Comics on Film: 'The Death of Superman' Gets It Right

Comics on Film: 'The Death of Superman' Gets It Right

Aug 10, 2018

The Death of Superman

In late 1992, something astonishing happened: the mainstream public became briefly obsessed with comic books.

With the publication of Superman (vol. 2) #75, DC Comics unleashed a behemoth and force of nature onto the city of Metropolis that could only see one being have any hope of standing in its way: the world’s greatest hero and Man of Steel, Superman. When the Last Son of Krypton stood against the creature known as Doomsday, the creative teams on the Superman comics titles put their best feet forward in turning what basically amounts to a four-issue fight scene into something that managed to be visceral, compelling and emotional.

That emotional weight only continued into the story that followed the eponymous death, "Funeral for a Friend." The entire ordeal, as depicted in those now-classic comics, told a story that was both worthy and necessary, since people who’d begun to take the hero for granted were confronted with a hard, serious look at a world without a Superman.

In the intervening 25 years since that story was published, Warner Bros. has been kind of obsessed with adapting it. The infamously aborted Superman Lives film project saw director Tim Burton devote a number of years to making it happen, only to come up short; WB Animation made an attempt in 2007 with the lackluster Superman: Doomsday; and live-action even took a crack at the death itself in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, with decidedly mixed critical results.

The Death of Superman

This past Tuesday, WB Animation released their second crack at adapting this story with the home video release of The Death of Superman (available on FandangoNow), a far more truthful adaptation that – for the first time – actually manages to get it right

While looking at a screencap of the film will undoubtedly bring up its deviations from the original comics story ('That's The New 52 costume!' Or, 'Why are Batman and Green Lantern there instead of Booster Gold and Guy Gardner?!'), the truthfulness to the original material is most present in the film’s emotion granted by its screenplay. Written by Superman and Batman and Robin comic book scribe Peter J. Tomasi, The Death of Superman is far more truthful to the events of the comic book story arc while also managing to be overridingly authentic to the very real emotions experienced by the characters when they lose their world’s greatest hero.

Featuring a voice cast led by Jerry O’Connell as Superman, Rebecca Romijn as Lois Lane, and Rainn Wilson as Lex Luthor, The Death of Superman takes things even further than the original comic book story by condensing major strides the characters made in previous comics stories within the time leading up to the actual death itself in this film. Here, Clark Kent and Lois Lane have been secretly dating for months, but Clark’s guardedness about his life as Superman has kept Lois at a bit of a distance. When Clark’s parents come to town to visit, he introduces his new girlfriend to them, and begins the process of thinking about laying all his secrets bare to Lois. After all, she’s special.

The Death of Superman

This charming courtship is interrupted by an apparent asteroid crashing into the ocean. Inside is a monster who immediately kills several Atlanteans along with some Lex Luthor-employed scientists before rushing headfirst toward Metropolis. The Justice League attempt to stop it, but they’re simply not strong nor powerful enough. After finally letting Lois into his life, the Man of Steel receives an S.O.S. from the League, and he rushes in to join the fight.

All this legwork does wonders in setting up the real emotional stakes for the fight itself. It’s painful watching as Lois slowly begins to realize that this monster may actually have what it takes to kill the most powerful being on Earth, and even the same flavor of gut-punching torment from the comics is adapted as Jonathan and Martha Kent watch helplessly as their son does everything he can to put this behemoth down.

That emotion is coupled with a very visceral battle. You almost feel every drop of blood that splats the city’s concrete, and the tragic tinge of despair creeps in as Superman, in a torn costume and through blood, bruises and pain, tells a little boy that everything is going to be alright. Then, the fight agonizingly continues until the very end. When the titular moment is near, all the rushing weight of the love between Lois, Clark, his parents, the heroes of the Justice League, and indeed the world is funneled into the imagery of a somber and reflective Superman, laying in his love’s arms looking into her eyes as gentle tears drip from his own.

The Death of Superman

The Death of Superman, very unlike both Superman: Doomsday and even Batman v Superman, hits you with the full emotional force of Superman’s loss, teeing that pivotal moment up by doing genuine emotional legwork in the narrative. Beyond that, the film deftly sets up the characters we’ll be meeting in the next part of this story, arriving on digital HD and home media sometime next year. Fan service is present, but also subtle: it hits all the right notes beautifully.

The bottom line is that The Death of Superman is the first movie to actually nail the spirit of the original story. People who’ve read those comics for 25 years know that the story was never simply about a fight with Doomsday, but it was about the people, the love, the ideas, and the mission all in the orbit of – and encapsulated by – the fallen hero.

It may have taken a while for DC and WB to properly adapt this story, but thankfully, The Death of Superman was totally worth the wait.


Chris Clow is a comics expert/former retailer, and pop culture critic/commentator. He hosts two podcasts: Discovery Debrief: A Star Trek Podcast and Comics on Consoles. Find his column "Comics on Film" weekly at Movies.com, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

Categories: Features, Geek, Animation
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