be “toyetic”, the dreaded made-up adjective that turned Batman & Robin into, well, Batman & Robin.
With Tim Burton set to direct and Nicolas Cage signed up to star, the project was ultimately cancelled just three weeks before production was set to start. Having languished in pre-production for years, the project had already cost Warner Bros millions at the point when they decided to cancel it, meaning that they also had to honor pay-or-play contracts for Burton ($5 million) and Cage (a whopping $20 million) for not making the film.
read more: Superman Lives – The Story of the Dan Gilroy/Tim Burton Era
After a period of courting different takes on the origin story and even developing the earliest version of a Batman versus Superman movie, Warner eventually greenlit 2006’s Superman Returns, which adheres more to the pre-existing film canon. The film was warmly received upon release and it washed its face at the box office, but was still said to have “underperformed”. Then again, its reported $300 million budget included all of the development costs of the previous years as well.
It’s not surprising to note that all of the different takes on Superman Lives were fairly loose in adapting the story. Kevin Smith notably wrote a draft that fastidiously integrated elements like Doomsday and the Eradicator, but it’s also a distinct story from the comic itself. Popular villains Lex Luthor and Brainiac appeared in most of the drafts of Superman Lives, usually manipulating events from the sidelines.
This followed in the first animated adaptation too. As the vanguard of DC’s direct-to-DVD animated original films, 2007’s Superman: Doomsday has to fit a 75-minute running time, so it’s got a good excuse for not having much of Doomsday in it. However, it also dispenses with Steel, Eradicator and the rest of the bunch, by having a single Luthor-created clone of Superman emerge instead.
read more: The Actors Who Have Played Superman
Affecting the look and feel of the Bruce Timm-produced cartoons while also changing the voice cast and upping the content to a PG-13 rating, the film does at least have a borrowed sense of the world in which these events happen. As the makers of the live-action film eventually discovered, it’s folly to try and start a fresh new take on Superman in which the hero dies at the end of act one.
While Doomsday is a staggeringly dull creature in the pages of the bestselling comic where he originated, the character provides enough of a blank slate for various Superman media to use outside of the main thing it was designed to do. To that end, prequel shows Smallville and Krypton have both used Doomsday outside of a death-and-return story, with the former basically turning the character into Glory from Buffy season 5, in a body-share with Sam Witwer’s Davis Bloome.
‘Do you bleed?’
Even Zack Snyder, whose faithful adaptations of 300 and Watchmen were picture-perfect next to the comics that inspired them, cherry-picked from The Death Of Superman when it came to Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Borrowing its title fight from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, another bestselling comic series but one with a much better story, Snyder’s film has a lot going on in it. That’s why the third act introduction of Doomsday feels like a hat on several other hats.
In this iteration, the monster is reimagined as a homunculus of Luthor and General Zod’s DNA. Introduced in the final half-hour, the part-Kryptonian final boss was one of the least praised aspects of a film that wasn’t massively celebrated to start with. But Doomsday gonna Doomsday, and at the end of a CG-heavy battle, Henry Cavill’s Kal-El takes an elbow spike to the heart.
Even more bafflingly, the trailers revealed that Doomsday would be in the film well in advance of release, so this wasn’t a surprise. Aside from showing that the two title characters eventually put aside their differences, it’s a massive spoiler because unlike in, say, Smallville, it’s a film in which one of the main characters has already spent most of the movie trying to kill Superman.
There were many reasons to walk out of Batman v Superman feeling sad, but no one can argue that the film had anything close to the cultural impact that the original comic did. Granted, you only get to kill Superman for the first time once in any medium, but as far as live-action movies go, there’s a feeling that they’ve already had their chips.
Here, Superman’s demise is a means to an end, as Snyder intended for it to spur a remorseful Batman to come out of isolation to unite the Justice League in the sequel. As conceived, Justice League would be a two-part epic that saw Superman return to help the newly formed League stave off a prophesied invasion by Darkseid.
Beset by unimaginable production difficulties, Justice League clearly isn’t the film it was originally intended to be. Although nobody was especially happy with what came out, there’s an effort to make Cavill’s Superman more personable than in the previous films, an effort which is unfortunately marred by his digitally shaved upper lip.
During pre-production, Snyder decided against having Supes wear the comics-faithful black version of the super-suit, which was briefly glimpsed in a deleted scene. Even though the finished film initially goes down the “Pet Sematary” route of having Superman come back wrong and attack our heroes, the film at least does a better job of making us glad he’s back than Dawn Of Justice did of making us sad that he was gone.
An iconic story?
In a way, that’s the nub of the problem with The Death Of Superman in retrospect. It’s affecting to see the classic superhero meet his end, but it can’t be repeated after a point where we know that death isn’t permanent for him.
Some readers called the whole story a publicity stunt once Superman was resurrected at the end of the arc. If you read and enjoyed the comic and felt the impact of that story, that probably seems reductive. But at the very least, it feels as if the story’s elevation to iconic status over the last quarter of a century has been fuelled more by the desire to capture lightning twice than by the need to tell a classic story.
Looking back at the comic’s release though, it must be seen that its bestselling status was the product of morbid curiosity, rather than an indicator of its quality as a story. While Superman’s apparent invulnerability is one of the most complained-about aspects of his character in terms of story stakes, we’ll take that over the certainty that any injury is only temporary, up to and including death.
read more: Does Superman Have a Future in the DCEU?
The fact that he dies and returns doesn’t make him more human. It makes him more like Jesus. Even putting aside how Moses is the far more fitting biblical analogue for Superman’s origin, it’s not so compelling to watch filmmakers and producers attempt to pull the same trick again and again.
Following Superman: Doomsday and Batman v Superman, The Death Of Superman was the third screen adaptation of the story in little more than a decade. That’s not to say that you can’t tell a good story in which Superman dies (as anyone who has read Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman will attest), but it feels as if there’s been this crazy drive to humanize Superman by making him physically vulnerable, rather than focusing on his personality.
At the very least, it’ll be exciting to see what Reign Of The Supermen brings to the DC Animated Universe canon, as the first proper adaptation of the “return” part. But as to the preceding bit of the story, it’s plain to see that the best, most relatable screen versions of Superman have been the alive ones.