“There comes a time when even gods must die.”
Just as most everyone knows who Superman is, most everyone who is old enough to remember 1992 knows about The Death of Superman. The world was stunned to learn that the DC Comics writers were going to do the unthinkable and kill off the greatest superhero of all time. The story made headlines and received media coverage across the globe, and people flocked into comic shops in record numbers, hoping to get their greedy paws on the historic issue, Superman No. 75.
Today, the story is still not only fondly remembered, not just for its mind-boggling sales figures, but because it’s just a great read. The entire three-part tale, The Death of Superman, Funeral for a Friend, and Reign of the Superman, offer a rousing superhero epic in which Superman not only dies, but his loss is mourned by those closest to him. Then, four new “Supermen” show up, some claiming to be the genuine deal. Finally, as everyone expected, the real Superman emerges to face a great evil and—you guessed it—save the day.
It’s one of the most famous stories in all of comicdom, so just imagine the pressure faced by animator Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series) and his team when they decided to adapt it for the first of Warner Brothers’ new “DC Universe” line of direct-to-DVD movies.
Superman (Adam Baldwin, Serenity) is a hero operating out of the city of Metropolis, with the powers of flight, super-strength, heat vision, and more. He’s in a romantic relationship with reporter Lois Lane (Anne Heche, yes, that Anne Heche) but he still hasn’t told her of his secret identity, that of fellow reporter Clark Kent.
Although he’s faced many challenges in his day, Superman is tested like never before when a mindless killing machine named Doomsday escapes from an alien prison deep beneath the Earth. Doomsday is like no one Superman has ever battled, with strength and invulnerability to match his own. To save his loved ones, along with all of Metropolis, Superman must take that final step, sacrificing his own life. He dies in Lois’s arms as his tattered cape flutters on the end of a steel pole like a flag.
After an enormous funeral service, the world tries to move on. Lois falls into despair, Jimmy Olsen (Adam Wylie, Species: The Awakening) loses his idealism and becomes a sleazy paparazzi, and Perry White (Ray Wise, Twin Peaks) hits the bottle, hard. The crime rate rises and second-tier criminal The Toyman (John DiMaggio, Futurama) goes on a rampage. Just when it looks like all is lost, Superman returns from the dead and saves the day. The Man of Steel is acting a lot differently then he used to, though. While all this is going on, billionaire Lex Luthor (James Marsters, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) watches the proceedings from the top floor of his skyscraper. What secrets does he have? What role will he play before this is over?
Continuity, shmontinuity. Superman: Doomsday reboots the Superman franchise and goes off in its own direction. So don’t expect this to be a continuation of Superman: The Animated Series or Justice League, which Timm worked on. It’s also not a continuation of Superman Returns or Smallville or any comics that I know of. This is why the characters have been redesigned, there’s an all-new pseudo-celebrity voice cast, and we get stuff like Lois and Superman wearing matching red bathrobes while snuggling inside the Fortress of Solitude.
With a runtime of only 75 minutes, there’s no way this movie can recreate the entire epic from the comics, which contained three years’ worth of stories and is more than 1,000 pages total. So there’s no cyborg, so Eradicator, no Coast City, and no Guy Gardner’s bowl cut. Instead of all that craziness, this version of the story has been significantly streamlined, sticking to just the main Superman characters, and keeping the action based in either Metropolis or the Fortress of Solitude. This ends up being a smart decision, because the story that’s here is complicated enough, with all sorts of twists and surprises. If there were to be a direct adaptation of the comic, it would have to be about 20 hours long.
Note that this is a PG-13 animated Superman. This means there’s a ton of implied sexiness, some onscreen deaths, one or two swear words, and blood. That last one is significant, given the subject matter. How do you show the audience that the stakes are higher than ever before, and that this is like no other threat ol’ Red Boots has ever faced? You make him bleed. When Doomsday punches Superman, and his blood splatters onto Lois’s face, you know this isn’t your typical Superman adventure. As the pummelings continue, Superman coughs up more blood and he staggers around, unbalanced, while trying to fight back. This is a Superman we rarely see, one who’s driven to the point of total exhaustion, with so little energy left in him he can barely stand.
That’s the maddening question: How do you kill Superman? With Kryptonite? A red sun? Magic? Go after his mind and drive him insane? All those seem partially plausible (if you apply comic book logic, that is), but the problem with these methods is that we’ve seen Superman recover from attempts like these many times over the years. With Doomsday, it’s a different story. Doomsday can’t be reasoned with, and there’s no hope for redemption. Doomsday was created to kill, and all it knows is killing. This leaves Superman with no other option—to stop Doomsday, he must deliver a blow that kills them both. That was how it went down in the comics. In the movie the big moment happens a little differently. There’s a lot more grandeur, but just a little less intimacy. The emotion doesn’t really hit you until Lois arrives at Superman’s side and realizes what’s happened.
This is really Lois Lane’s story more than it is Superman’s. The movie’s second act follows her as she deals with the death of the man she loved. Because her relationship with Superman was a secret, no one else knows the full extent of her grief. At one point, she confronts Ma Kent, and while the two are standoffish at first, Lois for the first time honestly opens up about how she feels. At first, I was iffy about Anne Heche as Lois, since she didn’t have me convinced of Lois’s trademark feistiness at the beginning of the movie. But in the Ma Kent scene, Heche surprised me. It’s a powerful moment and some of the best animated dramatic acting I’ve seen in a while.
The pace picks up in the final third of the story, with a Superman who isn’t quite Superman-ish, Lex Luthor being a sneaky bastard, and Lois trying to figure out what’s really going on. This is also where the action gets bigger and bolder, with mass destruction on a city-wide scale. This is all pulse-pounding stuff, and a benefit to those who bemoaned the lack of fight scenes in Superman Returns, which instead preferred “rescue action.” That being said, it makes the Doomsday battle in the movie’s first half a little less memorable. That should be the fight in the movie. When the credits rolled, I found myself wishing the finale could have been smaller or perhaps completely different from the first one, because as it is now, the Doomsday fight loses its impact after all the whiz-bang fireworks of the final fight.
Aside from initial reservations about Heche, voice acting is good all around. If I didn’t know that was Jayne from Firefly as Superman, I never would have guessed. Adam Baldwin disappears into the character. Ray Wise brings his usual professionalism to the role of Perry White, making the editor sound gruff and world-weary. James Marsters doesn’t have the gravitas of a Clancy Brown, a Kevin Spacey, or even a Gene Hackman, but he does shine in those moments when Lex shows his sleazier side. Cree Summer (Atlantis: The Lost Empire) really shines in a small role as Mercy, Lex’s tough female sidekick. Her voice is tough and sultry as Mercy, and I can’t help but think she would have been perfect as Lois.
Because this movie created specifically for DVD, there are no problems with the video and audio. The picture shines, with a lot of both light and dark blues on display. The sound is also good, with plenty of booming explosions. In the audio commentary, Bruce Timm is joined by writers, producers, and casting director Andrea Romano to cover various aspects of the production. A lot of time is spent on discussing why they’ve changed what they’ve changed, so this is a good look at the thought process behind a franchise reboot. The best of the extras is an hour-long documentary, “Requiem and Rebirth.” This takes you behind the scenes at DC Comics for a look at how the whole death of Superman story was created, as the teams of artists and writers responsible walk viewers through the initial story meeting to the worldwide media frenzy it caused. Interestingly, killing off Superman was not their first idea. Instead, they wrote it because they had to come up with something on a tight deadline. Other extras on the disc include a short featurette about the voice cast, a yawn-worthy game you play with your remote, a 10-minute preview of the upcoming Justice League: New Frontier direct-to-DVD movie, based on the comic by Darwyn Cooke, and trailers for a variety of other Warner releases.
I’ll bet that all the dorklanders on the Internet who kept complaining because of the crying scenes in Spider-Man 3 are cackling with glee right now over all the complaining they get to do about Superman: Doomsday. Lois cries, Ma Kent cries, and I think I might have seen Jimmy shed a tear or two. But, honestly, it didn’t bother me. I don’t know where the Internet’s “action movies shouldn’t have crying” mentality comes from. I mean, Superman dies right in front of Lois. What’s she going to do, shrug and say, “I wonder what Green Arrow is doing this weekend?”
Didn’t McClane get shaken up after that Ellis guy died in Die Hard? Didn’t Indiana Jones get down when he thought Marion was dead in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Even James Bond got to mourn the loss of someone close to him in Casino Royale, and your favorite Hong Kong extreme action flick is bound to have some scene in which characters show respect for the dead. Dealing with loss and death is a part of human drama, and it’s bound to come up in action movies, when the stakes are so high. So when Superman dies, I say there should be crying and that there should be emotion. This is an action story, but it’s one with an emotional core. Trust me, if it was 70 minutes of nothing but fighting, you’d get bored after a while.
The definitive “death of Superman” is still the one from the comics. This version, however, is still pretty good. It’s got a ton of action, and a lot of heart. Superhero fans should definitely give it a try.