Superman Doomsday features one of the most shocking showdowns in superhero history and it isn’t a film for the kiddies. This bloody and dark adaptation of the “Death of Superman” comics is the first film in the DC animated universe continuity—produced and directed by Bruce Timm, one of the names behind the Batman animated series— pits the Man of Steel (Adam Baldwin) against intergalactic menace Doomsday, a living weapon who can’t distinguish between friend and foe and who obliterates everything in his path, including Superman.
Superman’s death leaves the world mourning for their hero, and Lois, Jimmy, Martha, and even Lex Luther confront their grief in different ways. Lois (Anne Heche) feels that she must carry on Superman’s legacy as the paragon of right and virtue, and she becomes more reckless in the field, at one point rescuing a group of children from the demented Toyman (John DiMaggio) and nearly dying in the process. Jimmy (Adam Wylie) leaves the Daily Planet for a high paying job at a tabloid paper, becoming less of Superman’s wholesome pal and more of a jaded sellout. Martha (Swoosie Kurtz) is forced to pretend that Clark is still alive while grieving his death alone—and that’s after she watches her son (and the only family member she had left) die on television. Lex’s (James Marsters) demented grief leads him to create an army of Superman clones, and one of them poses as a newly resurrected Man of Steel, which leads to consequences even Lex couldn’t predict.
There’s a lot of material here for a 78-minute feature-length animated film. Still, seeing as these are characters have long been icons in pop culture, it’s no surprise that Superman: Doomsday hits the ground running and stays at its breakneck speed until the final moments. There are some poignant emotional scenes, particularly from Lois, who carries the film in the absence of Superman as she mourns both the loss of the symbol of hope he represented for Metropolis and the loss of the man she deeply loves.
When Superman dies, Lois throws herself into her work (“what else would I do?” she asks, her voice breaking when her boss Perry White suggests that she take some personal time). For Lois, this isn’t just her career; being a reporter and covering the criminal and otherworldly elements of Metropolis is her entire life. Through her years of covering Superman, Lois not only fell in love with him but became inspired by him, and in his absence, she feels that she must somehow carry on his legacy. It’s not necessarily a death wish; it’s a woman who doesn’t like feeling helpless and genuinely wants to protect others.
Just like the eager and frightened citizens of Metropolis, Lois is ready to believe that Superman has indeed returned from the grave when he soars into the city, acting as if nothing happened, but it doesn’t take long for her to catch on that the man is merely a shattered mirror of Superman created by Lex Luthor.
There’s always been a homoerotic element to Lex’s rivalry with the Man of Steel, and it’s especially prevalent in this movie. In one scene, a shirtless Lex beats Superman’s clone, taunting him with “who’s your daddy?” while simultaneously straddling him, as only a true top would, and demanding Superman explain why he died and left him. In another scene, he proudly boasts about orchestrating Superman’s “coming out” and chastises him for being “a very bad boy.” Lex craves the animosity of their relationship; it’s his life’s mission to prove he can outsmart a god, but beneath the anger, resentment, and coldness, there’s a lust for dominating the Man of Steel driving Lex. Sure, he also lusts after Lois (a fact not lost on the intrepid reporter who seduces him to steal data on the Superman clone), but he’s a powerful and bored man who believes everything, and everyone, belongs to him. He’s equally disgusted and enthralled with Superman, who refuses to play by Lex’s rules and who, at the end of the day, will never belong to him in any way.
For being a Superman film, there isn’t a whole lot of Kal-El. His fight with Doomsday and death take place in the movie’s first ten minutes, and he truly comes back from the dead in the film’s third act. The reason for his return is because the laws of human death don’t apply to him and his vitals slowed to allow him to heal. Superman doesn’t get a lot of time to brood over his “death”; he jumps right back into action when his clone snaps and terrorizes the city. Most of the emotional beats come from his relationship with Lois. He wants nothing more than to reveal his identity but he’s both afraid of putting her in danger and revealing the secret he’s safeguarded for years. But Lois proves to be trustworthy and sharp. She points out that Metropolis is full of gossip about their relationship, and that her life became endangered the moment the two of them met. She also already knows that Clark is Superman, she’s only waiting for him to be honest with her.
As the first film in DC’s animated universe continuity, Superman Doomsday sets the stage for the dark and gritty atmosphere that would become a mainstay of the movies to follow. There’s plenty of violence, from Superman and Doomsday’s brutal fight to clone Superman dropping Toyman to his bloody death and Lex shooting his assistant, Mercy Graves, in the head to cover his tracks. Poor Mercy, this is the third time I’ve watched Lex murder her and I’m just waiting for the day when she pulls a Harley Quinn, leaves Lex forever, and stakes a name for herself as a major player in the criminal underworld. Superman: Doomsday doesn’t adhere to the comic’s storyline; all the bits with the Justice League is cut out and there’s only one Superman clone instead of four, but I think the decision to focus on the core cast of characters within Superman’s direct mythos works to its benefit. This is already a busy film, with multiple storylines circling around Superman’s tragic death.
The movie isn’t perfect—the animation is gorgeous at times but Superman’s face is strangely drawn and the city of Metropolis feels empty. I would’ve liked for more time to be spent on Superman himself dealing with his feelings over his “death” and and rebuilding his strength, but the movie breezes past these elements and thrusts the Man of Steel right back into the action, complete with a black and silver solar suit that didn’t look as cool as it should’ve looked.
Superman: Doomsday is an entertaining and dark film, and it remains as faithful to the storyline of the “Death of Superman” as it can, given it’s relatively short runtime. The scenes of destruction feel huge in scope, and several city blocks of Metropolis are destroyed in both Superman’s fight with Doomsday and his fight with the Superman clone. The voice acting is stellar and the soundtrack is haunting and epic. The film perfectly captures the grief of the main characters, as well as the grief of all of Metropolis, as they mourn the death of the man who came from a different world but who will always belong to theirs. Overall, this is a damn fine first outing for the DC Universe animated film series.