It’s no surprise that I’m a comic book stan. What some people may find surprising is there was a time when I hated Superman; I thought he was just a big blue boyscout, not as badass as someone like the Batman – with his cool gadgets, fancy car, and brooding temperament. It wasn’t until recently that I really grew an appreciation for how special Superman is as a character, and as a result I’ve read more Superman stories in the last year than I ever would have considered in the past. Superman, at his best, is just an ordinary John Cusack-type who can only be hurt when those he loves are in anguish. Meanwhile, Batman can stand as an alt-right allegory to this day (a rich dude taking the law into his own hands to beat up poor people who are taking rich people’s money). The latest installment in Warner Brothers’ straight-to-video DC Animated Universe (DCAU) covers the renowned Death of Superman comic arc from the early 90s. Warner Bros. Animation had covered the story a decade ago when they kicked off the DCAU with Superman: Doomsday (2007), and the juggernaut studio even attempted to pay tribute with Doomsday appearing in the final act of the divisive Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). With the release of The Death of Superman (2018), the first of a two-part story Warner Bros. Animation is bringing (back) to life, we get the most faithful adaptation of the comic arc, with plenty of thrills packed into the 80 minute runtime. In the new adaptation, the Man of Steel meets his match when Doomsday crash lands on Earth hell bent on destroying everything in its path – including the Justice League. After Doomsday easily dispatches core League members, it’s up to Superman to hold the line in Metropolis in a fight of truly epic proportions.
While the movie makes some adjustments to keep it original and fresh, it does a great job of humanizing Superman and the other members of the Justice League. Doomsday is portrayed as the antithesis of Superman, and you feel that throughout the entirety of the movie. It’s great to be treated to these PG-13 animated films that don’t need to shy away from some of the more graphic moments from the Death of Superman comic. The movie certainly pushes those animated PG-13 boundaries as Doomsday lays waste to everything (and everyone) in its path, but it never feels like it’s gruesome for the sake of shocking the audience. Superman is on the side of life and Doomsday is on the side of death, and that parallel is present throughout.
Jerry O’Connell, Rebecca Romijn and Rainn Wilson play the respective trio of Superman, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor; and they are accompanied by DCAU voice acting veterans Jason O’Mara as Batman, Rosario Dawson as Wonder Woman, Shemar Moore as Cyborg, Nathan Fillion as Green Lantern/Hal Jordan, Matt Lanter as Aquaman, and Christopher Gorham as The Flash. To be frank, I adore everyone’s portrayals, with Dawson’s Wonder Woman as a standout for me. Dawson gets to truly shine as she takes on Doomsday before Superman’s arrival, and while I had hoped we’d get to see WW and Superman fight Doomsday together, I’m hard-pressed to be disappointed by WW’s one-on-one fight, especially given Dawson’s commitment. O’Connell’s Superman starts off a little cockier than I’d like as he banters with criminals in the first act and soaks up Metropolis’ adoration, but when the climactic fight finally happens O’Connell gives us a Superman who is not only devoted to stopping Doomsday, but also scared by the thought of losing. Each character has a moment to shine as well, from Hawkman saving an innocent as she films Doomsday drop a car on a police officer (Doomsday, welcome to the resistance); or Hal Jordan ignoring Batman’s advice to build a perimeter and taking the fight directly to the monster.
Of course the best moments are between Lois and Superman: in the first act, Lois is bogged down by an aimless co-worker at the Daily Planet who tries to make Lois’ relationship with Clark Kent seem like a Sam & Diane romantic comedy. She tries to gossip with Lois and while Lois doesn’t give this coworker an inch, I wish she wasn’t such a secondary character before the final act. Having said that, once the fight in Metropolis ensues, Lois and Superman’s relationship is shown at its best as the two of them risk their lives: Superman fighting Doomsday to the death, and Lois following the fight in a helicopter and putting her life on the line to provide Metropolis with status updates on the battle. It’s here that we are given one of the most accurate depictions of the Superman/Lois Lane love that has endured for 80 years.
There is a brief pause in the fight when Superman and Lois have a moment together on a rooftop, as Doomsday quickly recuperates from one of Superman’s devastating blows. Lois tells Superman it’s suicide to keep fighting Doomsday and Superman smiles and retorts, “So is following him in that helicopter like you did,” before the two of them decide it’s time to get back to work. To me, this is the quintessence of their relationship. For all of Superman’s abilities and moral fiber, he is still completely taken away and motivated by Lois’ tenacity to put herself at risk to keep doing what she does best – despite her lack of special abilities. Lois doesn’t need powers to be super and that is what inspires Superman more than anything. Lois Lane is Superman’s Superman and the two cannot be motivated without the other. It’s as beautiful as it is heartbreaking when you know the final outcome of this story.
The climactic fight between Superman and Doomsday is hands-down the best adaptation of the Death of Superman comic. Metropolis trembles with every blow the two deliver and Warner Bros. Animation truly shines with glorious shots; from Superman punching Doomsday into the stratosphere, to even paying homage to anime classics such as Akira (1988) with distinguished closeups and an intensity that tells you this fight is the fight of all fights for Superman. What makes it even better is knowing that this is just Part 1 of a two-part story that will culminate with Reign of the Supermen (2019), coming out some time next year.
It sounds like I am waxing poetic about this, but there are some flaws to be seen in the movie. The first act seriously drags as we’re beaten over the head with how much Superman means to the citizens of Metropolis. It’s all in the name of making the titular death of Superman that much more impactful, but I think it’s safe to say that a pretty niche audience is watching this animated film and, regardless of the narrative, viewers will feel the weight of the Man of Steel’s demise. Lex Luthor is as always a thorn in Superman’s side, but I did not like him as a character or Rainn Wilson’s voice acting. I actually would have prefered if Wilson channeled his Dwight Schrute a little more – more pompous than nonchalant. Wilson is also not given the best depiction of Luthor from a script standpoint, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for trying to add something to an otherwise pointless character. The ending suffers a bit from Return of the King (2003) syndrome, with what feels like four epilogues. Of course this is done to set up Part 2, but some scenes still felt a bit shoehorned in just to ramp up the runtime to feature-status. While I can’t ignore the issues I have, they don’t completely ruin the experience, and Warner Bros. Animation still packs a punch for the bulk of the movie.
While the narrative takes some original liberties that can be hit or miss, Warner Bros. Animation still manages to find a way to make this adaptation fresh enough to feel interesting, and doesn’t diverge dramatically from the source material and DC Comics’ core concepts. The Death of Superman (2018) is a top-shelf addition to Warner Bros. Animation’s and the DC Animated Universe’s filmography, with physical and emotional gut punches and a clever set-up for the sequel coming next year.
Epilogue: One of the best aspects of this movie is Batman is far, FAR from being a main character and in a world where Batman is EVERYWHERE, that is a breath of fresh air.