Since 2007, we’ve witnessed three interpretations of the Death of Superman on film. First was 2007’s Superman: Doomsday and the second was 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Both of these films attempted to adapt this graphic novel, and, in my opinion, both failed to do so. Now we have the film The Death of Superman, and I’m happy to say that it does the job quite well! In fact, this isn’t just the best interpretation of this story, this is one of DC’s best animated films in general!
THE SOURCE MATERIAL
Note: This section can be skipped by those who have never read or have no interest in the source material.
Death of Superman – THE EPIC EVENT THAT SHOCKED A NATION AND CHANGED SUPERMAN FOREVER!
Doomsday. A creature with single-minded purpose of death and destruction. He has landed on Earth, laying waste to anything–and anyone–who dares stand in his way. The Justice League makes a valiant, but ultimately desperate, attempt to stop the unknown juggernaut. When the beast nears Metropolis, Superman answers the call to stop him.
And then the unthinkable happens. The Man of Steel…is dead.
Join DAN JURGENS (SUPERMAN: LOIS & CLARK), JERRY ORDWAY (ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN), LOUISE SIMONSON (SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL), and many more as they bring you the seminal moment in the history of the DC Universe and the world itself. Collects ACTION COMICS #683-684, ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #496-497, Justice League of America #69, SUPERMAN #73-75, SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL #17-19, and for the first time ever in a collected edition, NEWSTIME: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SUPERMAN.
Most adaptations tend to be loosely based, but in this instance – after two rough attempts at a loosely based transition from page to screen – Peter J. Tomasi delivers a film that is quite accurate to the core narrative of it’s source material! Yes, there are clearly some drastic differences – this film features the “big 7” as the Justice League, while the book features the Justice League of America (Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, Guy Gardener, etc) and there are narrative links that connect to the other films in this universe, but other than that, this film captures the core beats of the book.
Based on the acclaimed DC Comics graphic novel comes an epic animated movie showcasing Superman’s greatest battle. An asteroid hurtles through our atmosphere and crashes into the ocean, with it arrives an unstoppable force fueled by uncontrollable rage known only as Doomsday! With innocent lives threatened and Metropolis under attack, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League rally to meet this otherworldly menace. But when the dust settles, only an epic showdown between Superman and Doomsday can decide the fate of Metropolis and ultimately, planet Earth!
I love this film. I repeat, I love this film! And while I think everyone does a solid job across the board, I think most of the praise for this film’s success should be given to Peter J. Tomasi. Not only is the guy one of the best writers in comics, but he’s proving he’s worthy of crossing over into film and television as well! If I were Warner Bros. or DC TV, I would take note of Tomasi’s script, because – all things considered – this is a better script than anything the DC live action brands have delivered in quite some time! Yes, it really is that good!
So, what exactly makes this movie so successful, and why aren’t more people talking about it? Well, for starters, the lack of buzz probably stems from a hesitant audience. As I said above, we’ve already had two poor attempts to execute this story, and on top of that, DC Animation hasn’t exactly been wowing audiences lately. In fact, most of their films within the past few years have been poorly received or have been incredibly divisive – with the exception of Teen Titans: The Judas Contract. Noting this, we need to acknowledge what both of these films do well: They remain true to the source material!
Now, that’s not to say that a complete lift from book to film is necessary to be successful – both Death of Superman and Teen Titans: The Judas Contract take liberties where they’re needed – but remaining true to the heart of the story appears to be key. After all, these stories are classics for a reason! This is where Tomasi proves to be the perfect asset! Before becoming one of DC’s best writers, he worked as an editor for more than a decade! Not only does this allow him the knowledge to fully know and understand the characters and this universe, but it also means he has a grasp on the business side of production/ publication and can adapt to the mandates required of him. This knowledge of both sides of the spectrum allows Tomasi the ability to know when to pull his punches, and when to fully embrace the story he’s trying to tell.
When I watch movies, I often find myself loving certain aspects, and overthinking a number of opportunities I see within the film. That’s not the case here. In fact, the opportunities I will discuss don’t necessarily land on this film as much as it does the greater universe. So, what separates this movie from other DC animated films? Quite a bit. There’s a lot of points worth discussing, so I’m going to break down the various aspects that make this film a success. I’ll do my best to keep any spoilers to a minimum, but be warned, there will be some minor spoilers within my breakdown. All major spoilers will be placed in spoiler tags for your convenience. If you haven’t seen the film and want to go in with no knowledge though, turn back now!
As far as the script is concerned, Tomasi delivers in three key areas: relationships, characterization, and an actual pay-off. We’ll start with the relationships. The relationships depicted in this film are superb, and they’re ranging in their depth, presentation, and meaning. Mostly though, we see relationships presented in three contexts: Superman with the Justice League, Superman with the citizens of Metropolis, and Clark with his family. Each resonates in their own way, and each impact the narrative uniquely because each of Superman’s counterparts in these scenarios depicts him as a different archetype.
The depiction of Superman’s relationship with society is quite possibly the most moving aspect of this entire film. Rather than being an actual relationship though, we get to see society’s idea of Superman, their love for him, and their gratitude for what he does and represents. From Jimmy Olsen, to Maggie Sawyer, to Hank Henshaw, and even to Bibbo Bibbowski, we are treated to various representations of a love and respect for the hero archetype. Each of these characters exudes faith and belief in Superman that is unending. But in all of this, we also gain a love and appreciation for Superman because of his ability to take time, care for, and relate with these people. It’s even something the film directly touches on – Superman’s humanity is so pure that it’s easy to forget that he’s not of this earth.
No, when you break it down, none of these threads are particularly important to the plot, but they add so much texture to the narrative that by the end of the film, we get a payoff that we’ve been waiting years for! And that’s why these characters and threads are so important. As insignificant as they may be to the overall plot (Superman vs Doomsday), these people bring a heart and emotion to this film that’s been void in previous attempts. Not only that, but they also represent a depiction of Superman’s successes and failures for the people – especially when you reach the climax of the film. But seriously, if you can watch this movie without feeling any type of emotion from these characters – especially Bibbo Bibbowski or Lois and the Kents – then you’re not human.
Where the citizens of Metropolis provide a certain level of heart and inspiration to the film, Superman’s relationship with his fellow Justice League members create a grounded sensibility to the film. Yes, they’re all extraordinary beings, but as far as their relationships are concerned, it’s more like standard fare that you’d expect between friends or co-workers. Here, Superman represents the innocent archetype. Typically, these character archetypes are portrayed by women or children, but Superman fills this role because he is so morally good, that not living “two lives” feels irresponsible to him due to the danger as “shared life” could create for his loved ones.
There’s a scene where all of the members of the Justice League are having a meeting, and most of them are discussing their personal lives – lives that they’ve chosen to intertwine within their heroic lives. Although there’s great humor in the scene – and I mean great – there’s also a revelation pertaining to how much Superman is neglecting himself and his own happiness by keeping the man that he is at a distance from those he loves. Yes, Clark may be seen as a leader by most of the League, but in many ways, he’s not as balanced or matured in an emotional aspect as his fellow members.
Which brings me to shift gears from Superman, to Clark Kent. While I strongly believe Superman is well aware of who he is, and while I don’t think he “wears a mask” like Batman, he does go to great lengths to segregate his life as Superman and Clark Kent. When he’s able to just be Clark, he represents the “everyman” archetype. This is the guy we relate with the most. He’s the guy that represents the “American dream.” He works hard, loves his family, and respects his parents. He’s no longer the hero or the innocent, he’s just the guy we’ve grown to know – his positives and negatives (though there aren’t many negatives) – and we still care for him regardless. These are the sides of Clark we get to explore through Lois and the Kents… But it’s not all roses.
One of my biggest problems with this film is where Clark and Lois are as a couple. To be clear, this film is not at fault for this. This is an opportunity that exists because of the greater universe and the lack of character development that served as the groundwork to bring us to this point. See, the current DC animated films are based on the New 52, and the New 52 tried to pull a switcheroo and separate Lois and Clark so that Wonder Woman and Superman could be together. It’s something this film universe initially tried to run with as well. Clearly, people didn’t respond well to this, so now Tomasi is left to slap together a believable relationship between Lois and Clark in practically no time at all… And somehow, he manages to do it.
The work to get us to this point is definitely rushed and is deserving of any commentary or nay-sayers as far as the big picture is concerned, but in the end, the interactions and growth of Lois and Clark is incredible. I may be aggravated by the reality that these two are just now developing a relationship, but I’d be lying if I said their scenes aren’t completely believable. And with each scene they share, Tomasi slowly transforms my aggravation into shipping… and eventually, dread.
See, many of us know how this movie ends. We’ve read the book or we’ve watched Batman v Superman or Superman: Doomsday, and no matter how good these scenes are, there’s just no way Tomasi can create some sort of payoff within an hour and twenty minutes. Right?… Wrong. Throughout the course of the relationship arc between Lois and Clark within this movie, I felt giddy, hopeful, complacent, and completely gutted. There were moments that were so honest and raw that I literally had my heart in my throat, chill bumps on my arms, and tears in my eyes. I know I’ve already said it, but I’ll say it again… The script is so damn good!
Enough with the relationships and emotions though… What about the action? This has to be more than a touching and emotional film, right? Yes! This is also a bombastic, action-packed romp that is entertaining from start to finish! The action doesn’t really kick in until the back half/ third of the film, so the earlier scenes rely heavily on charm and humor. There’s such a natural flow to Superman and the characters he interacts with, that you’ll be able to see a number of relationships you have with your own friends in the story.
The Justice League serves as a great source for humor, especially from Flash and Green Lantern. The banter from these two with the other characters simply feels… right. Early in the movie, there’s a scene where Superman calls for support, and Flash shows up immediately. The threat has already been handled, he just needs help with the cleanup. Immediately, Flash cracks a joke about how he’s always getting cleanup duty because he’s so eager to help his allies, that he jumps at the opportunity without knowing what’s needed. But the humor presented here is different than the likes of how the Flash was written for the recent Justice League film. His scenes felt out of character and forced there. Here, not only does the Flash feel natural, but every character feels natural. Every character reacts in ways that we would expect them to react. This translation is shown in their engagements with one another, but also in how they fight… So, let’s talk about Doomsday.
If there’s any description that feels fitting for Doomsday, it would be viscerally brutal! From the moment he appears, you know things aren’t going to end well. You just know it. I think we all have a bar set for Doomsday, and then we have a lingering reality check based on previous incarnations from television and film. Well, just know that this depiction of Doomsday will meet or surpass the bar you’ve set in your head. This is a walking tank of violence, and there’s absolutely no shred of humanity found in him. There’s practically no depth either, but it’s not needed. Everything that needs to come across does, and I promise his presence will make you feel uneasy. Just trust me when I tell you that this is the Doomsday you’ve been waiting for! And yes, had Snyder depicted Doomsday this well in Batman v Superman, there would probably be a much more favorable opinion of the film without changing any of its other flaws.
Doomsday battling the League is a ton of fun! This is a different League than in the comic book, and while I know some people are upset for the change to include the big seven, I prefer it. For one, the big seven are called the big seven for a reason… They’re the heavy hitters. Seeing Doomsday take on the likes of Green Lantern, Flash, Martian Manhunter, and Wonder Woman feels so much more impactful than the likes of Booster Gold and Blue Beetle. That’s not a knock to those characters, just that this team is undoubtedly the “A-Team.”
I’m also surprised at how each League member is able to receive a “moment” during the battle. Nobody comes across feeling short-changed. Everyone is represented well, and have a unique vibe in their scenes. My favorite encounter has to be between Doomsday and Wonder Woman though. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and makes Wonder Woman look like a total badass!
Eventually, we reach the main event… Superman versus Doomsday. It is everything you want it to be. Trust me. Trust me. I can’t remember watching a fight this entertaining, and even though I knew how it would end, I still found myself surprised by a number of the beats throughout the battle. It can only be described as an excellence of execution… Which is where my final point for the script comes into play… The payoff.
As most of us know, Superman dies. We’ve read the book. We’ve watched it occur on film twice. There should be no surprise. This should be old news. And yet, it’s not. Tomasi delivers one emotional gut punch after another. From Clark’s reveal to Lois to that he’s Superman, to the note he leaves her confessing he loves her, to the moment where Lois reiterates that love by putting herself up as a sacrifice to save Clark… I was enduring a number of emotional pulls before Superman even died.
Of these earlier moments, Lois’ stoic standoff against Doomsday – when she literally stared in the face of death as a sign of reciprocation of her love for Clark – I experienced my first break. Yes, this cold-hearted, brash, thirty-year-old man actually cried. There was just something about the execution. There was no hesitation in Lois. No fear. Just defiance. A pure, unadulterated defiance of evil… And a complete stand for love. It’s powerful.
Then the emotional beating continues. While witnessing Superman’s actual death didn’t necessarily move me, seeing the reactions did. Whether it was something as minor as Batman unclenching his fist, or choosing not to attend the funeral (one would assume because it was too painful to face), to the gut-wrenching moment when a police officer tells Martha Kent she can’t come any closer to Superman’s casket during the funeral… her own son’s casket… I felt every bit of it. It moved me. It hurt. I felt like I’d lost a friend… And then Tomasi delivered one final blow.
Earlier I mentioned a moment with Bibbo Bibbowski that completely moved me. It moved me because it spoke to exactly how I felt. It’s how I feel when I lose loved ones or people I look up to, respect. He recites a prayer, then asks God, “Why would you let Superman die when a washed-up, old, rough-neck like me goes on living? It ain’t right, God. It just ain’t right.” The line, along with the powerful delivery by Charles Halford completely destroyed me. It’s a thought I’ve felt far too often after a loss, and it’s a moment that’s far too real.
Jerry O’Connell and Rebecca Romijn deliver incredible performances as Superman/ Clark Kent and Lois Lane! The film simply would not be the same if it weren’t for the humanity, relatability, and love for one another that shines through their performance. As an actual couple, there’s no doubt these two were able to bring subtleties and nuances to their performances. There’s a maturity and range of emotion that transcends the script and truly shows how talented these two individuals are.
Whether the script is exploring the various archetypes of Superman, or the journey of Lois and Clark’s relationship, O’Connell and Romijn nail every single moment. It’s a beautiful marriage where the perfect script lands in the hands of the perfect actors, and the combination is a winning formula for viewers. I’m left wanting more. I want more Superman movies! I want more Lois Lane! I want to further explore them as characters. I want to see their growth and the challenges they face. I just want more, more, more… And that’s a testament to what these two individuals are able to deliver.
The League’s performances – while not as deep or complex – are equally as good. If there’s one thing that every actor captures here, it’s the levels of emotion found in simple moments. The likes of Rosario Dawson, Nathan Fillion, Christopher Gorham, Shemar Moore, and Matt Lanter do incredibly well with very little to work with. This not only proves their talent, but that each of these actors are deserving of headlining their own character films!
Even the smaller characters make a huge impact. I already mentioned how Charles Halford moved me to tears, but then you have performances from Toks Olagundoye as Cat Grant and Cress Williams as John Henry Irons. Cat feels like the friend we all want to have. She’s strong, but not abrasive. Then you have Cress Williams, who in one scene (one scene) delivers so much warmth, that he alone is driving my uncontained excitement for the next film! Across the board, everyone is fantastic… Except for Rainn Wilson as Lex Luthor.
Now, to be fair, I didn’t dislike Wilson’s portrayal in its entirety. He just happens to be the only actor that, at times, made me feel as though it wasn’t a fitting casting. But then there were moments where I felt he nailed the performance. This might be a fault with the script though as there were times I couldn’t tell if it was the writing or the performance felt off. Regardless, there are scenes with Lex where it simply felt a little over-the-top and mustache-twirlingly evil that it’s a little hard to swallow.
Direction and Animation
Jake Castorena and Sam Liu share directing duties for this film, and they do a respectable job. I’ve complained about the technical aspects of previous DC animations, and while I’m still not completely satisfied here, I will acknowledge that there is an improvement. The editing of the film is much tighter than previous turns, and small opportunities like the timing in dialogue play much better here. Unfortunately, the animation is still an embarrassment. Most of the film looks really, really cheap. There are too many scenes with unchanging backdrops, where even the people in the background are a fixed figure. Even casual movements like characters walking are a mere slide or lift and lower to signify footsteps. In a day an age when animation is progressing as quickly as it is, Warner Bros. and DC need to throw down more money and keep up with their competition or they’ll be left behind.
What’s interesting is that the character designs look great, and the fights are superb! I can’t remember when I experienced such engaging, breathtaking fights in animation. Every scene Doomsday is in feels unsettling. The destruction and lack of hope his actions create are unnerving, and this wouldn’t have been possible without great animation. Then there’s the battle with the League, which felt fun, entertaining, and unique with every character that was featured. Then there’s the coup de gras of Superman versus Doomsday. This sequence contains so many different elements that people should be talking about it for years!
Simply put, if the technical team put as much care and detail into the entire film as they do in their fight scenes, we’d be left with a masterpiece. Sadly, that’s not the case.
Overall: If I had to describe The Death of Superman, I’d say it’s a love letter to fans that’s expertly executed. You could make a number of arguments as to why we don’t need this film – most of which stem from the idea that this is the third time we’re receiving an adaptation of this story within eleven years. And while I would typically agree with this sentiment, in this instance I don’t. No, we don’t need another retelling of The Death of Superman, but we, comic book fans and casual fans, deserve a good adaptation of this story. This isn’t a good film, it’s a great film! This is more than just a re-telling of a story, this a complete fan-service. The movie is engaging, powerful, emotional, and brutal… And it’s damn near perfect!
The Death of Superman is currently available on Digital HD, Blu Ray, and DVD.