Is it dumb to ask if the death of Superman was a marketing stunt?
Yes. It is dumb.
Killing Superman was an attempt to sell more comics, and if you believe that this is crass commercialism somehow beneath the dignity of the Superman franchise, I have some bad news for you about Star Wars. Also about the concept of a franchise.
I’ve overstated things. It’s not a dumb question. It’s just not a particularly interesting one.
Let’s take it as read that the whole thing was done to make money. I’m much more interested in how it was done. Pretty soon, we’ll be looking at the comics that come after the initial death storyline, and how the way the story spins out becomes the blueprint for “major events” to come, especially for characters who starred in multiple titles (Batman and Spider-Man in particularly will be impacted by this storytelling shift).
Today, I want to look at some of the other attempts to cash in on the Man of Steel’s demise. And for kicks, I’d like to start with The Death and Return of Superman video game, developed by Blizzard and Sunsoft, released in 1994 on the SNES and Sega Genesis.
In the interest of disclosure, I played this on my laptop using an emulator, which is less than optimal.
The Death and Return of Superman is a sidescrolling melee fighting format. If you’re particularly game savvy, that’s enough description, but if, like me, your gaming career began and ended in the nineties, think of the arcade versions of Double Dragon, X-Men, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So, not the TMNT game where there’s a swimming level. You can move laterally or vertically, and in the case of TD&RoS you can fly and swoop-punch, or fly up off screen and come crashing down. You walk toward the right side of the screen until the screen locks, then a couple bad guys come at you from either side, and your forward motion is limited until you eliminate them. The most important skill in a game like this is knowing when you are on the same horizontal level as the bad guys.
The game is almost slavishly indebted to the comics for its plot. Sadly, there is no funeral level, but I honestly would not have been surprised.
Level one is The Siege of the Underworlders. You’re playing as Superman and beating up on repeated iterations of Rambeau, Eyegore, and Tick from Man of Steel #19, in a power station, leading up to a final confrontation with Clawster underneath the streets of Metropolis.
The inclusion of the Underworlders in the game really highlights how strange it is they’re included in the storyline at all. I’ll just let you know ahead of time that the level two bossfight is with Doomsday, and point out that the character on the right below is Clawster:
So the Death of Superman storyline starts off with Superman beating up a throwaway villain who comes from underground as a lead-in to fighting a Major Villain You Guys who comes from underground and looks…not dissimilar.
I think this comes down to “there was a lot going on at the time and Weezie and Jon wanted to finish up some things.” It also points out something I mentioned in earlier, that part of the impact of Doomsday on the comics is that he comes crashing into the existing stories/continuity. The juxtaposition of Clawster and Doomsday in the comics and here in the video game is maybe unfortunate, but it’s a product of the way the comics were being put out. And it starts to account for why the Death of Superman storyline doesn’t seem to work in other media.
Level two, Superman fights a bunch of What Comics Imagine Punks Look Like, with names like Chainsaw and Molotov, on the streets of Metropolis, until he gets to a certain block and Doomsday just sort of jumps in. And you fight him.
He’s not that tough to beat, actually. I mean, he’s a level two boss, so you wouldn’t want him to be impossible to beat. But he’s sort of a lightweight. And then, once you’ve knocked all the life out of him…he gets back up, the two of you go to the same horizontal level, exchange the iconic double punch…
And Superman is dead. No matter how much life showed in his status bar. Dead.
In hewing to the plot of the comics but also needing to provide the player a sense of accoplishment, TD&RoS resorts to this trick at the end of three levels. It gives the game an odd feel. You also get the opportunity to play as all four of the replacement Supermen, which means you spend at least one level playing as a bad guy (two depending on how you feel about the Eradicator), and four boss fights are against other characters you have or will have played.
Thinking about it, within the confines of the plot, there might not have been another way to go about this. Game designers couldn’t, for instance, have you pick a replacement Superman and play through as them and come away with anything coherent. It’s an interesting point that relates to the structure of the Reign of Supermen story and how it initially presents itself as opposed to how it unfolds.
Next I want to look at Superman: Doomsday, the 2007 animated film. It’s a bit joyless, and I have thoughts on why that is, but before I talk about what it lacks (joy, charm), I should talk about what it has (Adam Baldwin).
This movie launched the “DC Universe Animated Originals” line, which currently stands at thirty-one films and is about to put out a two-part re-adaptation of The Death of Superman and The Reign of Supermen. The series has a habit of adapting the big storylines from DC history, including The Killing Joke, All-Star Superman, and Teen Titans: The Judas Contract.
It stars Adam Baldwin as Superman, James Marsters as Lex Luthor, and Anne Heche as Lois. I honestly believe that sentence tells you everything you need to know, but let’s assume it doesn’t.
One notable thing the movie isn’t is a continuation/culmination of Superman: The Animated Series. Possibly this was because the DC Animated Originals were going for a more “mature” vibe, but the costs are huge. The animation lacks the simple, stylized look of S:TAS, and the voice acting suffers by comparison. But it also means Doomsday drops into a story with no context. If this had been spun out of the series, it could have brought the full earned dramatic weight of the series to bear on the story beats here.
The movie (which only runs about ninety minutes) leads off with the Superman/Lex dynamic, which only becomes relevant in the back half. Worse is the relationship between Superman and Lois, who are at that uncomfortable point where they’ve been dating for a while but Superman has kept his secret identity secret. I’ve mention this before, but this dynamic is gross and manipulative, and since it’s the first thing we see of Superman here, it makes me immediately disinclined to like him.
Fifteen minutes of set up lead to ten minutes of slugfest, and this is another point where it becomes clear how well the handling of this story worked in the comics. The all-splash page Superman #75 felt huge in a way this never manages. In an effort to communicate the bigness of the fight, the film has Superman punch Doomsday into space, bang zoom to the moon, and then drag him back to earth to come crashing down so Superman can die in Lois’s arms.
Yes, it’s a problem that Superman comes crashing back into Metropolis, which brings up the same issues of “isn’t he supposed to be saving people?” raised by the Superman/Zod fight in Man of Steel. But it also lacks the intimacy of the double-punch that ends the fight in the comics, the way it all happens in front of people (rather than off in space). The on-the-ground threat of Doomsday in the comics is one of the great strengths of the fight. Once you’ve got Doomsday off in space, failure to, I don’t know, fling him into the sun or something, feels like just that: a failure. Whereas Superman dying with his heels dug into Metropolis asphalt is an all-too human moment.
Because of the set-up, the moment of Superman’s death also has to carry the reveal of his secret identity, and it’s just not a weight the story can bear at this point. It rings hollow, where the comics set up a pretty deft double-bind for Lois, who can’t publicly mourn Superman, but has also lost her fiancé in the destruction of Metropolis.
Oh also, Doomsday here looks a bit like Haunted Grandpa, which is something short of terrifying.
With Supes dead by the 30 minute mark, Superman: Doomsday has a little under an hour to bring him back. Needless to say, there’s no room for four replacement Supermen. Short version: Lex makes a clone of Superman, which unsurprisingly turns evil. And Superman was never really dead, so he comes back and beats up the clone. On the plus side, when he returns, he briefly sports the black costume and the mullet. But in the final scene, he cuts off the mullet and denies its quality, which is the ultimate betrayal.
If joyless, stripped down adaptations of major comic book storylines are your thing, you are probably familiar with the films of Zack Snyder. His treatment of Superman warrants a whole entry, but I think the end of Batman vs. Superman bears some mention here, because I think it fails for the same reasons Superman: Doomsday does, which ultimately is the same reason a lot of Snyder’s work doesn’t work for me.
And I should say, I don’t think BvS is entirely joyless, and there are aesthetic aims other than joy one can shoot for.
Snyder likes certain comics a lot. He likes Alan Moore. He likes Frank Miller. That…might be it. But he seems to ignore the comics around them, the ones they’re reacting to. Maybe it’s just the gap between comics and movies. I think, for instance, that we might actually be at a point of superhero film saturation where someone could make a Watchmen movie as deeply referential to its (film) source material as the original was to its own. But it’s not Snyder. Snyder looked at two methods of deconstructing comics (Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns) and concluded that this is what comics were like, and this is what comic book movies should be like. He reproduced the tone of the texts without ever understanding their function.
Thinking about Superman’s death within Snyder’s trilogy of films, or even thinking about its intent (allowing that Snyder had other, let’s say better, plans) it is way more Christ-like than in the comics. Within Snyder’s narrative, Superman’s death is a necessary part of his growth. Of course, it’s only made necessary by the fact Snyder initially sets Superman up as not Christlike. Snyder’s Superman is ethically muddied, by Snyder’s Randian understanding of superheroes, by his upbringing by the worst Jonathan Kent in the whole multiverse, and by his decision to kill Zod. He has to do one Christ-like thing to become Christ-like, and that’s to die. Whereas, you know, for Christ, dying was sort of his closer. Save the encore.
Snyder stabs this connection home, albeit muddily, by having the implement of Doomsday and Superman’s death be the Spear of Destiny. In Christian mythology, it’s the spear the Roman centurion Longinus used to poke Christ in the side to determine if he was dead. In DC mythology, it’s that, and also how Hitler kept the American superheroes out of the European theater during World War II. It’s Doomsday that actually gets speared here, but bringing the spear into the film is one more way to tie some Christ imagery into Superman’s death.
Let me leave off by saying, I do not hate Batman vs. Superman. I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it nearly as much as other people do. More on that in another essay.
Suffice it to say, I think Snyder’s films and some of the DC Animated Universe films miss out on the joy that comes from the ongoingness of comics. They pick up on the dark moments and omit not just the moments of levity and happiness in the character’s lives, but the optimism inherent in superhero narratives that persist over long stretches of time. Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis makes the argument that this ongoingness is Superman’s greatest power, the power of To Be Continued… By focusing on character’s Ragnaroks, by leading off with the endings, Superman: Doomsday and Batman vs. Superman miss out on the mythology that gives those final moments their emotional weight.
Last and also least, we have The Death and Life of Superman, a novelization of the comics written by Roger Stern. And of the remnants and echoes of this story, the novelization is the only one that elicits complete puzzlement as to why it exists. I cannot for the life of me imagine an audience for this book. Who out there thought, yes, I want to read this comic book story, but not in comic book form?
I don’t want to look at it for terribly long, because it is…not good. Stern is a workhorse comic book writer, and he does not have a particular gift for working in prose. And again, this is not a story that lends itself to being isolated outside of its intended medium of ongoing superhero comics.
On its first page, the book lists every comic it’s adapting with every contributor. The next three pages are Stern’s acknowledgements, wherein he nods to the people who literally co-wrote this story with him and doesn’t bother to name them again, opting instead to thank everyone who’s written or drawn Superman back to the fifties when Stern was a kid.
I’m sorry, but that’s unfuckingforgiveable.
The rest, and I only read the “Death” section, is a well-meant hodgepodge. Stern starts out with the fall of John Henry Irons, making the novel seem a little more intentional than the comics would. He sets up a very obvious out for Superman’s death by having Emil Hamilton describe his “possibly unlimited regenerative abilities.” He then has the unenviable task of catching uninitiated readers up on the status quo of the Superman books at the time. Which means a recap of Superman’s origin. And Lex Luthor’s death from Kryptonite poisoning and fake suicide and cloning and resurrection as an Australian redhead. And a deep history of the Cadmus Project, with the incorrect assumption that Doomsday was probably a Cadmus experiment. And how Supergirl is not that Supergirl but a different Supergirl from an alternate universe.
Not easy work.
Nor is it easy to convert an image-heavy story into prose. But Stern attempts, relying heavily on caption quotes from the original comics. The result is, like the animated movie, a whole lot of set up for a fight scene that wraps up pretty quickly. There’s an odd feeling of compression reading the last dozen pages of Superman #75 on one page, along with the dud squib sensation when you compare this:
There are more items scattered around Superman’s grave. If nothing else, there’s a new movie version coming out any minute now. There were action figures, because there were characters who seemed created solely to be action figures. There are those awful teeshirts with the bleeding logo. There was a marketing machine, in addition to the speculator market around the issues themselves. And all of these things, in their way, were a part of the story. Many of them were seen or consumed or bought by far more people than ever picked up the comics they were adapting.
But let’s set them down on the fresh, damp dirt for now. Let’s go back to the comic books themselves, to Superman’s home world, where there’s a funeral being held.