The latest animated DC Comics movie is another adaptation of the classic storyline, and this time, they came closer to doing it right… but they aren’t quite there yet.
The Death of Superman
Directed by Jake Castorena and Sam Liu
Written by Peter Tomasi
The original Death and Return of Superman story line from 1992-93 played out over more than 50 issues in six different series (including the four regular Superman books of the time). Instead of condensing the whole thing into one movie – like they did in the first DC Animated movie, Superman: Doomsday from 2007 – they latest adaptation will split the story into two movies. Like their first two-part attempt, the adaptation of Frank Miller’s DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, the decision allows the story to breathe a little bit better and give a proper build to one of the most epic and iconic fights in DC Comics history.
While the pre-release buzz of THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN noted that this would be a closer adaptation of the book than the 2007 movie, Tomasi’s screenplay places the story within the continuity of the animated movies that have been released since JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR, the 2014 adaptation of Geoff Johns’ New 52 Justice League debut, which makes some considerable changes to the story. Gone is the somewhat less formidable Justice League including guys like Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Ice and Bloodwynd. Instead, Superman is backed up by the A-list heroes, including Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern and Cyborg.
The change isn’t necessarily bad, as it hammers home how much of a threat Doomsday actually is. Battering Booster Gold is one thing, but going toe-to-toe with Wonder Woman and surviving a superspeed assault from the Flash using Hawkman’s Nth metal mace makes for a more menacing monster. By the time Superman steps up to bat, Doomsday has done massive amounts of damage and things are looking bleak. Of course, given the title, they aren’t going to get much better.
The original comic story brilliantly built up to Doomsday’s arrival and Superman’s death over the previous year, establishing the hero’s supporting cast and strengthening his relationship with Lois Lane, including revealing his secret identity to her and proposing marriage. When the Man of Steel fell in SUPERMAN 75, dying in the arms of his one true love, the death had that much more effect. In THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN, Lois and Clark are dating, though Lois still doesn’t know Clark’s secret, and she still makes googly eyes at Superman when she’s with him. The heart of the movie is establishing and strengthening Lois and Clark’s relationship, as Big Blue debates letting Lois in.
We get scenes of Superman discussing the situation with Wonder Woman – who, in this continuity, he used to date – and the Flash, who’s preparing to marry Iris West before getting some final advice from Ma and Pa Kent. Most of the film is dedicated to Superman’s internal debate about whether he should put Lois at risk by knowing his secret, and it’s a pretty smart way to build to the climactic battle between Superman and Doomsday.
The fight certainly tries to live up to the original, and I would say it does a better job of it than the one in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, though I realize that’s not saying much. I could have done without the overused “shockwave window shattering” effect during the fight, but otherwise the fight scenes were used effectively to show Superman doing whatever he could to overcome the monster.
My favorite part of the movie comes in the epilogue, after Superman dies. In a scene directly lifted from the WORLD WITHOUT A SUPERMAN comics story, bar owner Bibbo Bibbowski, a huge Superman fan, says a prayer and asks God why he would take Superman but leave him alive. It’s a powerful scene in the comic and it’s probably even more powerful in the animated film. I’m really pleased they threw that in there.
While I enjoyed the film for the most part, I thought the voice work was a little uneven. Jerry O’Connell takes his fourth turn as Superman/Clark Kent and does a fine job with it, though I was a little disappointed with Rebecca Romijn’s Lois Lane. O’Connell and Romijn may be married in real life, but whatever real-life chemistry they have didn’t really translate into the voice work. Rosario Dawson, though, also making her fourth appearance as Wonder Woman, does another great job here. She manages to convey both the strength and the tenderness needed for a portrayal of the Amazon Princess. She was definitely another highlight of the film.
Another great addition to the film was Cress Williams (BLACK LIGHTNING) as John Henry Irons, who will eventually become the hero Steel. Both Irons and Hank Henshaw – the future Cyborg Superman – are introduced here in advance of the bigger roles they’ll play in the second part of the story, while we get glimpses of the future Eradicator and Superboy.
Unfortunately, the portrayal of Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor wasn’t as strong. Using Rainn Wilson (Dwight from THE OFFICE) was an interesting choice, and I didn’t feel like it paid off. Wilson’s higher-pitched voice wasn’t a great fit for Luthor, coming off more as a middle manager than a strong leader and business tycoon.
The fight with Doomsday has had a few different adaptations over the years, and despite its faults, I’d say THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN was one of the better ones. However, I’m much more interested in the second part of the story, set for release in early 2019. The Reign of the Supermen hasn’t been touched by any adaptations yet, so it will be interesting to see what Warners animation does with it.