Can Clark be Superman and have love in his life? Prepare to find out… before he is brutally murdered in this animated film.
The thing most people get wrong with Superman is that the focus is always on the super, but the man is often forgotten in the storytelling. Here, writer Peter J Tomasi (a comic book writer who has written more than a few Superman stories in his time) is focused primarily on the Clark/Lois relationship and how it is shaped by the relationships Clark maintains as Superman with the Justice League and with his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent. The Death of Superman has an ending that is right there in the title, but the journey to that is filled with enough heart and genuine human emotion that by the time the inevitable conclusion is reached, the audience will not only believe that a man can fly, but that he can also love.
This isn’t the first time the death of Superman has been told. Along with a whole bunch of ‘imaginary’ stories in the comics during the 50s and 60s, this film is based on the 1993 Superman line of comics in which they killed off Superman at the hands (claws?) of Doomsday, a mindless monster created for the comic book event. These comics previously served as the inspiration for the terrible Superman: Doomsday animated film in 2007. As a story, the death of Superman has long been more interesting in concept than it ever was in execution.
When the comics storyline was initially published, it was criticised for being little more than a multi-issue brawl, which culminated in Superman #75 – the comic where Superman met his end. While the comics leading up to the death are not-so-good, the storyline is remembered fondly for what came after. Immediately following Superman’s death, the Funeral For a Friend storyline followed Superman’s friends and family mourn for Clark, contending with a world that is idolising the public figure while they suffer the emotional fallout of keeping his secret in death. Tomasi skillfully flips the plotting of The Death of Superman to place the emotional resonance of the story up front, so when the titular Superman meets his demise, it is a painful gut punch.
What makes this Superman soar is that Tomasi has grounded him with very real problems. Here, Superman is an active member of the Justice League where he fights injustice with his friends, other superheroes. But in his civilian identity of Clark Kent, he’s dating a girl at the office named Lois Lane – he loves her, but he’s scared that if he gives too much of himself to her, it will put her in danger. It’s while talking with The Flash at a Justice League meeting that his mind starts to be changed – The Flash is getting married the next day to the love of his life, Iris, having revealed his identity and powers to her already. Can Clark be Superman and have love in his life? It’s what his parents have always wanted for him, to have the opportunity to be human.
Clark has found the woman of his dreams, but can he be entirely honest with her?
The film delivers this very human, relatable question, offering emotional grounding to the characters before layering in superheroics over the top of the story. Clark asks Lois to meet him for lunch after a disastrous first dinner with his parents. She’s convinced that he’s ready to break up with her, choosing his privacy over the honesty she needs from a partner. Instead he reveals to her the truth – he’s Superman and he loves her. But before Lois can fully process this information, Superman is off to fight a dangerous threat to Metropolis – a villain named Doomsday. It’s a tragic shift in the story – just as Superman has opened his life up to Lois, he’s set to be brutally murdered.
Not everything in the film is a winner, however. While Tomasi has gotten it right, elements of the production, particularly in its opening 10-15 minutes, do detract from the film. Most notably, the costumes that Superman and all the other heroes wear are based on a period of the comics (the ‘New 52’) which has now been largely reversed. The result is a Superman who looks less striking and possibly a tad too youthful. The Superman character is also portrayed as a little bit too reserved to begin with, making it difficult to warm up to him. A scene near the start has him posing for a photo with a fan of his. It’s a perfect opportunity to have him smile and exhibit some warmth – instead the scene just sits there and Superman comes across as an overly-serious stick-in-the-mud. These are directorial choices that hurt the film.
The relatively short run-time of the film (it clocks in at just 81 minutes) means that there are some sacrifices made to the narrative. Possibly the most problematic for the film is the depth of characterisation afforded to Lois Lane. While we know the character well through the various incarnations of Superman over the past 80 years, she isn’t given a whole lot here. Failing the Bechdel test entirely, all of her scenes are framed through the relationship she has with Clark. While that’s fine (the relationship really is the story being told), most of the great Lois Lane stories are usually reliant on her having a lot more going on outside of the relationship she has with Clark/Superman.
Warner Bros Animation have now released over 30 DC animated films made for the home entertainment market. Most of them have been patchy to poor, with a couple of good ones in the mix (Justice League: The New Frontier, probably being the best of them). The Death of Superman is technically part one of the story, with its sequel Reign of The Superman (which brings Superman back to life alongside the rise of four pretenders) debuting in early 2019.
The Death of Superman has raised the stakes on what the DC animated films can achieve. This is a film that proves that genuine emotional stakes can be layered into these stories focused on super-people hitting one another. Writer Peter J Tomasi has leveraged the audiences familiarity with the Lois and Clark relationship and worked that to amplify investment in the film. It’s the most fun had watching a Superman film in a very long time.