The comic arc titled ‘The Death of Superman’ and its aftermath were a sales gimmick; an event purely designed to shock — as DC opted to kill off its most idealistic (often mistaken for ‘boring’) character and attempted to replace the mild-mannered Clark Kent with someone more in vogue. It was a story made purely to shock rather than to actually test Superman’s will or illustrate why he is important — and the backsliding of the decision to kill him set the precedent for superheroes never staying dead.
DC’s most recent animated films The Death Of Superman and its follow up, Reign Of The Supermen don’t deviate all that much from the comics – it’s still about Superman being beaten to death by the alien rock monster Doomsday, and the Xtreme versions of Superman that turn up in his wake — the leather jacket wearing Superboy, violent, visor-wearing Eradicator, a Cyborg Superman (yep) and the mysterious Steel. As a pair, the two films recall a couple of episodes of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s Justice League, where Superman is presumed dead, and the world struggles in his absence — in Death Of Superman, writer Peter Tomasi tries to illustrate how the character’s presence makes everyone better. Tomasi is responsible for one of the best recent runs on Superman, and that understanding of the character is one of The Death Of Superman’s better qualities. Doomsday is still an uninteresting villain, but there’s at least an attempt to make the story more meaningful.
It still doesn’t add up to much though as The Death Of Superman feels fairly one-track, mostly playing as set up for a long, loud final battle between Doomsday and Superman, as well as putting pieces in place for the follow up. To its credit, Reign Of The Supermen casts off these restrictions and faux-edginess with gleeful abandon, and actually has some fun despite the tragedy that permeates the story. The film, to varying degrees of success, lampoons the misguided edginess of 90s comics, as Superboy is announced with an over-the-top guitar lick and spouts outdated idioms like ‘chillax’ with utter sincerity.
The dialogue is often fun but as a whole it reaches too much at being seen as mature — with plenty of bloodshed and the occasional utterance of ‘asshole’, but without any kind of sophisticated theme to it. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s Justice League managed the latter without any of the former, and making Doomsday shockingly violent doesn’t really make him that much more interesting.
Despite being similarly costumed in a darker blue costume (no red pants!) to the brooding, grimacing Superman of the live action DC films, this Superman is an idealist dork, and an often endearing one at that. Despite some groan-worthy moments, Jerry O’Connell’s voice work amplifies Clark’s polite, country boy charm.
But what does stand out is how Tomasi and co. also consider the human fallout from the actions of these titans, as different civilian characters get short arcs, including a former sailor-turned-bar owner who claims that Superman is his pal. One standout moment comes in the final act in The Death Of Superman, which features Superman protecting a civilian from the destruction caused by the fight, but the moment is shot from the civilian’s perspective. Reign Of The Supermen leans even further into this angle, showing the consequences of Superman’s very presence, and the vacuum he leaves behind — both of these things being responsible for the chaos of this second part. The villain of the piece is a lot more compelling than Doomsday, with a tragic arc that stems from a hero’s failure. Unfortunately the film is still something of a mess, full of weird contrivances that can’t really be explained away by comic book goofiness, and some pretty groan worthy quips to boot.
This would be more tolerable if the films gave good spectacle, but the animation is wanting. The first part in particular suffers from bland environments and interiors, and stiff animation — any visual flourishes are reserved for the climatic fight between Superman and Doomsday. The character design in both films is ugly and repetitive; none of the male characters seem to have a neck, and the faces are indistinctive, and Wonder Woman looks like a taller Lois Lane. It sorely misses the varied, exaggerated character design of something like Justice League Unlimited.
Both The Death Of Superman and Reign Of The Supermen are occasionally fun, but inessential entries in the animated DC canon, bringing nothing new to a pretty uninspiring story. The second film, while messier, feels freer to indulge in gleeful comic book mayhem, but the writing in both parts often lands with a thud, and the occasionally wonky animation and bland character design is no help. On the bright side, at least they kept the Super-Mullet.
The Death Of Superman: 2/5
Reign Of The Supermen: 3/5