“I’m just a guy from a small town who tries to do the right thing.”
Superman! I have to admit I wasn’t all that enthused when I heard DC were adapting the Death of Superman into one of their original animated movies (again), for several reasons. Don’t get me wrong the Death of Superman storyline in the comics is one of the classics (that I’ve never read. I feel like when I admit that there should be a knock at the door with some cloaked figure asking me to hand in my ‘DC Fanboy’ card, but it’s true.) There are a couple of reasons that I’ve never read it, one I’ve already seen a million adaptations of it (from the ‘you’re doing this way too early’ of Batman V Superman to the heartfelt of the Justice League cartoon’s ‘Hereafter’ two-parter. As a side note go watch those episodes, crazy Vandal Savage is the best Vandal Savage). Two, it basically boils down to a big fight, Doomsday is an unstoppable killing machine and that’s it, he’s a threat not a character and I’m really not interested in him in the slightest. No matter the incarnation the fight is always suitably epic, and however much I love a good fight, it takes more than that to make an interesting story.
That brings me to point three, Superman. Again I’m waiting for the knock at the door, but I’ve never been the biggest fan of Superman. I certainly like him a lot more than when I was a kid. Back then he was one of my least favourite superheroes, he was just a goody two-shoes with every superpower going, I was way more into heroes like Batman and Spider-Man. Flawed characters that I could relate to (and obviously I had a lot in common with a traumatised billionaire and science genius with the worst luck ever). It was only when I started getting into comics properly when I was in college that I came to appreciate Superman more. It’s not about his powers, but his personality. To paraphrase the Richard Donner Superman film, he is the light to show the way and I get that now. Heck we can use all the hope and optimism we can get nowadays. Why am I rambling on about all this and not getting to the actual movie, well, this movie actually means a lot to me now that I’ve seen it and I’m going to say something at the end of the review that I want to give proper context for. Enough blathering on though, let’s get to the movie.
The Death of Superman is DC’s second attempt at making this story into an original animated movie (Are they called DC Universe movies now?), the first being Superman: Doomsday which tried to cram two major story arcs into a 72 minute film so you can guess how well that went. This version is focused purely on the titular death and it is so much the better for that (the other arc is getting its own film in Reign of the Supermen, but I’ll come to that once I’ve seen it). Where this film excels is in its writing and it’s almost like getting a comic book writer (who is familiar with all of the characters) to write a comic book movie was a good idea. The pacing of this film is excellence, its starts out slow, but it uses that time to build character and the importance of what’s about to happen. We see how much Superman means to Metropolis, all the people who cheer for him, or stop to take a photograph or even those who worship him, you get a real sense of what he means to this city.
Also the writing gives us a great deal of warmth and wit to each and every character. Everybody talks like a normal person, or at least a relatable person, you get so much of people’s relationships just from the way they interact, Lois bemoaning Cat trying to get the scoop on her love life to Flash making fun of Batman going to a parent-teacher evening. You get the sense that these are actual people with lives all their own and that’s something that’s been missing from DC films, well except for Wonder Woman and Shazam so far. What this adds to the film is that you feel genuinely involved when all these people you’ve come to know over the short run time suddenly get their backsides handed to them by a monster like Doomsday and when Superman eventually steps into the fight, you know what it means to the people of this city to see their hero, their icon, batted and bloody fighting this thing.
Okay let’s talk about Doomsday. I still don’t think he’s an interesting character, but if you’re going to use an unstoppable killing machine as your main antagonist then this film is a blueprint for how you use him. Again it’s the slow build as Doomsday works his way up the ladder, starting by taking out grunts and civilians before mowing his way through the Justice League up to that final fight with Superman. Unstoppable is the best word for Doomsday; it’s hard to watch all these seasoned heroes getting utterly hammered by this monster, constantly building the threat so that when he does get to Superman you are worried. That final fight is brutal too, you see Superman bloody and bruised, his costume torn up and staggering all over the place, just trying to find a way to stop this monster that only seems to get stronger. A lot of the best action and animation is saved for the final fight and it’s really worth it.
Let’s talk about the animation for a second, when it comes to the action this is a pretty great film. It’s DC’s usual standard when it comes to these films, and I like all of the character models and designs. The only slight gripe I have is when it comes to more static or background shots. That’s where I feel a bit of the budget was saved, which is understandable, these films don’t have infinite budgets. There’s just a couple of awkward shots when characters are far off or standing still for a long time, not to mention all the empty streets. When it counts though this film is really good looking.
The central pillar of this film is really the relationship between Lois and Clark, as it should be. They have great chemistry and banter in this film (again I really like the writing in this film). It’s been done several times, but I like seeing how Clark struggles with revealing his secret to Lois (and the eventual reveal is both heart-warming and hilarious). This film never forgets Clark’s human side and that he’s Clark first, Superman second, that’s something writers forget at times.
In the end The Death of Superman is one of the best Superman, no, scratch that, one of the best DC films I have seen in recent memory. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s knows it’s characters and has some really great writing. If you’re going to watch any Superman film, make it this one (as well as, you know, the two Richard Donner Superman movies).
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.