Flawed and familiar, The Death of Superman is nonetheless the best retelling so far of the title character’s messianic death and resurrection.
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Having now been told in the 1992-93 namesake crossover comic, in 2007’s Superman: Doomsday and in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the death of Superman hardly feels like fertile creative territory for DC. Then again it isn’t a story headlined by Batman, so as far as these animated films are concerned, that has to count for something.
You know what to expect. Luckily, by hewing closer to the source material and slicing the story into two, much like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, this version of The Death of Superman is probably the best depiction of Superman’s messianic demise and resurrection. By design, it hits the same beats and doesn’t add anything revelatory, and it’s flawed by any standard, but those expecting a faithful retelling of an iconic story will find it here.
Maintaining the same visual style and most of the same voice cast as the more recent, continuity-driven animated installments, The Death of Superman sees Clark Kent (Jerry O’Connell) considering his relationship with Lois Lane (Rebecca Romijn), which feels like something he should have done several movies ago. The film’s speedy treatment of their romance does a disservice to the emotional climax, feeling wedged in awkwardly before the final confrontation just to give the face-punching a layer of melodrama.
Seeing the aftermath of Superman’s heroic self-sacrifice feels like territory better traversed in next year’s sequel, Reign of the Supermen, although it’s undercut already by this film’s ending, which removes the need for anyone to mourn the title character, or for the audience to eagerly anticipate his inevitable return. The Death of Superman has a runtime of only 80-minutes, but with another feature-length half of the story still to be told, Lois, other members of the Justice League and the people of Metropolis could have been afforded more time to react to the emotional fallout.
And The Death of Superman does a surprisingly good job of exploring what Superman means to Metropolis on the level of the individual; not just the embodiment of old-fashioned American ideals and values, but someone who takes selfies and signs autographs. The film deploys minor characters to great effect and even has the audacity to end with one’s grieving, making Superman not just the Man of Steel but the Man of the People.
Doomsday remains a one-note villain, though; a hulking alien with terrible hair who fights like a football hooligan, and his lack of personality and motive keeps him, as always, feeling like a means to an end rather than a fully-fledged character in his own right. His design here is lackluster, while the general sameness of the visuals across the board makes it difficult to really differentiate The Death of Superman at a glance. It’s in service to canon and so to be expected, but some more flair and individuality wouldn’t hurt these films all the same.
Still, if The Death of Superman never quite manages to convince that we needed another retelling of Superman’s swansong, it at the very least justifies its existence. Peter Tomasi’s screenplay has a great sense of the character, and the film feels, to use a nebulous film-crit term, like a true Superman story. Presumably, that’s what people wanted from it.