In November of 1992, DC Comics published one of the most important comics of my life: Superman Volume 2, issue #75. The Death of Superman. The full breadth of its impact on the industry is too much to cover in a paragraph or two, but there’s no question that it was one of the most shocking, most widely discussed stories in comic book history.
To the 8-year-old microgeek that was me in 1992, reading The Death of Superman was a life changing experience. The revolving door of superhero mortality wasn’t an established trope in those days, so as far as I knew I really was witnessing the violent end of my childhood hero.
Looking back almost 25 years later, I can’t really remember how I managed to process the experience, but I know it had a profound effect on my young mind. If nothing else, this was the first time I had to sit back and think “Holy shit. COMICS.”
This one 22 page story didn’t just change how I looked at the medium, it expanded my understanding of storytelling as a whole. I learned, for the first time, that heroes could die. I learned that our mightiest champions might one day give their lives for us, and that sacrificing oneself for the greater good is the very definition of heroism.
And people wonder why I take my comics so seriously.
When Warner Brothers released Superman: Doomsday in 2007, I was understandably stoked. I had no doubt that the minds behind Batman and JLU could bring The Death of Superman to the screen with all the impact I found on the page back in ‘92. Was I right? Sure…mostly.
If all I were concerned about was the final battle between the Man of Steel and Doomsday, the film would be an unqualified triumph. The animation and action choreography are top of the line, and the brutality of Superman’s final minutes were rendered in stark, deeply personal detail. The same can be said of all the action in Doomsday, because of course the movie continues after the killing blow. Unfortunately animation and action are the only consistent sources of quality.
When it comes to Superman’s return, I’m not going to criticise the DC animation team for not directly adapting Reign of the Supermen or the Engine City arc. That would be a mess even if they weren’t limited to an hour and twenty minutes. Having Luthor create an ethically imperfect clone of Superman is a pretty good alternative, but the execution left something to be desired.
Most of Doomsday‘s problems come down to the script. Attempting to fit far more into the second half than the first, the story wound up feeling rushed and haphazard. As a result, the thrilling conclusion felt unearned, fun though it was to watch Superman beat the shit out of himself. The pacing issues weren’t nearly as bad as, say, Batman v. Superman, but that’s not a high bar. It didn’t ruin the movie or anything, but it was difficult to ignore.
Speaking of hard to ignore, Doomsday‘s dialogue was fucking embarrassing. It had that robotic, overly expository quality that makes me think no one bothered trying to read it aloud before sending it to the voice actors. The cast were honestly stellar, but even they couldn’t avoid sounding like an extraterrestrial landing party trying to master the strange hu-mon art of “conversation.”
Yes, there is an uncanny valley for dialogue, and Doomsday sits right at the bottom.
Despite these admittedly glaring faults, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Doomsday to fans or casual viewers. It might be a bit of a mess, but the movie shows unmistakable love for its source material and a clear understanding of its own history. Among other things, the writers get bonus marks for casually referencing Superman Lives, the aborted late-90s attempt at a live action Death of Superman. Cringe-worthy the words may be, but the story is unquestionably, and unashamedly Superman.
I’ll admit, I may be viewing this movie with rose coloured glasses. It’s no secret that I love me some Superman, and I’m willing to overlook a few missteps for a story that reflects my appreciation for the Man of Steel. Your experience may differ from mine if you weren’t born with John Williams’ Superman theme stuck in your head, but I stand by my assessment.
If you want the authentic, full impact Death of Superman experience, track down the comic. It’s still available on Comixology if nowhere else, and it represents the best of early-90s DC. That said, if you want a reasonably satisfying digest version, and can grit your teeth through the worst of the dialogue, I’d say Superman: Doomsday is well worth your time.
Next time – Justice League: The New Frontier