WRITTEN BY: James Krieg and Tim Sheridan
DIRECTED BY: Sam Liu
Jerry O’Connell (Superman/Clark Kent)
Rebecca Romijn (Lois Lane)
Rainn Wilson (Lex Luthor)
Patrick Fabian (Cyborg Superman)
Charles Halford (Bibbo Bibbowski/Eradicator)
Cameron Monaghan (Superboy)
Cress Williams (John Henry Irons/Steel)
Tony Todd (Darkseid)
Reviewed by: Michael Bailey
Rating – 4/5: In the interest of full disclosure, I feel the need to mention right at the top of this review that the whole DEATH AND RETURN OF SUPERMAN saga is my second favorite Superman storyline of all time. Those comics are important to me on a deep and personal level. They represent a high-water mark in the history of Superman and it is not an exaggeration to write that they made international news. They were also the entry point for a generation of Superman readers. It’s not that I can’t see faults in the individual comics. I can and I have, but I wanted to lead with this because I thought it was important to be honest with you about what that phenomenon meant to me as a fan of Superman.
Which is why I am glad that this movie got so much right.
Adaptations, by their very nature, are tricky propositions. When you are taking a story from one medium to another, compromises have to be made. DC: NEW FRONTIER was a beautifully written and drawn love letter to the Silver Age of DC Comics that not only celebrated DC’s characters but spoke about the times the original comics were published. The animated version had to, for a variety of reasons, eliminate much of that to fit to the eighty or so minutes time frame of the movie. Despite this I think the movie got the spirit and tone of the comics and is a fantastic viewing experience on its own.
The comic book storyline REIGN OF THE SUPERMEN took place over about 30 comic books that were written by four main creative teams plus some other writers that worked on the annuals that were published in 1993. The fact that it was so well received and brought in so many new readers is due to the quality of the storytelling as much as it is the times that the comics were published in. Yes, it was a huge event. Yes, it was the early nineties and the bubble that had been expanding since the late eighties had not yet burst. Comic shops were popping up all over the country. It was a grand time, but the reason the story keeps getting reprinted, outside of financial considerations, is that it’s good.
It’s also something of a minor miracle because of how dense the continuity was. We’ll start with the red-haired Lex Luthor, who was introduced in late 1991 and revealed to be the clone of the original Lex Luthor (who was pretending to be his son), who had been dying of cancer until he faked his death. Then there was the Cyborg Superman, who was in reality Hank Henshaw, a character introduced in 1990 and had appeared in two issues of ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. The there was the Last Son of Krypton Superman, who was really The Eradicator, a piece of artificial intelligence from Krypton that was introduced during the EXILE storyline in 1989. Superboy’s background had to do with Cadmus, which was a concept created by Jack Kirby in the early seventies and re-introduced to the comics in 1988 by Roger Stern and Ron Frenz in SUPERMAN ANNUAL #2. The other big bad of the story? Mongul? His beef with Superman went back to the previously mentioned EXILE storyline.
Again, it was a minor miracle that it worked. As someone that had been reading the Superman books since 1987 it was great. For new readers? I think the reason it went down so well was the talent of the writers to make the exposition work.
Which brings me to a logical question; how in the world do you put all of that into a 90 minute animated film?
The answer; you don’t.
You can’t. It would be a fool’s errand. They did not have the time to properly establish those concepts to make the payoffs work. This is why I was glad that they introduced the four Supermen during the credits of DEATH OF SUPERMAN. Not only did it echo the final pages of ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #500 but it also saved them precious time in the sequel because if you had seen the first one then you already had an idea of who these characters were. To be fair, they did take the time to show those characters in action before the opening credits of this film, but to me that was more of having action right there at the beginning of the movie, which allowed for more character development when the film proper got going.
What the creators of this film did was absolutely nail the spirit of REIGN OF THE SUPERMEN as a story, both in terms of the actual events of the storyline and the emotional beats that made it so special. Lois meeting with Clark’s parents and saying she didn’t know what she could say to them. The encounter between Lois and the Cyborg on her roof. Superboy being a little too much of an adolescent boy. The fights between the various Supermen before the final villain is revealed. All of these served to signal to the audience that the people behind this movie has some understanding of the comics and managed to weave the references into the plot in a seamless way.
The differences mostly work. Making Lois the central character for most of the film was great, especially her beefed up role in the final act. This Lois is everything I want from the character; smart, tough, attractive, fearless and, at times, vulnerable. The scene with her and Diana towards the beginning of the movie was very well done and she was definitely the best part of the movie.
The Justice League’s involvement (or, in some cases, the lack thereof) was another strong point. Getting them out of the way through most of the second and third act was a great way to ramp up the drama and suspense. Superman is gone and now the Justice League is gone. What do we do now? I was a little put off when I saw them in the trailer for this movie but was happy with how their involvement was treated.
The four Supermen were strong as well, though, to be honest, Steel kind of got a raw deal in this movie. He’s a central figure but it seemed he got the least amount of character development than the other Supermen. Except for The Eradicator. He was pretty much who he needed to be. I loved that John Henry was part of the movie and you couldn’t have done it without him, but I wanted more from the character, which is on me and no one else. Superboy was very nuanced and I can’t blame for the writers for making him part Lex from the beginning. The dynamic between them was great and the way the filmmakers were able to keep the ’90s feel to the character in 2019 was amazing.
The Cyborg was probably the most changed of the four Supermen, but I liked those changes. Again, his comic book origins are a little dense and it’s a miracle that a Fantastic Four send up managed to be part of one of the biggest storylines in comics. Having Hank’s motivation come from feeling that Superman let him down gave their fight a lot of emotional meat. I don’t agree with where he’s coming from, but I can at least see it. Again, different from the comics but the hatred felt earned.
Bibbo was awesome. That’s all the really needs to be written about that.
Lex was another strong element to the film. Except for that Post-Credits scene THIS is how I like to see Lex; ruthless, murderous, dangerous and intelligent. The scene where you thought he was going to kill Superboy was really tense and the fact that he didn’t kind of proved how narcistic Lex really is. There are times when Lex being played sympathetically works for me but most of the time I want him to be the sinister bad guy. Which was why I was a tad disappointed at seeing him wanting to join the League at the end of the credits but how else are they going to lead into the seemingly inevitable DARKSEID WAR movie that has yet to be announced but I’d put money on it happening next year?
It’s weird that I have so little to write about Superman. It’s not because I didn’t like the way he was handled. I did. A lot. He was everything I wanted him to be and more. They managed to get the long hair and the black suit into the film. His fight with the Cyborg was great and the moment where he gets powered up at the end was something I saw coming but didn’t feel let down when it happened. The costume change at the end of the film was nice. I have to admit that I have loosened up on the New 52 outfit over the past year or so but them adopting the Post-Superman Reborn suit works just as well. I kind of wonder if they had the New 52 costume in the first movie because Rebirth hadn’t been announced yet (what with production time being so long) and by the time they got to this movie they thought the second Rebirth costume was the way to go but before they announced the trunks were coming back.
Like, were they mad? Was there grousing? I’m very curious about this.
My only real problem with the movie was Darkseid replacing Mongul as the other main bad guy. I get it. Darkseid is more recognizable. This film can be used to launch another movie with Darkseid as one of the bad guys. He’s also an easier sell than Mongul. I just didn’t like him being behind everything, up to and including Doomsday. Doomsday’s comic book origin is not everyone’s cup of tea but I really liked it, so having him be just another weapon of Darkseid made the character feel less special. Ultimately it worked but I wasn’t a huge fan of his involvement.
But that was my only real problem. Both this movie and DEATH OF SUPERMAN are two of the best animated films DC has put out since 2007. There is a lot of heart but plenty of action and humor to keep the whole thing balanced. Superman was treated with respect and I think the filmmakers did right by the story. I am looking forward to the combined movie coming later this year. I’m a sucker for extra scenes and it will be interesting to watch what is essentially a three hour animated film.