Movie Review: Superman: Doomsday
San Diego Comic Con DVD premiere: July 26, 2007, 8 p.m.
Superman must be a terribly challenging character to write. On one hand, Superman is Earth's first and most powerful superhero, vulnerable only to Kryptonite, magic, and women whose names begin with "L," so devising an original, truly original opponent is the fictional equivalent of God making a rock so heavy even He can't lift it. Yet, on the other hand, Kal-El is the orphan of an entire world that is actually willing to conceal his abilities to become a part of ours. That chunks of his home planet weaken him is both a physical and spiritual vulnerability; those little green rocks are proof that Clark Kent really isn't from around here and will never truly be human. Still, Superman is comics' most enduring character, mastering print, radio, and film in multiple capacities, so stories about the Man of Steel surely aren't difficult to come by. So why would DC Comics and Warner Brothers Animation decide to reincarnate any Superman story, even the most widely known and highest selling in the companies' rich history, for a direct-to-DVD feature length release?
Because, in its simplest form, Superman: Doomsday is the perfect Superman story. Here's why . . .
First of all, when "The Death of Superman" story began all those years ago, I didn't wait in line for the black-bagged final blow issue, because even in my formidable youth I knew that Superman wouldn't stay dead. Further, had I committed to the story, it would've lost me somewhere during the "four imposters" arc, because my Phoenix suburb simply didn't have enough lawns for me to mow and earn the money necessary for those years' worth of stories. So, when I heard that Warner Brothers Animation was going to launch their adaptations of classic DC epics with Superman: Doomsday, I wondered what pertinent plot points they would include to make a single, self-contained film. After all, "The Death of Superman" isn't just long but also mired in early '90s continuity, including an agreeable, redheaded Lex Luthor. Would Bruce Timm, in his seeming allegiance to these characters' core, retain these dogmatic details?
Thankfully, when Timm expresses that he sought to capture the spirit of the death of Superman, he did just that, essentially using DC's years-long epic as a rough outline to tell a brand new story, which is, as I asserted, the perfect Superman story. (Note: "Perfect" does not mean "best," which is a distinction only someone that has beheld every Superman story can make, and you'd have to be Big Blue to find that kind of time!) To wrap up the plot of Superman: Doomsday in a spoiler free sentence, when an alien juggernaut is unearthed and begins to destroy Metropolis, Superman fights the super-soldier to the death, and as the world mourns, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olson, and Lex Luthor find distinct ways to mourn, some of which threaten the sanctity of Superman's spirit and Metropolis' safety and prompt the Man of Steel to return. Convoluted, right? Ultimately, Superman: Doomsday is an excellent cause and effect film, epitomizing how the loss of Earth's greatest hero would affect his loved ones, his city, and the world.
Further, while I once believed that Doomsday was merely the brainchild of an editorial decision to create a much-hyped, high selling comic book arc, Superman: Doomsday establishes the behemoth as a legitimate element to the Superman mythos. (I still have similar reservations about Bane, though a good Batman story could persuade me otherwise.) Thanks to his depiction in this story, Doomsday is Superman's perfect antithesis, even more so than Lex Luthor; whereas Kal-El's Superman identity is a well thought out guise for heroism, Doomsday is a mindless strength machine void of care or concern for life. Clark goes to great lengths to conceal his identity and fit in with humankind, and Doomsday goes to great lengths to simply destroy it. His motive is as pure as the Man of Steel's -- only much more fatal, obviously. Now, don't get me wrong: I don't think Doomsday's creators intended this spiritual connection any more so than Siegel and Schuster envisioned Superman as an allegory for immigration and the American dream. Both were created with profit in mind, but that's the rub, anyway -- both stand little to gain alone.
Despite its brutal action sequences, which earn the movie's PG-13 rating by WB's previously kid glove standards, Superman: Doomsday is a surprising character study of Superman's supporting cast, as well. The Superman/Lois Lane love story is finally unleashed, addressing their inherent love triangle, and Jimmy Olson's dependency on celebrity is explored as a subtle comedic subplot. The scenes with Ma Pent are absolutely heart wrenching. Of course, Lex's grief propels the plot, eerily resonating with Michael Rosenbaum's interpretation of the character and his need for a yin to his irrepressible yang. At the risk of leaking a spoiler (which means skip to the next paragraph, spoiler-haters!), the use of cloning in the second and third acts of this film are less of a tether to the source material, or even an atmospheric "scary movie" element, but more of a scientific cry for help. Despite his lamentations, perhaps Luthor can't achieve king of the mountain status, because it would alleviate his constant need to be better. As Lois' newfound heroism throughout the film attests, Superman has that affect on everyone.
Visually, Superman: Doomsday actually doesn't deviate too much from similar Warner Brothers Animation projects from the past. Not that it's a bad thing, because anything under Bruce Timm's ink brush and watchful eye is masterful, but his "recasting" of the characters (as he described in their new designs in the panel following the film's Comic Con premiere) boasts only minor changes to the original animated series' look. Honestly, everybody looks a little skinnier, from Lois' figure to Luthor's sunken cheeks. Superman and Doomsday remain respectively and comparatively massive, but that's to be expected. Also, the directing team did an exceptional job maintaining both a contrasting universal and domestic perspective, pulling the camera view back when it needed to be, exuding a grandiose essence to a story that really deserved it. At the risk of dropping another spoiler (yeah, that means next paragraph again), though we are deprived of the windows-shattering blow that finally brings Doomsday down (Timm and co. animated that sequence in the Justice Lords episode of Justice League anyway), a truly cosmic sense is applied to the monster's demise, which implies the potential of his destruction. Superman: Doomsday looks as good as it feels and maintains the integrity of the franchise's reputation in . . . well, a single bound.
Unfortunately, this DVD isn't slated for release until September, but the wait is truly worth it. I didn't anticipate that famous black-bagged issue of Superman those years ago because I didn't know what to expect, but with Superman: Doomsday, the knowledge that the death and return of a hero is handled so reverently, not to mention that I've ironically already seen the film, makes me want to rush out and buy it all the more. After seventy years of success in every medium imaginable, writing a good Superman story must be a doomsday in itself . . . but, when done right, it's by all means the easiest and most fun thing to watch.