Despite its creative limits, the story of the death of Superman is one that’s been frequently told, retold and reinterpreted in comics, animation, and live-action film. There’s something humbling about the man of steel meeting his match, but it could easily become a gimmick particularly with a title so laughably explicit about what the crux of the story actually is.
The animated corner of the Warner Bros/DC world is frequently applauded and contrasted with the shortcomings of its live-action side, though I’ve found some inconsistency particularly within the shared universe that’s been building for a while now. The slew of eighty-minute, interconnected releases launched with 2013’s Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox. The Death of Superman is the fifth Justice League film, with five others tied in including three that are Batman-centric. It’s also the first to give Superman the spotlight in a fairly straight-forward plot that offers light entertainment and pulls off some dramatic and emotional highs despite some slight flaws.
As a whole the film is solid and packs punches both literal and figurative, the aforementioned flaws being mostly cosmetic. The first half features the truest depiction of Clark Kent seen on-screen in recent times, as it explores his desires for a personal life and him weighing that against his need to be Superman for the good of everybody else. Prolific comics writer Peter J. Tomasi’s script is filled with energetic dialogue that perfectly captures Superman’s kind-hearted nature and his desire for justice, but a lot of attention is given to the people whose lives are affected directly or indirectly by his presence.
This choice gives us a greater perspective of the world’s adoration for Superman (voiced by Jerry O’Connell), which only adds heft to the inevitable end result. Superman is painted as both a God-like figure and also a celebrity, posing for photos and interacting with the people of Metropolis openly and frequently. In a confrontation with Lex Luthor, who starts the film under house arrest, Superman leaves him with something to ponder. He tells him that the people of their city will never love Luthor, simply for Luthor’s hatred of Superman. Rainn Wilson voices Luthor, who’s depicted at times as a genius, and others as a petulant child who craves the spotlight.
The real highlight of the film, apart from a rather wonderful portrayal of the titular character himself, is Lois Lane’s front-and-center role. The film begins with Lois (Rebecca Romijn) and Clark in the early stages of a secret relationship, and while she’s happy with the secrecy, she nevertheless feels that Clark is hiding himself from her. Clark’s dilemma over whether to reveal himself to her or whether to keep his identity a secret is humanizing and dramatic in all the right ways, as we see him look to his Justice League companions for guidance (making for some hilarious Watch Tower banter involving Flash and Batman, with Wonder Woman chiming in to add some much needed levity).
The emphasis on Clark Kent is short-lived, which is more a testament to the strength of these scenes than it is a failure of the film itself. These moments could have been stretched out and the film would only have benefited from it. Weaved in between all of this is a series of gruesome and surprisingly terrifying scenes introducing the monstrous Doomsday. He first makes an impact when, hidden inside a comet, he crashes through a space station. It’s quite a sad scene despite how overly preachy Tomasi is in spelling out the love affair between the people and Superman – a rare slip in an otherwise solid script.
For its second half, the film becomes one giant battle as the League members take on Doomsday and are removed from the battle with varying amounts of ease. Batman probably lasts the longest, but Wonder Woman puts up the most fight. Superman is, of course, delayed in joining the fray, making it only after other members have been dispatched. These might be spoilers, but it’s a predictable tale.
Once Superman joins the battle, the animation only gets better. Every blow is powerful, and the on-screen destruction feels tangible. All of this violence takes place in heavily populated locales, so that Superman’s task feels even more urgent. This is something that’s been missing in at least some of DC’s recent films, as often there is little to no presence of the people the heroes are protecting, and the mayhem feels hollow; this is most felt in 2015’s Justice League: Throne of Atlantis.
The action in The Death of Superman is the best DC so far has to offer in its direct-to-home video series. It’s fittingly brutal and does a reasonable job of distracting us from the fact that Doomsday, as intimidating as he is, is one of the most one-dimensional of DC’s stock of villains. For this reason the film fizzles down between the time Doomsday reaches the mainland and his battle with Superman begins. The stakes are kept high through the curtain-raising action between heroes and villain, and its all building to something, yet it can’t help but feel like padding.
Ultimately it’s the attention to character that keeps The Death of Superman from becoming instantly forgettable. The early scenes are crucial for adding gravitas to the climax, and the ending manages to earn its sorrow. The film’s greatest asset may well be the teaser for bigger things to come, as it plants a few of the seeds from which the sequel, Reign of the Supermen, will grow. It lacks in twists and turns but makes up for it with a Clark Kent that feels authentic and, most importantly, human.
Film ’89 Verdict – 7/10
The Death of Superman is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital HD.