When sales go down in comics, it is common for publishers like DC and Marvel to try to amp up their game by launching big events in ongoing storylines. You know, crossovers, team-ups, big showdowns between superheroes, major deaths, and so forth. Even relatively trivial events are played up to attract as many readers as possible. The Death of Superman sprang up for the same reason in 1993. One of the most famous characters in pop culture was killed by an unstoppable supervillain and it immediately intrigued everybody, even those who thought the character had become too stale.
This storyline, in which the Man of Steel is clobbered to death by the killing machine that is Doomsday (a feat previously deemed impossible), has been adapted twice before. First in 2007, the animated film Superman: Doomsday, and in 2016, the ill-fated Batman v Superman, wherein Doomsday was added almost as an afterthought. He (or it?) comes at the very end, as though his purpose is only to unite the DC trinity. The Death of Superman, the movie I am talking about in this piece, is not just the best adaptation of the storyline, it might also be the best DC animated film in years. It should also serve as a lesson to whoever is in charge of DC’s live-action fare in how to make good movies.
In The Death of Superman, there are nods to Christopher Reeve’s Superman from the 1978 Richard Donner film and it is clear it at least partly inspired this film. There is even a “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” moment. Just like Reeve’s interpretation, the Last Son of Krypton in this film is an icon of justice, righteousness and everything good. Whenever bad guys start bothering the people of Metropolis, he is there in an instant (literally) and the defeated perpetrators are handed over to the police. He is a beacon of light. Just like the symbol on his chest, he represents hope. He has a good heart, he is empathetic. Oh, and he also smiles. He does get nervous and confused, but he does not lash out, venting his frustration by destroying buildings. He just behaves like a normal man. In short, he is as far away from Henry Cavill’s Superman as possible. He is the Superman we can love.
The people of his city also love him. Before Doomsday kills him (this is not a spoiler!), the writers and directors make sure the viewer knows what he means to Metropolis and its residents, and how they adore him. They don’t worship him like a god as they do in Batman V Superman, they love him like a friend. He is just the protector of the city. He is not above them, he is one of them.
But even more than Superman’s relationship with the city, it is his romance with Lois Lane that makes the emotional core of the movie. And it is so, so well executed. By the end, I was totally invested in the characters and their story, and the payoff felt earned. The Death of Superman does more to develop and flesh out their relationship than all the live-action movies on the character since 1978’s Superman put together. And it is just an 80-minute movie that did not get a theatrical release.
In The Death of Superman, Loise Lane, a reporter with the Daily Planet, is in love with Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, her bumbling, bespectacled colleague. Loise is unaware of the connection between Superman and Clark and Superman struggles with letting her know it, since that might mean endangering her life. His confusion and guilt deepen when fellow Justice League member Barry Allen/The Flash says he is marrying his girlfriend Iris West and that she has known his secret identity for years. Superman finally reveals the big secret to Lois over a lunch. But by then, Doomsday is in Metropolis and the showdown beckons.
Doomsday, that spiked 9-foot tall horror, quickly takes out the entire Justice League, and in one of the film’s most effective moments, a half-dead Wonder Woman asks Superman, their final hope, to not hold back or Doomsday will level the entire planet. Doomsday, let’s be honest, is not the best Superman villain, but he serves as an interesting foil. While Superman is an empathetic, sentimental human being who has put mental blocks to control his almost unlimited power, Doomsday is destruction unleashed, a mindless beast especially built to obliterate entire civilisations.
The final fight is actually pretty great, not just because of the action choreography (which, incidentally, is pretty sublime), but the emotional heft the sequence assumes for Lois Lane and the city of Metropolis as the Man of Steel is brutally beaten to death. Which reminds me, the film is very, very violent. Limbs fly, blood sprays, people get squashed under vehicles. Of course, it is just animation, but I like that they went full gory. The stakes feel high because of all that gratuitous bloodletting. The Death of Superman is a fantastic comic-book movie. It is what Batman v Superman should have been.
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