Last year, DC Animation graced us with the incredible adaptation of The Death of Superman. If you read my review for that film, then you know that I absolutely loved it! The Death of Superman did a great job respecting its source material, while also making key changes to allow that story to fit into the current animated universe. While The Death of Superman is a pretty cut and dry story to adapt – especially when written by comic legend Peter Tomasi – the writers behind Reign of the Supermen don’t have it quite as easy. So, while I was excited for this film, I was far more curious to see what would change and how. To say that the source material for this movie is a bit convoluted would be an understatement, and there’s simply no way to fit everything from the 90s saga into a DC Animated Universe primarily influenced by The New 52 without making drastic changes. So, will this ultimately be a surprise masterpiece or a complete misfire?
THE SOURCE MATERIAL
Superman: Reign of the Supermen
ACTION COMICS #687-688
ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #500-502
SUPERMAN ANNUAL #5
SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL #22-23 and SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL ANNUAL #2
By Dan Jurgens (SUPERMAN: LOIS & CLARK), Jerry Ordway (ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN), Louise Simonson (SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL) and others.
Superman: The Return of Superman
ACTION COMICS #689-692
ACTION COMICS ANNUAL #5
ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #503-505
ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN ANNUAL #5
GREEN LANTERN #46
SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL #24-26
By Dan Jurgens (SUPERMAN: LOIS & CLARK), Louise Simonson (SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL) and others
Do I need to Watch Anything Before This?
You 100% need to see The Death of Superman before watching this.
As the world mourns the death of the Man of Steel, new heroes emerge, each claiming to be the true Superman reborn. But when a deadly threat uses Superman’s absence to target Earth, their powers are put to the ultimate test.
After a heartbreaking conclusion to The Death of Superman, we start this film with the grim reminder that Superman is gone. It has been six months since Doomsday attacked earth and the Man of Steel fell. The world is different, changed, and in many ways, it is vulnerable. We get to see the effects left in Superman’s absence as Cat Grant revisits the tragic day on her talk show, lamenting the man that was. But it isn’t just Superman that was lost that day. There were other, innocent casualties as well, and the survivors have been left to pick up the pieces of a world that is void of their loved ones and its greatest hero.
While this isn’t necessarily the most exciting way to start a film, it is an interesting concept, and is relatively brief in the grand scheme of things. In fact, I almost wish the film would’ve taken a little more time to explore the idea of a world without Superman further. We do get some nice, effective scenes with Lois and the Kents, as well as an awkward conversation between Lois and Wonder Woman, but it would’ve been nice to see memorials from citizens across the globe, and to witness the entire Justice League struggling without Superman to lead them. If you’re going to examine a world without Superman, really go there. A simple, throw-away line just doesn’t seem to give his loss enough credence. That’s not to say I want to wallow in misery, but living in that reality for a little while longer could’ve set a distinct tone for this film before presenting the new Supermen.
As quickly as the film acknowledges Superman’s death though, it moves on to introduce Superboy, Eradicator, Steel, and Cyborg Superman. I need to praise the introduction of these characters for the simple fact that each scene, although brief, pays homage to the individual arcs that launched these characters in the comics. More importantly though, these scenes make it clear that this is going to be a fast-paced, action-packed film, and that plays into a lot of this movie’s success. With the mystery of these Supermen looming, Lois takes it upon herself to investigate them, knowing that she’ll ask the right questions to get the answer that she, and the rest of the world, wants. The moment she embarks on her mission though, Lex Luthor proves he’s always one step ahead by hosting a press conference to introduce the world to his own Superman (Superboy).
Lex’s moment of glory is cut short when the Eradicator shows up also claiming to be Superman, and attacks Lex. Superboy steps in, resulting in the two coming to blows, and before we know it, Steel enters the fray, as well as Cyborg Superman! The scene is not only highly entertaining, but efficient and effective in introducing the key players here. We get a glimpse of each of them, their power set, personalities, and even, to a degree, their take on the loss of Superman. I loved this scene, and from this moment forward, the movie is essentially non-stop action.
If there’s one thing Reign of the Supermen does well, it’s depicting these Supermen accurately. Not only are their personalities completely on-point, but their motivations are also set-up quite well. Superboy is the arrogant, ineffective attention whore we secretly love. Eradicator is the brutally effective powerhouse with a black and white view of right and wrong. Steel is an inspired citizen looking to fill Superman’s void. And Cyborg Superman is the stoic, kind, yet powerful, presence that most closely resembles the Superman we know and love.
However, despite how fully realized these characters are, this movie completely neglects one of the key elements of the comic, and a plot teased in both the trailer and the synopsis – who are these Supermen, and which one of them is the real Superman? See, in the comics, all of these Supermen – with the exception of Steel – claim to be the real Superman reincarnated. It was an intriguing mystery that helped create momentum for the narrative. Their claims forced you to question each of them, but also attempt to see Superman in each of them as well. While the movie makes a nod to this approach by having each of these characters claim to be Superman, it’s executed in more of an “I picked up his mantle first!” approach. At no point during the film do these characters make a believable argument for the case that they are Superman. I can’t help but feel this was all just a missed opportunity.
Before we can fully settle into the realization that there are four Supermen though, the plot races forward, leaving two Supermen in the dust. Steel and Eradicator quickly take a back seat to Lex and Superboy, as Superboy’s true identity is revealed to the public. Unwilling to have the rug pulled out from under him, Lex reveals his intentions, and makes a move to put Superboy as the one, “true” Superman by winning over the public.
It’s at this point that the movie’s focus shifts away from Lois Lane and the death of Superman, to focus on Lex, his actual intentions, and the secrecy concerning Superboy’s origins. If you’re familiar with comics and Superboy, then this will all be standard fare. The film runs through the revelation of Superboy being a clone, and after so many retellings in various forms of media, this ultimately feels like a paint-by-numbers progression.
The back half of Reign of the Supermen, however, effectively detours away from the comics, while still, somehow, managing to respect core ideas and concepts. We eventually learn who the real threat is, what the actual story is behind each Superman, and also tie things back to the overall animated universe. So, if you came into this film hoping to get Mongul, Warworld, and a set-up for Parallax, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. That doesn’t happen here. However, the actual plot of the second half isn’t too far off when you really break things down…
I will praise the writers’ ability to adapt the story though. Rather than introducing Mongul as the main villain and revealing that Cyborg Superman has been working with him this entire time, Darkseid is revealed as a puppet master that is messing with Cyborg Superman’s mind. His goal is to create an army of android heroes on earth that will ultimately open a portal allowing Apokolips to invade earth.
The best thing about this third act isn’t Darkseid or the return of Superman though… It’s Lois Lane. Heroism isn’t measured by your physical strength or power, but the amount you’re willing to sacrifice, and she’s willing to risk it all. If you were moved by her throwing rocks at Doomsday in Death of Superman, just wait until you see her here!
I like this approach because it ties all of these films back to the very first film of this series, but also sets up a number of potential films in the future. However, while the Justice League’s involvement anchors the film to the larger DC Animated Universe, these iconic characters play such a small role that many viewers will wonder why were they even included at all? The means in which the team is pulled from the story is extremely convenient, and the execution is a bit of a joke. If there’s one moment of lazy writing in Reign of the Supermen, this is it. It’s clear the writers didn’t know what to do with these characters, so rather than have them standing around in the background, they came up with a ridiculous challenge to occupy their attention. In the end, the approach did nothing more than add an extra plot and a gaggle of now-superfluous characters to a movie that already suffers from having too many moving parts.
And that’s the film’s most glaring flaw: there’s way too much going on. With so many characters and storylines fighting for attention, nothing ever gets the focus it deserves. A tighter, more streamlined script could have helped raise this movie from good to great, but that’s not the case. We’re left looking to the performances and the action sequences to save this film from itself, and thankfully, these elements do just that!
DC Animation should be extremely happy with their current line-up of talent! There are some incredible actors and actresses voicing these characters, and I can’t say enough about their performances. I gushed over a number of performances in Death of Superman, but I do find singling out performances a little more difficult here. It’s not that performances are bad – as I’ve already established, they’re quite the contrary – it’s simply that the actors didn’t have much to work with. The best way I can describe every scene is “efficient.” There are so many plots packed into this script, that none of the moments have a chance to breathe, and thus, leaves the actors little to sink their teeth into. If I had to pick some standout performances though, it would have to be Rebecca Romijn as Lois Lane, Rainn Wilson as Lex Luthor, and Cameron Monaghan as Superboy.
Romijn should be no surprise. Her Lois Lane was incredible in Death of Superman, and she delivers as strong of a performance here. If these two films have done anything for her, it’s potentially begged the question of why she doesn’t get more acting work. Her performance as Mystique in the X-Men films won over many fans and she accomplished that with few lines and sheer presence. Here, she’s proven she’s capable of delivering believable dialogue, and does so well enough that I want to see/hear more of her!
The greatest surprise of the film will undoubtedly be Rainn Wilson’s turn as Lex Luthor. If you remember, I didn’t like Wilson’s performance in The Death of Superman. I thought he came off nasally, and his portrayal didn’t seem to fit. Here, however, he steals nearly every scene he’s in… Granted, he still has moments where he’s mustache-twirlingly evil, but I now know that’s a fault of the script rather than the performance.
Speaking of stealing scenes, Cameron Monaghan does stellar work as Superboy! Superboy was the one character I hoped they’d get right, and I thought all of his scenes were fun, even when he was obnoxious. He brought an energy to the film that was infectious, and I loved that they ran with his 90’s persona without shame. I mean, despite its corniness, his lines such as “funky fresh” and “thanks babe” were a riot. I look forward to Superboy’s inclusion in future DC animated films – especially future Teen Titans projects!
I’m talking about Gerry O’Connell’s performance in a spoiler tag in case people aren’t familiar with the comic and haven’t seen the movie yet. I don’t want to spoil Clark’s return at the end of this film for anyone who could have the opportunity to experience it. That said, O’Connell doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but he’s effective when he does appear. There’s something about O’Connell’s voice that is kind and warm, and that goes a long way when portraying Superman. That doesn’t mean he’s weak though. There’s still a strong presence to Superman, and it’s damn near perfect. And as I stated in my The Death of Superman review, the real-life love and chemistry between O’Connell and Romijn come through in their performance of Clark and Lois. We’ve got a real gem here with these two!
Direction and Animation
Sam Liu (The Death of Superman, Batman & Harley Quinn) returns to the DC Animated Universe to direct this feature, and I have to be honest… He gets better and better with each film. With the assistance of solid scripts and incredible casts, he’s really delivering a lot of good elements within a short time-frame. In fact, I can’t help but feel that DC has found their groove, and I really hope that this is just the beginning of many, incredible films. There are a number of subtleties in the art that pay homage to comics or pop culture, and that’s something that will certainly connect with core fans. While there are obvious examples like the costumes, there are also small nods like the Daily Planet’s pictures for their feature stories. If you look at these pictures closely, you’ll notice that nearly all of them are reinterpretations of comic book covers from this run!
As for the animation, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The overall look of the characters is great, and the action sequences are more than satisfying. From the opening introductions of the Supermen, to their brawl at Lex Corp, to later scenes involving the Justice League, each scene is handled with careful thought and execution. The fact that each character approaches combat with a unique style shows that the animators behind this care about the work they are doing. You get to see this distinctly in the Lex Corp battle. Superboy presents a swift, agile fighting style while Eradicator is more direct and lethal. Then you have the likes of Steel whose prowess is more about momentum and blunt force. Finally, Cyborg Superman approaches battle with awareness and concern for innocents around him… Just like Superman. These are minor details, and will most likely go unnoticed by many, but they make a world of difference. My favorite moment of action would have to be a scene where the Eradicator flies so fast during a battle, that the windows shattered around him. It was an incredible moment on top of an incredible scene. If people walk away praising any action sequence from this film, it’ll have to be the altercation at Lex Corp.
As for the rest of the animation, it could use some improvements. There are still moments where backgrounds are completely stagnant, and simple animation such as characters walking look cheap. I get that these aren’t integral moments, but these moments still need to look good. There are television series with better animation than this, so there’s no reason a film should be of less quality. DC slowly seems to be getting better, but I still feel they just need to just buckle down and shell out more money to get a better product overall.
Overall: Reign of the Supermen is an action-packed film that suffers from trying to accomplish far too much in a mere 87-minute runtime. Events from two colossal comic book events (Reign & Return) unfold at break-neck speed, which makes for a fun, but unfortunately shallow experience. If you’re looking for substance, you won’t necessarily find it here. The movie does, however, serve as a decent way to kill an hour and a half, and it is an important chapter in the DC Animated Universe.
Reign of the Supermen is currently available on 4K, Blu Ray, DVD, and Digital HD.