The Man of Steel still dies in the new Death of Superman animated movie. The biggest surprise in the film is how he lives his life before Doomsday takes him out.
At this point, part of the appeal of Warner Bros.’ animated adaptations of beloved DC Comics stories is watching to see what gets re-imagined. The current iteration of these films takes place in a world heavily influenced by the New 52 reboot. These adaptations graft pre-Crisis storylines onto a new continuity, which affords different angles, strengths, and weaknesses. In this version of The Death of Superman – which had a world premiere Comic-Con screening on Friday night – we get a more inexperienced Superman than the one from the classi 1992 storyline.
"This Superman is nervous, uncertain, and even a little paranoid."
This Kal-El is still a member of the Justice League but doesn’t know much about his Kryptonian heritage. He wants to tell the world about his extraterrestrial origins through articles written by Lois Lane, but also struggles with how to balance the two sides of his life. This dilemma feeds the core tension of the movie, embodied in a version of Lois and Clark are entangled in a workplace love affair. After watching Superman trounce some bad guys, Lois pushes Clark into an office closet and they start making out. “You’re always on fire after seeing him,” Clark quips. They’re trying to keep their romance secret, a decision that suits both their needs. But Lois gets ever more frustrated by how Clark keeps her at arm’s length. When a planned weekend getaway comes into conflict with his parents coming into town, Clark stammers his way through explaining why it might be a bad idea for Lois to meet Jonathan and Martha Kent. They all get together but Lois can’t understand why Clark won’t really let her in to his life.
Meanwhile, conversations with teammates in the League make Clark consider doing exactly that. During a regularly scheduled meeting, Flash tells the team that he’s getting married and Superman is stunned to learn that Iris has known about the superhero side of Barry Allen’s life for years. Even Batman makes time for family, explaining that he can’t make the next meeting because it’ll be parent-teacher night at Damian’s boarding school.
This Superman is nervous, uncertain, and even a little paranoid. He wants to do the right thing but doesn’t know how Lois, or the world at large, will accept him if they find out what he truly is. The characterisation is a good beat to land on in a universe where his career is essentially just starting out.
The other plot threads running through Death of Superman concern Lex Luthor’s maniacal need to find a counter-measure to Superman through the mad-science experiments of Project Cadmus, a crew of endangered space shuttle astronauts, and S.T.A.R. Labs research on hybrid Apokaliptian technology, which is being used by the criminals of Intergang. If you’re familiar with the whole arc of the 1992-1993 comics storyline, you’ll see these subplots for what they are, setting up the latter half of a two-part film narrative.
Because the backdrop for this version of Death of Superman is different, new choices get made to communicate a sense of threat. After making Earthfall, Doomsday doesn’t tear a swath through the North American continent and maim a whole bunch of superheroes on the way. Instead, he kills Atlanteans and hapless humans on his way to Metropolis, in horror-inflected sequences that make the villain feel like Halloween’s Michael Meyers. When the hulking alien invader does face off against the Justice League, the fights are more brutal than they were in the comics, and the same is true for Superman’s showdown with Doomsday. When the two trade the final blows that end each other’s lives, I could hear audible gasps from the audience, despite the fact that most of them had to know what was coming. (Even if they haven’t read the original, it’s titled The Death of Superman, after all.)
In the comics, Lois had known Clark’s secret for years. Here, she knows it for, at most, a couple of days before he dies. It presents a different kind of tragedy: a love story that was just starting out gets snuffed by heroic sacrifice. When Lois gets frustrated by Clark’s maladroit romantic signals, he tells her that he cares for her but just has trouble showing it. The moments where he does show it – by telling her that he’s Superman – are the best parts of the film, mixing humour, scepticism, and heartfelt relief.
Jerry O’Connell doesn’t do enough vocally to differentiate the two voices, but does a better Clark than Superman, delivering “earnest farmboy” better than “tough, resolute superhero.” Rainn Wilson’s best Lex Luthor moments have the billionaire scientist come across as a gleeful asshole who gets really whiny when he doesn’t get what he wants. In the main, the voice performances are all serviceable.
The oddest choice in Death of Superman – written by longtime comics scribe Peter Tomasi – is how heavily it leans on Jesus allegories. In the first act, crime boss Mannheim says he wants to get done with a robbery before attracting the attention of the “man upstairs.” He’s referring to Superman, of course, but the intent of the line is to invoke the idea of a God in Heaven. Later, after Superman has died, retired sailor Bibbo Bibbowski weedily recites the Hail Mary and asks God why Superman had to die. Even more Catholic influence can be seen in the moment where Lois and Jimmy Olsen race to Superman’s tomb after hearing something happened there. The tomb is empty and, just like the Apostles on Easter Sunday, they wonder if the Man of Steel might be alive. Superman’s parallels to Jesus has been a set of ideas, analyses, and coincidences that accrued over the decades, but mostly as subtext. To have it pulled so strongly into the foreground is jarring, but not so much that it dampened any enjoyment for me.
The change in continuity sets up even more tantalising deviation in the inevitable sequel. The four characters who’ll fill the void left by Superman’s passing will have ties to Darkseid and Apokalips and a dysfunctional worship of what Superman is supposed to be. Furthermore, Superman’s resurrection will likely coincide with the world learning that he’s an alien, a revelation that could replace the hope of his return with fear of a superpower outsider. However, all this change sits right next to a great callback to Superman: The Movie, reminding viewers of the whole scope of Superman’s decades-long existence.