Hello, my friends. Just like RoboCop, 2017 marks a special anniversary for another series. As such, I welcome you to a special edition of…
In July 2017, it was announced that the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line would take another stab at the 1992-93 story arc called “The Death & Return Of Superman”. This time, it would be split into two films with “The Death Of Superman” slated for late 2018 and “Reign Of The Supermen” scheduled to come out in early 2019. In that honor (and with my review skills having grown over the years), I think it’s only fitting that I take another look at the film that served as my inaugural review for this site. That’s right, we’re heading back to re-assess…
On September 18, 2007, just over a year after his own DC Animated Universe wrapped up with the final episode of “Justice League Unlimited”, Bruce Timm helped kick off this line of straight-to-home video animated films with an adaptation of this particular Superman storyline. He would direct this film alongside Lauren Montgomery & Brandon Vietti, co-write the story with the movie’s screenplay writer Duane Capizzi and would serve as the project’s sole producer. In honor of the series’ 10-Year Anniversary, let’s re-visit a movie that I originally tackled back in 2013.
Instead of my usual method (since I’ve pretty much covered the events of the film in my original review), I’ll try to tackle this in a different way. What I didn’t mention last time is that the movie actually begins on a pre-title scene with still images of Clark Kent a.k.a. Kal-El a.k.a. Superman (voiced by Adam Baldwin) performing several heroic deeds throughout Metropolis while Lex Luthor (voiced by Spike himself, James Marsters) oversees them as he narrates about Supes’ god-like abilities. Still wishing to tear down his Kryptonian adversary, the scene concludes with him stating how “there comes a time when even Gods must die”.
Kicking things off with some notable differences & tidbits from “The Death Of Superman” (or even “Doomsday!”) part of the tale (which was directed by Vietti), we get how our titular monster escapes from his confinement. It was within a restraint suit with various cables tying its body while also imprisoned in a metal cell that was ultimately buried beneath the Earth’s surface. Doomsday managed to get its left arm freed and continually punched at the cell wall to further free his limb before ultimately destroying the imprisoning barrier and eventually reach the surface. Here, it was imprisoned on Earth by an alien race like before. However, Luthor’s team was working on Project: Applecore in order to use the Earth’s core as a new energy source (which Lex would ultimately earn praise for despite his workers spending several sweat-filled hours on bringing that dream to life). When one of the workers uses a laser cutter to clear debris from the otherworldly cell, he accidentally punctures a hole in it which allows Doomsday to be freed and begin its rampage.
In the original material, Doomsday’s first bout against the superhero community happens before it ever reaches Metropolis. Out in greater Ohio, it fights and beats up a Justice League team consisting of Blue Beetle (Ted Kord), Booster Gold, Maxima, Fire, Ice, Guy Gardner (who wasn’t a Green Lantern at the time and actually wore Sinestro’s yellow ring) and Bloodwynd. Two noticeable things happen during this scuffle: 1. During a pre-battle mindscan, Maxima describes Doomsday as “Death & Blood Lust Personified”. 2. When Superman ultimately has to go out and help, he rescues a blindsided Booster Gold who was sent flying by a vicious punch. In his thoughts, he described the monster as a “Doomsday Machine” and even told Superman that “it’s like Doomsday is here”. What convinces the nearly unstoppable monster to go to Metropolis is different than what we get here. In the source material, the escalating fight reaches a horrifying turn when it makes its way to a Lex-Mart in Midvale. During the scuffle, Doomsday sees a commercial for a pro wrestling match that’s going to be held in Metropolis. Because the city is within striking distance of Midvale, it ultimately heads over there to unleash its wrath. Here, the otherworldly beast is out causing death & destruction in the nearby countryside before seeing the city from a viewable distance and thus heads over to bring its wrath upon the fair citizens.
There’s also a notable difference into not only how Kal-El is called to action against the foul beast, but even how it gets its name here. In the source material, Superman is being interviewed by WGBS reporter Cat Grant at Roosevelt High School. As the Justice League gets brutally beaten, the interview gets interrupted to focus on the growing threat and he has to leave in order to tangle with the beast. Here, Kal-El is in the Fortress of Solitude with fellow Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (voiced by Anne Heche). At this point, they’re in a romantic relationship that’s lasted six months (which I’ll get into later on) and they’ve ventured out to Superman’s icy headquarters in order to take a break from society & spend some time together. After a while, a Fortress Robot (voiced by SpongeBob himself, Tom Kenny) informs him of the creature bringing its destruction to Metropolis. During the briefing, the robot describes it from Jor-El’s informative archives on how this “Doomsday Machine” is unable to “distinguish between friend and foe”, so it continually wipes out any and all life form “because it must”.
So now, let’s get into the main battle that culminates in Metropolis. In the source material, several factors try to stop Doomsday but fail in one shape or form. From a laser cannon operated by Prof. Emil Hamilton & Bibbo to the high-tech guns of the Metropolis Police Department’s Special Crimes Unit (led by Maggie Sawyer & Dan Turpin, of course) and even weaponized jetpacks from Cadmus agents, nothing remotely slows the monster down. Even Supergirl (one particular version known as Matrix, a protoplasmic being from an alternate universe) was quickly taken out with a single fierce punch to the face, causing her to become destabilized and weary. After a long and brutal battle, it ultimately culminates in front of the Daily Planet where Superman and Doomsday take each other out with one final hit. In the film, the military’s own firepower is easily brushed off. Like the comics, the two combatants have their grand fight above the city, below the streets and on ground level as excessive amounts of property damage is left in its wake. How it ends is massively different as Superman grabs Doomsday, flies it up towards the Earth’s lower atmosphere and then uses the planet’s re-entry to slam it onto the Metropolis streets. If there’s anything that’s similar between the source material and the movie, then it’s Lois bringing Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen (voiced by Adam Wylie) along so that he can take pictures of the fight that’s unfolding. Afterwards, humanity is rocked with grief when Superman initially dies in Lois’ arms.
As we now move into “World Without A Superman” (also known as “Funeral For A Friend” and directed by Montgomery), let’s move into the Man of Steel’s own body being used for someone else’s purpose. In the source material, Paul Westfield (the executive director at Project Cadmus) manages to have Kal-El’s own vessel stolen from underneath the surface and has it worked on in order to study his genetics & create a clone to replace the original. Guardian is outraged by what he’s done, but ultimately allows him to proceed as long as he’s under close supervision. What happens as a result is what we’ll most likely revisit when the overall story gets retold. Here, Lex creates his clone from a DNA strand that came from Superman’s blood sample that he managed to retrieve from the Doomsday battle. Afterwards, he had the clone burrow underground in order to retrieve Kal-El’s body from his Centennial Park tomb so that Superman could be placed into the possession of Luthor himself.
Also, Clark Kent’s absence from work was perfectly reasonable since it was believed that he got trapped within a pile of rubble during the scuffle. Here, he was given an overseas assignment in Afghanistan. Lois tells Perry White (voiced by Ray Wise) that he’s likely been killed during his job. However, Perry thinks that Kent’s just unable to communicate with them in the meantime as he tells Lane to take some time off and talk to someone in order to ease her emotional pain.
Remembering that she quickly saw her at the funeral in Centennial Park (unlike the source material where it was so crowded that several superheroes had to calm growing scuffles), Lois decides to head out to Smallville and talk to Martha Kent (voiced by Swoozie Kurtz). Unlike the comics where she and Superman have been in a relationship for years and thus has gotten to know his Earthbound parents, she tells Ma Kent about what it was like to be romantically involved with him for several months and how heartbroken she has become since his passing. Martha is able to understand her dilemma and lets her inside so that they can continue their conversation over coffee.
On a minor note, Jimmy Olsen’s photography during the fight against Doomsday has caught attention from outside media. In the comics, it’s from Newstime Magazine who wishes to make a tribute issue to Metropolis’ signature hero, and they want to use one of his photos “that symbolize Superman” as their cover. Here, he’s approached by Damon Swank who manages to sway him away from the Daily Planet and work for his gossip magazine called the National Voyeur.
One of the true weaknesses of this film is that because of its small runtime (1 hour, 17 minutes), we don’t get too much of an exploration of the struggles that Metropolis goes through once Kal-El is out of the equation for a while. After Paul Westfield’s first failed attempt to claim Superman’s body, Supergirl (alongside Team Luthor, his personal team of agents in mechanized body suits) is appointed as the city’s protector. At a few points in this part of the arc, Cadmus’ costumed hero Guardian had even taken to the streets to stop a few crimes. On a smaller scale, we have Bibbo Bibbowski. He’s initially offended by a young man who’s selling merchandise in order to capitalize on Superman’s funeral. After learning that the man is trying to raise some money in order to find a new place for him and his family to live after their prior home burned down, Bibbo buys all of his merchandise and gives him a job at his Ace O’ Clubs pub. Later in the overall story’s third arc, he hears about the rising crime rate on his radio and suits up to try and make a difference for his community in Superman’s honor. When he’s over by the waterfront in Suicide Slums, he finds out that an elderly woman has decided to throw a duffel bag full of puppies into the water since she’s unable to feed them. He dives in and recovers the bag, but only one (a white-haired pup) survives. With that lone dog saved, he decides to adopt it and names it after Superman’s home planet: Krypton.
There was even Gangbuster, who got back into his costumed venture following Superman’s death. However, he unintentionally interrupted a drug bust that was being worked on by an undercover cop. Thus, the police pursued him, and he was forced to go on the run. There’s plenty of other events during this arc that happened, like Lois Lane taking comfort with the Kents and Lana Lang as they share their grief while Clark’s belongings are moved out of his apartment and even the near-death of Jonathan Kent, a character who was absent for this film. In at least two points in this arc, his heart attack is foreshadowed and then he finally has it back in Smallville while standing over the spot where Kal-El’s shipped crashed on Earth as a baby. During his near-death experience, he ventures to get Superman’s soul back to the land of the living, even coming across an otherworldly female named Kismet. Either way, loads of various events occurred before the signs of Superman’s eventual return began popping up. Here though, it’s just over 9 1/2 minutes before the Superman clone arrives to stop Toyman. Yes, I timed it from the beginning of the funeral scene to the super impostor fully appearing for the first time. I know that things have to be changed and trimmed for an adaptation sometimes, but not much is done with leaving a deep feeling on the city’s own struggles without the Man of Steel watching over it. Most likely, this will be changed when Late 2018 & Early 2019 rolls around.
Finally, we reach the film’s interpretation of “The Return Of Superman” (a.k.a. “Reign Of The Supermen” and directed by Timm). There’s not much in terms of numerous differences from source material to animated movie, but here’s what I could find. In terms of our hero’s resurrection, the comic has it coincide with Eradicator’s appearance. Originally, its form gathered enough residual energy to reach Superman’s tomb and tapped into Kal-El’s solar energy reserves. This allowed him to create enough of a vessel where he ultimately molds his body into his liking. He then took Superman’s corpse back to the Fortress of Solitude and placed him in the Regeneration Matrix chamber in order to re-power himself since he’s not able to absorb sunlight like the genuine article. Also, he had to wear shades since his eyes were sensitive to light. In the film, the Fortress Robot managed to sneak in and disable the security camera long enough to take Superman’s body out of LexCorp and escape back to the Fortress of Solitude in order to begin the healing process. When Kal-El later regains consciousness, it explains that it picked up “a bio-rhythmic signature” from him 17 days after the battle against Doomsday, since his body’s vitals slowed down to a near-death crawl in order to heal. I would buy the comics’ explanation since it seems like even if Kyptonian bodies went into that medical state for nearly that long, Eradicator’s presence helped preserve Kal-El’s body for a technological chamber from his home to help him get back on the path to full recovery. While the film’s explanation also feels similarly vague, it makes the death feel somewhat cheapened since it really does feel like he was in a super-coma for just over two weeks. No matter which version you prefer, he appears to be vital enough to let his hair grow into a mullet but not his facial hair as well. Weird.
As far as the Superman clone is concerned, he is the movie’s replacement for the four Supermen from the original story. However, I see him in a certain way when compared to the four particular individuals. He’s a clone exactly like Superboy (a.k.a. “Experiment 13”), but the remaining three can represent his dissent towards the dark side. When he first appears and brings Metropolis hope again, he starts out as a noble hero like Steel. However, he displays a vicious approach to justice like Eradicator when he kills Toyman after the fiend murders a young girl. After being intimidating towards an elderly woman after her cat went up a tree, he’s approached by the police and is ordered to come to the station. However, he uses his Heat Vision to destroy their guns and successfully resists arrest. From there, his descent into Cyborg Superman levels of villainy is complete when he easily fends off the military in destructive fashion. He also imposes a will of his own when he’s initially ordered by Luthor to search several of LexCorp’s competitors to find Superman’s body after it’s gone missing. Instead of following his instructions, he heads to a beauty salon to order to remove Kryptonite that was placed inside a lead ball set to detonate in his brain upon command. As such, he becomes an out-of-control monster with a disillusioned viewpoint on what it means to be a superhuman protector. Sure, Superman could have tried to talk him down and try to convince the clone on how he can fix his crime-fighting method. Unfortunately, it takes a final battle (which is really well-done for the film’s climax) and Kryptonite shot like a beam out of a gun for it to realize the error of its ways before he dies.
For all of the film’s faults, it does do a nice job in giving a few details that start to tip the viewer off of the false figure that’s pretending to be Superman and it starts after the clone saves Lois and a child before defeating Toyman. Flying past her apartment was simple enough of a mistake to forgive, but when Lois kisses him, he’s more stunned than emotionally happy. After all, he received his memories from his master and Luthor didn’t know that she and Superman were in a relationship. Things seem more out of place when Lois notices that he hasn’t returned to the Daily Planet as Clark Kent, not to mention when she later learns that he hasn’t even called Martha Kent to relieve her worries. The big reveal then comes with the clone being lured into a specialized room that emits red solar light and Lex beats him up with gauntlets that have Kryptonite on its knuckles. The rage in Luthor’s dialogue as he punches his creation can make the audience initially believe that he’s finally fulfilling his dream in getting the best of Superman. However, he then reveals that it’s under his command and he’s convinced Metropolis that it’s the real deal when we then discover that he’s taken possession of Superman’s corpse. That shock is pretty well done since Lex has regained the subtle control over the city that he once had before Kal-El came along with his good-natured superheroics. However, that accomplishment turns into a sour note when Lois and Jimmy ultimately find out what he’s up to, but we’ll get to that in just a moment.
At this point, we might as well dive into my character analysis. Kicking things off, we have Lex Luthor. While he was in the original story arc, his role was much more minor. Because he was suffering from Kryptonite Poisoning (most likely from wearing a radiated piece of Kal-El’s homeworld on his finger for so long), he managed to fake his own death by having a “corporate founder” take his place in a plane crash. From there, his brain was surgically transferred into a cloned body and he took the guise of Lex Luthor II, son of the original Lex. Also, he has a relationship throughout the majority of the story arc with Supergirl before she leaves his side in order to help Superman and company fight the true villain in Hank Henshaw. From what we get out of his character here, he’s been itching to tear Kal-El down for a long time. As he shows in the scene where he kills his assistant Mercy Graves (voiced by Cree Summer) as extra insurance after being informed that all traces of his involvement in Project: Applecore have been covered up and when he beats up the Superman clone in the red light room, he’s furious with himself for unintentionally releasing a powerful creature that “killed” Superman before he could finally get around to do so. Cloning Superman isn’t exactly a bad idea at all, since the citizens of Metropolis get their savior back plus he can bide his time until he plans a way to prove to the world that he’s better than Superman when the time comes since he has the being under his command for now.
However, that kind of creative villainy gets tossed away when it’s later revealed by Lois and Jimmy’s investigation that he intends to unleash hordes of Superman clones onto the world so that they can protect the planet by “upholding the law of Luthor”. That gets canned by the original clone before taking Lex out of the picture (though leaving him alive), but this seems like the plot of a silver-age scientist. Sure, Luthor has been a scientist throughout the Golden and Silver Age of comics. However, this kind of scheme seems out-of-place with the ruthless business executive that he’s known for with modern audiences, especially when he’s normally the cold & calculating guy who does everything in his power to make sure that his adversaries are placed in unwinnable situations, and he ends up profiting in some way. Still, James Marsters really has a ball with the role and the energy in his performance is displayed in all the right ways throughout the film. As I learned in the DVD commentary, casting & voice director Andrea Romano had wanted to use Marsters in a project for a long time leading up to this film. In fact, he was supposed to voice Green Arrow in the DC Animated Universe’s Justice League cartoon. However, he was forced to bow out due to a busy schedule. In the end, it was still a treat that he was able to take advantage of his chance to finally lend his talents to one of these animated superhero films. Other that Luthor’s ultimate goal, James nailed it in bringing Superman’s greatest adversary to life.
Next up, let’s talk about Lois Lane. She serves as a main character when the main Superman is taken out of the picture for a while. Her investigative skills kick in when she’s rescued by whom she and the public assume is Superman and he starts behaving out-of-character from what she’s come to know from the genuine article. While we don’t get to see much of an investigation from her due to the film’s short runtime, I do appreciate her when she has to make it appear to Lex that she’s become emotionally torn over recent events and even has to go as far as kissing him in order to tranquilize him in order to search through his files to discover his secret Superman plans. While her resourceful cleverness is given its moments in the film, she does have an odd behavior when it comes to her relationship with Superman. During their romantic retreat to the Fortress of Solitude, she reveals that she’s been piecing together that he and Clark Kent are one in the same. However, he doesn’t want to admit it in order to keep her safe. She then rebuts by stating that the gossip has been seeing them as a romantic pair and believes that he has “a very human, very male fear of commitment”. I think I find this a bit odd. On the one hand, a relationship is based on trust and both sides must be willing to share their deepest, darkest secrets with each other in order for there to be no shades of doubt hanging over a couple. On the other hand, they’ve only been dating each other for half a year as we learn early on. While I would think that most secrets would be shared by this point given that the relationship has moved into serious territory, that doesn’t mean that there’s no chance of possible factors moving into play that would harm this unionship, even A. if Doomsday never came around at all & B. though they’re Lois & Clark/Superman. If she were to understand the burden that he goes through in order to present himself as Metropolis’ champion, then she would be a bit more caring and wouldn’t be as needy towards delving into his secret identity, regardless if she figured it out on her own or not. Not to mention, there’s barely any build-up towards this issue other than her quickly looking at Clark’s desk after he takes his leave from the Daily Planet. After it shows up in the Fortress of Solitude, it never gets mentioned again until their final scene where he finally agrees to confirm to her about his secret identity. Overall, that part doesn’t really have much meaning here. As far as Anne Heche’s performance goes, it’s do-able. When I revisited the film for this review, it did feeling a little jarring at first. As the film went on, I got used to it. There are a few moments where she delivers some genuine quips and throughout the movie, her tones did fit really well with the determined & bold attitude that defines Lois Lane. While not the most standout of performances, she’s still fairly solid with her portrayal.
Finally, we reach the main man himself: Superman. No matter whether it’s the source material or this adaptation, the true main character is mainly in the back seat for a good chunk of the story following the fight against Doomsday. Throughout the tale, he starts out as the eternally noble hero who’s entrenched within a relationship with Lois Lane before that gets put on hold for an extended period of time due to him having to battle against the most physically-impossible adversary he’ll ever face. Then, he’s understandably out of commission for a while so that a new adversary can come along and set up his false presence over the city under Superman’s name. Eventually, he’s brought back to life within Kryptonian medical technology before he dons a full-body black suit and needs to arm himself with a weapon of some kind, since he’s nowhere near his fully-powered self in order to combat the newly-established felon. Eventually, the villain is defeated as he reclaims his rightful title and reunites with Lois. The film is mainly focused on Lois, Lex and the clone, so the main hero mainly remains static. Between the genuine article and the clone, Adam Baldwin does pretty well with his Superman roles. Although I mentioned in my original review about the lack of vocal shifts in his performance, it’s mainly that neither Superman has to resort to yelling at any point to get their intentions across. Other than the lack of an interesting character arc, Baldwin handles his duties in an effective manner.
The action has a grand and epic feel, whether Superman is fighting Doomsday or his clone. As it was discussed in the commentary, the battle against Doomsday mainly takes place on the ground. There are a few times where the struggle takes to the air, whether Superman is thrown/tossed through buildings or Doomsday attacks Lois & Jimmy while they’re in a helicopter. When it’s the final battle against the clone, they’re flying around in the air as two God-like beings tussling for the right to be Metropolis’ champion. Although there is a lot of unnecessary collateral damage (more towards the final battle) due to the need to interact with the surroundings in order to prevent them from becoming static, there’s a great amount of struggle between Superman and his combatant. The animation does look stellar throughout, as I couldn’t really find any hiccups in this department, plus it complements the color palette. Nothing is ever too dark where it gives me trouble as I try to figure out what’s going on. The sound design is also pretty neat, and I only bring it up since I discovered that this film actually co-won a Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing for a Direct-To-Video movie, sharing the title with “Return to House on Haunted Hill”, which is a 2007 home video sequel to the 1999 remake of the 1959 William Castle film. Wow.
Briefly before I close, I’d like to make a quick mention about Winslow Schott a.k.a. Toyman (voiced by John DiMaggio). In the source material, the only time we see him is on Stryker’s Island prison where even he takes no pride in learning about Superman’s passing. Here, Bruce Timm and company decided to give a minor expansion to his role. After Lois and the Superman clone foil his kidnapping of several children, he manages to eventually escape the law and kill a child before getting arrested again. However, this act serves as the beginning of the clone’s dissent into villain-level status once he grabs Toyman, flies up several feet and then drops him towards his death. Schott can be representative towards an innocence that’s been perverted and stripped, leaving a hallowed out figure to be filled with rage and despair. Like I mentioned when I talked about the Superman clone, he’s mainly here to unintentionally help the false figure of hope descend into his misguided and intimidating views of heroism. Still, I can’t help but enjoy the energetic performance from DiMaggio, since it feels like he’s having a ball with his small role.
Also, I’d be re-missed if I didn’t mention about a certain cameo. Just under a decade before he briefly appeared in “Teen Titans: The Judas Contract”, filmmaker Kevin Smith makes his presence known as this “Grumpy Man” in the green over-shirt. After Superman defeats Toyman and saves him before his giant, robotic spider falls to a fiery death, Kevin exclaims “Like we really needed him to bust up a mechanical spider, right? Lame!”. This was in reference to a moment from the 19-year development period between “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace” and “Superman Returns” when Smith was hired onto writing the script for the ultimately-canceled film “Superman Lives”. It turns out that producer Jon Peters wanted Superman to fight a giant spider in that film’s third act. Interesting historical nod that Bruce Timm and company slipped into this movie.
Overall, this is a potentially good film that leaves a lot to be desired. While some plot threads aren’t as fully thought out and the series showed some signs of growing pains despite having some DC Animated Universe veterans working on this, it feels like a fairly decent adaptation of a famous Superman storyline with grand action, familiar characters and fluent animation. Here’s hoping that some plot threads that weren’t able to get addressed here get their time in the sun when we reach late 2018 & early 2019.
Well, it was fun to revisit this inagural entry with fresh and grown eyes. I’ll wrap up by proclaiming: “Happy 10th Anniversary, D.C.U.A.O.M.!” and I look forward towards giving my opinions on every remaining entry. After all, to quote Superman: “It’s why I’m here”.
Superman (created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) is owned by DC Comics.