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Non-Review Review: Superman – Doomsday

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. This is the very first of the “stand-alone” animated movies produced by the creative team that gave us the television shows. 

Superman: Doomsday is the first entry in the range of animated DC films featuring their iconic superheroes. The line has since ballooned to feature a wide range of other heroes, with movies focusing on Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and even the Justice League itself, but Superman seemed a logical place to start. Of course, the fact that the movie came from the minds that brought us Batman: The Animated Series and the rest of the animated universe (even if it didn’t share continuity) was also a solid indication. However, there’s very much a sense of a production team attempting to find their footing. Although it’s solidly entertaining on its own terms, the film feels like perhaps the weakest entry in the selection of films. 

Well, at least he can wipe it on his cape and no one will notice...

The goal of the movie was to bring the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) comic book storyline The Death and Return of Superman to an animated movie. The storyline saw Superman die saving the city from a nearly invincible opponent (the not-at-all-worryingly-named Doomsday) and explored the consequences of his death on those around him, both within his own little world (Lex Luthor and Lois Lane, for example) but also in the wider DC universe (Batman and the rest of the Justice League). Eventually some replacements turned up – some claiming to be the real deal resurrected, one admitting that he was simply trying to carry on Superman’s legacy. After a while, the real deal returned, with a badass mullet, and showed the world how it was done. In fact, the movie acknowledges the identity crisis that the character seemed to go through on his resurrection – when with the mullet and later costume changes – with a young child remarking, “Gonna wear the red and blue suit again? ‘Cause I like that one better!” Don’t we all. 

That’s a lofty and complicated story, one which spanned over a year. When DC published an Omnibus edition, they came under fire for (among other things) drastically cutting down the material to a more manageable 1,000 pages. Here, we have an hour and fifteen minutes. That is a lot of plot to be handled in so short a time. It seems that later productions might have learnt a valuable lesson here, with various other direct-to-DVD movies biting off somewhat smaller chunks of the lore to serve up in their somewhat limited runtime. 

Stand by your Superman...

That said, it’s hard to argue that The Death and Return of Superman wasn’t begging for an adaptation. Indeed, the storyline was to form the basis of the aborted Superman Lives! Tim Burton movie of the nineties, starring Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel. The film was plagued with production issues and eventually died a death. There’s a rich hint of irony here in a cameo from the movie’s writer Kevin Smith. Smith discusses in An Evening With Kevin Smith the simply ridiculous demands that the studio and producers would make – including that Superman fights a giant mechanical spider (like in Wild, Wild West). Here the writers manage to work in a (surprisingly unintrusive) fight between the Man of Steel and a giant mechanical arachnid, to which Smith’s by-stander comments, “Like we really needed him to bust up a mechanic spider! Lame!” 

Understandably, the movie itself owes a rather strong stylistic debt to Richard Donner’s original Superman, from jokes about Lois’ spelling to space-bound opening credits. I’m even more than a little bit sure I overheard the familiar John Williams overture in some of the movie’s theme, though I’m probably being more than a little hypersensitive. There’s even a wonderfully dark twist on the “Superman saves a cat up a tree” bit. And the movie plays homage to Superman’s origins by framing his death as one last fall to earth – echoing his arrival decades earlier. 

War of the Supermen...

As an adaptation of the source material, the film is arguably as faithful as is possible. The story trims a lot of fat – there is, for example, only one replacement Superman and Lex Luthor is the main antagonist of the film – but even then there are quite a few moments (mostly early on) which seem almost wasted. Jimmy Olsen’s flirtation with a high-paying trashy job at The National Voyeur seems to have been inserted for no reason other than to take a pot shot at that low-brow media. When the villain Doomsday is introduced, we just see a collection of shots of him killing innocent people/animals as he makes his way to Metropolis – he has already been established as an unstoppable killing machine and seeing him murder random people makes him almost seem a bit banal. Superman deals with murderers all the time. 

The script could have done with some tightening up. All too often it tells us rather than shows us – Perry White, for example, tells us that Lois is risking her life in a world without Superman there to act as a safety net. Lex Luthor is given to lecturing his foe’s corpse after he kills his single supporting cast member in a scene which – while excusable give his obsession – still seems like it’s taken from the villainous cliché handbook. When it wants to convince us that Luthor is evil, it has him work out a way to make life-saving medication even more profitable; while Superman is altruistically attempting to cure cancer in the Fortress of Solitude. 

When all that’s said, though, the movie is actually fairly good with the core three characters: Superman, Luthor or Lois. Even a small appearance from the creepy third-tier Supeman villain Toyman (who here is given more sinister undertones as he refers to the children he has kidnapped as “my playthings” – the voice over from John DiMaggio doesn’t help) works. Toyman is a character that has never really worked within the Superman mythos (Bruce Timm, the creator of Superman: The Animated Series, once observed – and it’s a comment often echoed – that Toyman is a Batman villain who really wants to fight Superman), but his appearance here makes sense in the “darker and edgier” context of the story. 

Superman REALLY doesn't want a hug from Doomsday...

Lex Luthor’s obsession with Superman is one of the areas the script gets right – perhaps because it’s one of the areas where the producers seem to know they can push the boundaries a bit more than on network television. Luthor – fantastically brought to life by James Marsters of Buffy fame – remarks on his “beautiful” foe and his “pretty face”. “Why did you leave me?” he demands at one point like a jilted lover, “We had so much unfinished business!” As he (shirtless, might I add) straddles his foe, he asks, “Who’s your daddy?” Hell, he’s already planning Superman’s “coming out” and chastises the hero for being “a very bad boy.” 

Nothing homoerotic about this superman-on-man (or man-on-superman) action at all...

In other aspects, the production is remarkably uncertain of how far it can push things. There seem to be random amounts of blood shown at random points. In fairness, some of these moments (as in the introductory fight sequence) are effective, while others are not. Again, it’s a somewhat uneven experience which sometimes feels like it’s on autopilot, but sometimes manages to offer a moment of meaningful impact. 

The animation, again, is strange. What the hell is up with Superman’s cheeks? Why have the animators drawn a “Y” on each one? Most of the production actually feels somewhat inferior to Superman: The Animated Series and is, undoubtedly, the weakest of the DC animated films by far. That said, when it works it works. Both the opening and climactic fight sequences are bristling with energy, hinting at the sheer power of the character that the restrained Superman Returns seems to have been afraid of. 

Some self-love going on there...

The voice casting is a real mixed bag. Anne Heche is grand as Lois Lane, and Adam Baldwin grows into the role of Superman (though he initially seems a bit gruff for the boy scout), while James Marsters is the cast’s standout as Luthor – bringing with him a sort of slimy sinister attitude. It’s just odd to see a line-up that is so predominantly adequate (rather than exceptional). 

Still, the movie is perfectly entertaining. While it’s undoubtedly the weakest of the animated films, that makes it the weak link in a very strong chain. It’s still a perfectly solid animated action movie which has more than a few powerful moments thrown in. The problem is that it never really excels or takes flight, perhaps weighed down by the rather heavy material it has taken on. It’s great to see the iconic material adapted to another medium, and the movie does it arguably as much service as it could reasonably.

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