Six months after the Last Son of Krypton was killed by Doomsday, it’s reigning supermen in Metropolis. And, based on the rise of earthly, and otherworldly, threats, the planet is in need of a new champion. But which of the four figures claiming to be Superman is the real deal Man of Steel? That’s the premise for the new animated DC Universe animated movie Reign of the Superman, a sequel to last summer’s entertaining The Death of Superman. Available now on digital, and tomorrow on DVD/Blu-ray, the film is the latest to create a pastiche of new and classic DC Comics stories within the New 52 continuity.
Directed by Sam Liu with a script by Jim Krieg, and Tim Sheridan, Reign of the Supermen succeeds in delivering a largely enjoyable superhero adventure that can stand on its own, while honoring the 1993 comic book arc it is based on. It falls short in juggling too many underdeveloped characters, and trying to tell an epic story in less than 90 minutes. But its flaws are balanced with plenty of action-packed scenes, and stellar voice acting.
The world is in mourning following the murder of Superman (voiced by Jerry O’Connell) at the hands of alien Doomsday, the unstoppable supervillain equivalent of Jason Voorhees. But after the hero’s funeral at the end of The Death of Superman, his tomb is smashed open, and the body goes missing – leaving people to wonder if Kal-El of Krypton is still alive. Now, half a year after the events, his absence is felt despite the arrival of a cocky, sexist, 90s-catchphrase-spouting Superboy (Gotham‘s Cameron Monaghan); an earnest Cyborg Superman (O’Connell and Better Call Saul‘s Patrick Fabian); a hammer-wielding, armored Steel/John Henry Irons (Cress Williams, Black Lightning himself); and brutal, visor-wearing Eradicator (Charles Halford) – each wearing the famous “S” logo. And Metropolis seeks to determine who should be given the official mantle of Superman.
Superman’s death, and the rise of the supermen, carries a personal weight. It is felt by the staff of The Daily Planet (coincidentally also missing star reporter Clark Kent), and Kent’s parents. But the emotional core, and surprisingly the star of the film, is Lois Lane (Rebecca Romijn). Her grief is complicated, since she only learned the truth of the Clark/Superman identity shortly before his death. Her emotions do not detract from her strength, or make her blind to the truth. Though she grieves for the man she loved, Lois is nonetheless a tenacious journalist.
She seeks to understand more about Clark’s double life, which leads to girl talk between her and Diana/Wonder Woman (once again perfectly voiced by Rosario Dawson). The interaction between these two strong characters – each with an intimate tie to Superman – is awkward, and honest. Neither seem great at opening up, and Diana amusingly states the obvious: “Despite my reputation, I’m not good at touchy-feely.”
Lois sets out to investigate the identities behind the super-interlopers. Cyborg Superman tries to curry her loyalty in a rooftop scene that echoes classic Supes/Lois romance, but she isn’t quick to trust him. Meanwhile, she discovers the LexCorp-sponsored Superboy is a highly-sophisticated clone courtesy Lex Luthor (Rainn Wilson).
Luthor wants to corner the market on the officially recognized Superman, and vows in a Trumpian fashion to “Make Metropolis Safe Again” with his creation. The character gets a lot of screen time in Reign of the Supermen, and Wilson delivers an exceptional performance as a Lex who is an arrogant and devious, murdering genius, but one with a droll sense of humor. He is likewise a pragmatist, and understands the importance of keeping Earth safe. The scenes between Lex, as an impatient father figure, and the insolent Superboy are especially fun to watch.
The first act culminates when the planned launch of the Justice League’s Watchtower space station is interrupted by an invasion of parademons from Apokolips (a threat not seen since the 2014 DC animated movie Justice League: War). Superboy joins the League for a battle against the aliens, as Cyborg Superman simply observes, before the team is removed from the action in a rather ham-fisted fashion.
Cyborg Superman does, however, save the president. The deed drives the story in a new direction, teasing at less-than-benevolent intentions, and other forces working as a puppetmaster. Lois teams with Steel to uncover the remaining mysteries behind the supermen, discovering a threat that only a true Superman may be able to resolve.
In addition to Lois’ fully-realized arc by Romijn, and Wilson presumably eating it up as Lex, there is quite a bit of enjoyable character work here. O’Connell is an excellent Superman/Cyborg Superman, and intones a quiet authority necessary for the hero (should he return, his voice would be better suited to a more traditional Superman design, rather than the New 52). Monaghan gets ample opportunity to infuse Superboy with unearned confidence and bravado. Fabian, who voices astronaut Hank Henshaw as well as Cyborg Superman, is a tragic character slipping into madness. As for other supporting characters, DC needs to produce standalone Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern films, starring Rosario Dawson, and Nathan Fillion, respectively. Plus, we get very little of Tony Todd’s threatening baritone as Darkseid of Apokolips, and it is nowhere near enough.
The movie grapples with the common challenge of too many characters, too little time. Eradicator seems to disappear for large chunks of time, and Steel is underdeveloped despite his promise. Eliminating Steel and Eradicator entirely would be warranted, but considering this is the first adaptation of the Reign of the Supermen story, comic fans would be none-too-pleased.
Thankfully Reign of the Supermen is not slavishly devoted to its source material, and does make significant changes while being true to its spirit. In the comics, Cyborg Superman and the villain Mongul destroy Hal Jordan/Green Lantern’s home of Coast City, parademons are nowhere to be found, and Superboy has nothing to do with Lex (he’s instead a clone created by the genetics facility Project Cadmus, and Supergirl – who does not appear in the film – is the one working for Lex). These adaptations largely work, and set up future installments of the DC animated movie universe.
Reign of the Supermen would have benefitted by further exploring the loss felt by a world without Superman, though roughneck sailor/restaurateur Bibbo Bibbowski, also voiced by Halford, serves as a stand-in for average joe public, and invokes a lot of heart. It is worth noting there is an incredible loss of life in the movie, and a poignant thread about people who feel helpless, and wish to be empowered supermen of their making.
Clocking in at 87 minutes, the film is fast-paced, but also rushed. There is too much ground to cover, and a lot of action to fit in. By no means does Reign of the Supermen skimp on that. It delivers in spades early with a bang-up battle between all four super-contenders. The slugfests make up for at-times uneven animation quality. And the film goes big for an explosive superhero finale that’s all-hands-on-deck.
Reign of the Supermen is an overall satisfying film. As epic of a story as it is, it also whets the appetite for smaller-scale, Superman-specific adventures. The Justice League will no doubt head off to deal with major threats (as teased in a post-credits scene), but the DC Animated Movie Universe would be wise to explore more of Lois and Clark with Romijn and O’Connell.