Well, they finally nailed it. “The Death of Superman” is one of the most celebrated comic book stories of its era, and arguably the best known tale in the character’s history. Superman’s battle with Doomsday was a sales phenomenon when it hit in the 1990s. But its lasting, legendary appeal comes not from the fact that Superman gets his indestructible ass handed to him (and sold a ton of comics in the process), but because of how it built on years of Superman comic book stories before it, lending Supes’ death and eventual (inevitable) resurrection plenty of weight.
But like most great superhero stories of the page and screen, such nuance is often forgotten as time goes on, and everyone learns the wrong lessons (see: Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Christopher Nolan’s superb Batman movie trilogy, and the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe). People remember the violent Superman/Doomsday slugfest, but not the way Clark’s supporting cast added to the drama and tragedy. They remember the novelty of the four “replacement” Supermen but not how the narrative was so well crafted that fans endlessly debated which one might actually be the real Man of Steel. They remember he came back to life, but not how the seeds of that resurrection had been planted in other, equally great stories in the years leading up to the main event.
The fact that Superman’s most popular story also addressed the chief (incorrect) criticism of the character (that he’s all-powerful and thus somehow less interesting than that brooding rich kid in Gotham City that everyone loves so much) in a charmingly violent and direct fashion, not to mention its massive commercial appeal, meant that Hollywood soon came calling, and the 1990s and early 2000s saw a parade of abandoned movie scripts focusing on some version of the “Death of Superman.” Some, like Kevin Smith’s famed Superman Lives, came pretty close to capturing the spirit of the Superman comics of the era, while others owed more to the worst blockbuster instincts of the time.
The story proved so tricky that the very first of WB Animation’s line of feature length DC animated movies, Superman: Doomsday, even managed to bungle the story. Doomsday condensed Superman’s death and return into one 70-something minute feature, made several strange narrative and character choices, and was generally rejected by critics and fans alike. And even the most ardent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice defender is likely to agree with you that introducing and dispatching Doomsday in that film’s final 15 minutes didn’t exactly lend Supes’ ultimate sacrifice a lot of weight.
I give you this perhaps overlong history lesson simply to contrast how great The Death of Superman, the brand new adaptation of the story and the latest in the line of DC Universe animated movies, is. These DC animated movies often take two tracks, some are straight, relatively faithful adaptations of their source material (The Dark Knight Returns, All-Star Superman) that tell standalone stories with no continuity concerns, and ones that either tell original stories or are loose adaptations of the comics that exist in a shared DC animated universe (Justice League: War, Son of Batman). Death of Superman is the best of both possible worlds. Living firmly in the continuity these films have built since 2013’s Justice League: War, The Death of Superman is true to the spirit of the classic comic book story, while allowing its format to add new wrinkles to the story.
Don’t feel you need to watch however many other DC animated movies to “get” this, either. Perhaps its greatest strength is that it establishes Metropolis, its supporting cast, and the all-important Superman and Lois relationship perfectly in its first act, long before we even catch a glimpse of Doomsday. This is the first “in continuity” Superman-centric adventure we’ve had in this universe, and it was important that they get all this right. Remarkably, it doesn’t feel rushed at all, with everyone from Lex Luthor to Bibbo Bibbowski feeling like we’ve known them for years.
Even more impressive, this is immune from the pacing issues that many of these DC animated movies, and their 70-80 minute runtimes suffer from. Like the comic its based on, it’s a tight, action-packed narrative that gets just enough character work in its first half to justify the big championship fight at the end, and even manages to set up some key points for the already-announced Reign of the Supermen sequel. In particular, the introduction of Hank Henshaw and his crew makes for some harrowing, heartbreaking stuff.
Doomsday himself is treated like the superhero equivalent of a horror movie antagonist, slaughtering Atlantean guards in bloody underwater clouds that would make a Jaws sequel proud, and terrorizing innocents like an impossibly powerful Jason Voorhees. He’s faithful to his comic book visualization, and his warm-up against the Justice League serves the same purpose it did in the comics: to show just how unstoppable he is. It works, and by the time he and Superman start pounding the hell out of each other, no matter the fact that we know how it ends or how many versions of this story we’ve seen, it’s satisfying and emotional.
Much of that is because of our two leads. Jerry O’Connell has voiced the Man of Steel in most of the in-continuity animated movies over the last few years, and he’s joined here by Rebecca Romijn as Lois. The Clark/Lois dynamic they display is the best I’ve seen on screen anywhere since the glory days of Tim Daly and Dana Delaney on Superman: The Animated Series, and O’Connell now deserves consideration as one of the great Superman voice actors. And while Rainn Wilson’s smug, menacing Lex Luthor is a treat, to be sure, it’s Bibbo Bibbowski, voiced by Charles Halford, who gives the movie some unexpected heart and soul.
My only real quibble with The Death of Superman is the occasional bit of inconsistent animation quality. It certainly looks better than some other recent efforts, but it’s not quite as fluid as the recent (and also excellent) Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay. Superman’s New 52 costume is still on display here, and that high collar has always looked exceptionally weird in animation…although something tells me that we’ll see a more familiar costume when he returns in the next film. But the occasionally choppy sequence aside, this is one of the better looking instalments in the series, full of cool character designs and lush colors, and that climactic fight does stuff that it’s tough to imagine a live action adaptation ever getting to look exactly right.
The Death of Superman is a perfect example of how the DC Universe Original Movies can adapt iconic comic book stories to their advantage within a shared continuity. More importantly, it’s a big win for Superman fans, finally giving them the adaptation of this tale that they’ve long craved, and one that sacrifices neither the violence nor the humanity that offsets it. If Reign of the Supermen (due in early 2019) is of similar quality, then it’s up, up, and away, indeed.
Oh yeah, and watch all the way through the credits.
Mike Cecchini talks about Superman. A lot. Often on Twitter.