Nostalgia: How Two Movies Changed My Mind On Superman
I was privileged to see The Death of Superman and The Reign of the Supermen in a double feature event sponsored by Fathom Events. At New York Comic Con 2018, I was in a panel getting a sneak preview of The Reign of the Supermen, so I was pretty stoked to see the movie before it dropped on DVD. As a fan of DC cartoons and comic book history, I knew that Superman died, but is then brought back to life due to shenanigans. For those readers thinking spoiler alert, remember, this premise is ‘way old’ and there are enough movies and animated specials that cover that very story. However, I had never read the original comics so this would be the first time I enter a DC movie and I didn’t have insider knowledge. I knew the basics but not the finer points from the comics. The theatre even had little trivia questions before the start of the film that helped fill in some gaps in the Superman lore for me. Such as who is Superman’s number one fan? If you know congrats, you’re a huge nerd!
Death of Superman
In this canon of the DC animated movies, Superman comes off very different from Superman the Animated Series, which is what I grew up watching. That Superman was a big blue boy scout, a leader anyone could get behind because he truly stood for justice. In this version of Superman, he comes off cocky and slightly sarcastic. He feels less of a leader and more of a team player because he knows he could take out everyone if he put his mind to it. For those racking their brains about my last statement, I’m talking about every DC animated movie from Justice League Doom to The Reign of the Supermen. He also went out with Wonder Woman for a bit but by the time we get into The Death of Superman, Clark Kent and Lois Lane had been dating for a minute. I wish we saw the breakup on screen but by their banter it seemed mutual. Clark is conflicted on whether or not to tell Lois his secret identity, and Lois is having second thoughts on their relationship. Clark is worried that revealing his identity to Lois would put her in danger, but during a debriefing at Justice League Headquarters, The Flash reveals he told his fiancé, Iris, years ago about his costumed life. This gives Clark physical evidence that revealing his alter ego wouldn’t be the end of the world if he opened up to the woman who means the world to him. Superman comes off very human in this movie, despite being an alien and the most powerful super-being on earth. He has fears about going further in his relationship with Lois, and truly being vulnerable with her. Everybody likes to think Superman is not relatable because he’s friggin’ Superman, but at the end of the day he’s just a ‘dude’ that has to pay bills and falls in love like the rest of us. He just happens to be able to go toe to toe with cosmic super villains.
As the movie progresses, Doomsday comes to earth and racks up a high body count and as the Justice League trys to stop him they too get wrecked. Superman says, ‘I love you’ to Lois before he goes off to beat Doomsday. As he and Doomsday beat each other down, Superman finally kills Doomsday as he then proceeds to die in Lois’ arms. The after credit scenes reveals many incidents: a pint sized rocket goes off on it’s own into space; Superman’s corpse goes missing and up in the Arctic the heavily guarded Fortress of Solitude builds itself from the ground up all the while pretty standard ‘death of Superman’ beats persists throughout. The Death of Superman does a lot of work to set up the events and people you’re going to need to remember for its sequel and it presents the Lex Corp genetics program that created Superboy. It also gives us a chance to delve into the rocket that brought Clark to planet earth from Krypton and allows us to see the holographic nanny that took care of him in space. It also introduces us to John Henry Irons aka Steel Superman. The movie also introduces us to Hank Henshaw in a moment that truly highlights how important Superman has become to earth.
In a scene with some astronauts in space, an asteroid is headed their way and they have problems leaving their site. Prior to this point, Hank is telling his wife and coworkers about the time Superman saved his life in space. During the opening of the movie Superman is treated almost with reverence and celebrity like status. As I watched this moment I started to wonder if Superman has a religion based on him because he is known to always ‘save the day’. When the police, soldiers, or firefighters can’t save you, you could always count on Superman to pick up the slack. For the astronauts however, as the asteroid speeds toward them, Hank still believes Superman will come to save them and everything will turn out all right. In the end, the asteroid collides with the space station and everyone dies. It’s this terrible moment, it is then realized that Superman can’t be everywhere at once, and how human he truly is.
Now, The Death of Superman was a great-animated movie and changed my perspective on Superman’s character. He has doubts, fears, pays his bills like all of us, and only wants the best for his friends and loved ones. The action was well paced and larger than life and you could truly feel the mounting tension throughout the movie as Doomsday tears into everything and everyone. One minor issue I had was that the movie does more work than most of the DC animated movies to set up plot devices for its sequel. If I had watched it when it originally came out I would have torn my hair out waiting for closure. One major part of the script I loved was the casual conversation (see below) between the Justice League members. You could glean bits of information about their lives and how they deal with their own relationships and problems outside of the workplace. Dialogue like that helps make the world more than just punching bad guys and stopping hostile aliens. It gives the rest of the team a down to earth vibe.
Reign of the Supermen
The Reign of the Supermen takes place six months after Doomsday kills Superman. People are still upset with the passing of their beloved hero, but now we see that there are more people flying around with the iconic ‘S’ on their chest to fill the mantle of Superman. There are rumors and speculations where all of them came from and if any of them could be trusted, but people desperately wanted Superman back so they’re willing to accept these Supermen into their lives pretty easily. Lois’ way of getting some closure to her loss is by solving the mystery of where these Supermen came from. She feels if she can solve the mystery of where these new Superman wannabes are coming from she can move on. Her search for answers gave me one of the best lighthearted moments in the movie between her and Wonder Woman. The two women are not catty with each other and share a mutual respect for one another and at the end of their conversation they’re best buds. In the movie, Lois navigates her way through the scenes by discovering the origins for each Superman.
Superboy is the clone of Superman created by Lex Luthor to have a Superman under his control. Iron Superman is John Irons in his attempt to honor his favorite hero. The Eradicator and Cyborg Superman really stumped me. I was trying to figure out who they were as the movie went on and as the movie progressed I then discovered the Eradicator was the holographic nanny who took care of Clark, pre landing on Earth and donned the cape to collect solar energy to aid in Clarks healing.
Cyborg Superman was the best twist ever. He was Hank Henshaw brought back to life by Darkseid and given a very important mission: Hank was sent to infiltrate and gain the peoples’ love in becoming a replacement Superman and in doing so, he would enact a program to give other people superpowers like him to ‘help keep the world safe’. At this point the audience can pick up the rest of the plan. Hank would use these new super soldiers to do the bidding of Darkseid and destroy the Earth. Through many twists and turns Superboy, Steel, and The Eradicator team up with Superman to stop Henshaw from bringing Darkseid to Earth. Also, Superman is back, alive and well. What we also discover is that his rocket was installed with a program to keep him alive if he ever died. This rocket took him to the Arctic to keep him isolated while he healed. All I can say, as a fangirl, is that the Superman with long hair and stubble was a ‘dream come through’ on screen and would be the closest we’ll ever get to a mullet from a story line created in the 80’s. Although the healing process made him essentially mortal, I questioned his mortality while watching Superman and Henshaw duke it out in space. Additionally, Superboy, Irons, Lois, and Lex also team up to stop Henshaw and save the day.
You really need to see this movie. I want people to watch this movie so they too can enjoy every punch, jab, and swing. All Superman needed to get fully charged again was a direct hit of sunlight and at the end, Lois and Clark are back together and stronger than ever, Clark gets his job back at the Daily Planet and Lex manages to collect tissue samples from Doomsday (I’m sure that’ll come back to haunt us in a later film adaptation). And as the Justice League comes to the conclusion that Darkseid needs to be stopped before he strikes again at the Earth, and we now have our set up for the next animated Justice League movie.
My big takeaway from these two films is that Lois Lane is a badass. Lois was a character I never really thought too much about even though she was Superman’s girlfriend and coworker. When people think damsel in distress, they tend to picture Superman rescuing Lois from yet another fall off a building. Without even realizing it I’d come to have a negative bias towards her. But, let’s be real, if a woman can’t tell her boyfriend’s disguise and a really bad one at that, then something must be wrong with her. To be honest, I can’t even fault Lois for that. Comics are written to be absurd and we, as the viewer, have to believe in the secret identity as well for it to be effective.
Now, going back to Lois Lane, she’s a female protagonist I can get behind. She is strong, forward thinking, cunning, inquisitive, and kind. So much so, that Superman and Superboy feel safe enough to talk to her about their fears. She clearly goes above and beyond what any journalism job demands of their employees, but she does it because it’s what she loves to do and is dedicated to the truth.
Both movies work best when watched together. If I had not seen The Death of Superman I would have been completely lost during The Reign of the Supermen, had I watched it without prior context. It was a cool experience to see these films as a person who had never been too much into Superman. Were there some scenes and lines an avid Superman fan would know? Yes, but the movies didn’t feel like one big inside joke. All of the action was over the top, and made me jump out of my seat a couple times in excitement. The attention to detail to modernize the story was subtle and made for a great adaptation of the classic story. Even the nods to 80s/90s dialogue with Superboy felt in tune for a character so beloved by fans. I would suggest any fan of comic book movies to go out and watch these movies, because Warner Bros. Animated Films is gearing up to something huge, and trust me you’ll want to be all caught up before then.