The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

‘The Death of Superman’ is a dumb, boring story based on a lie (and it’s okay to finally admit that)

Written by: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer

DC Comics, please come in. You too, Warner Bros. Don’t worry, we’re all friends who care about you. We need to talk. You guys just released another animated film today. Well, okay, technically it’s been available for digital download for two weeks, but now it’s out on Blu-Ray: The Death of Superman.

No, no, no, not that one. That was Superman: Doomsday from 2007. I’m talking about this:

So you made yet another adaptation of that massively overhyped Event™ representing the peak of the comic book speculator bubble just before it burst and nearly took the entire industry down with it? A quarter-century later, even after crowbarring elements of it into your legendary debacle of an attempt to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you are still chasing this high?

It’s time for an intervention.

We know you both are more than aware of the basic premise of this story, but for those who don’t remember or need a recap: The Death of Superman was a year-long crossover story undertaken in December 1992 to drum up lagging sales of the four concurrently-running Superman books and to take advantage of the rising interest in comics at the time. Since DC’s original plan to have Superman marry Lois Lane was delayed on the insistence of Warner Bros. in order for that equally ill-advised publicity stunt to coincide with the inevitable wedding episode of their hit TV show, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, DC Editor Mike Carlin decided to move forward with a story of a giant bone claw monster in bike shorts showing up on Earth, fighting Superman until they punched each other to death, everyone being sad about it, then four people appearing three months later claiming to be Superman – none of them were – then the real one is resurrected and stops a plot by a poor man’s Thanos to destroy the world.

This drawn-out fistfight to the death is, no kidding, the only thing that happens in the first part of the arc.

And before you two “Yeah, but…” me on this, yes, I know from a pure sales perspective, it was an unqualified success; Superman #75 became one of the best-selling comic books of all time, and was one of the rare Events™ to gain mainstream attention to the point of cultural phenomenon. By every other measure, though, this stunt was terrible for both of you, for Superman, and for the industry at large, with consequences we’re still seeing today.

For starters, The Death of Superman, by itself, is a weak story. There’s no real meaning, no deeper themes gleaned from any of its three parts. Doomsday is arguably the most boring Superman villain of all time. Several weird subplots pop up and disappear out of nowhere (and not in that awesome “I Love Superman!” kind of weird, either — at one point, Pa Kent travels to the afterlife to save Superman’s soul from being dragged to Hell and it’s just as dumb and off-putting as it sounds). The explanations given for the existence of the four “Supermen” who show up at the same time, how the real Superman is resurrected, and how his powers are eventually restored are nonsensical even by comic book logic. The four new characters who showed up in the “Reign of the Supermen” arc are one-half misconceived and almost entirely misapplied here.

If this was simply a case of a not-very-good story, we wouldn’t be staging this intervention. We all understand when you have hundreds of characters across dozens of books and multiple writers, artists, and editors, you’re bound to have more than a few clunkers in there. Heck, it’s not even rare for comic book stories to feature temporary “death” fakeouts. But this one was different. Unlike other Events™, this one had an unprecedented marketing campaign that caught on with a general public not aware at the time that death is (usually) not all that permanent in comics.

As a strategy to attract new readers who had never picked up a comic before, this was…questionable, to put it mildly. It makes sense to make a wider marketing push for a story like Batman: Year One, because that was a new beginning for a major character. It does not make sense for something with a title as loaded as The Death of Superman, because to a mainstream audience it comes off like announcing the end of a story, which dissuades potential new readers from coming back to a comic book shop to pick up another issue. Why would they? Superman died; it’s not like there are going to be any more Superman comics after January 1993, right? And those were just the poor souls who were actually interested in the story itself.

That was the other problem with this promotion — a good portion of the millions of customers who stood in line for hours to buy a copy of Superman #75 did so under the prevailing delusion that comics were smart inve$tments that always rose in value because they read or saw a news story of some Baby Boomer selling their old comics for a small fortune and figured they could get in on that action, especially ones that staged some big status quo-shakeup. And you were more than happy to cash in on this misconception, never stopping to think about what this might do to your brand or the broader public perception of your industry once people realized all this oversaturation of the market would guarantee these comics being bought en masse would be worth, at best, their original sale price in ten, twenty, thirty, it doesn’t even matter how many years, anymore.

This is Cyborg Superman, because Terminator 2 was really popular two years ago and DC was feeling especially shameless.

By the time Superman came back to life in October 1993, the industry was already beginning its long, dramatic decline, resulting in thousands of people losing their jobs, comics shops shuttering, and a severe reduction in the number of publishers and distributors. We’re not blaming all of that on you and The Death of Superman. Many factors led to this market deflation. But your publicity stunt was a major contributor to the mass disillusionment setting in on those consumers who had shot the industry to new sales heights in the late ’80s.

But, for some reason, you paid no attention to the aftermath. You looked at those initial sales numbers as some sort of irrefutable validation, and so then came the steady stream of Events™, all trying to capture that lighting in a bottle: of course that stupid wedding between Lois and Clark eventually happened, then the “fall” of Metropolis, Zero Hour, the Millennium Giants, Superman having a series of Big Final Battles with five completely different characters all named “General Zod,” President Lex Luthor, the return of Supergirl (oh look, another character who didn’t stay dead!), and so on.

But you, Warner Bros, had an even worse reaction. After seeing all those copies of Superman #75 fly off the shelves, you became obsessed with adapting it into a movie. It was what motivated you to buy the rights to Superman back from Ilya and Alexander Salkind in the first place, hastily commissioning a Superman Reborn script before the ink was dry on the dotted line that featured a friggin’ virgin birth scene (because you felt people weren’t leaning hard enough into the Superman-as-Christ metaphor, already?). When that fell apart, you tried again with Kevin Smith writing and Tim Burton directing a Superman-dies-and-then-comes-back project called Superman Lives, and we all know how that ended up, don’t we? Then you tried again in 2002 with J.J. Abrams penning Superman: Flyby, where, oh, would you look at that, Superman dies and resurrects himself by escaping from a Kryptonian afterlife world. And while I can’t prove this, I have a strong suspicion you would have greenlit a sequel to Superman Returns if Bryan Singer added a bone claw monster in bike shorts with Superman punching each other until they both died. Just a hunch.

Then, in 2016, you got your wish: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dear lord, that title…) ends with Superman getting killed by a version of Doomsday that looks a lot like one of those Lord of the Rings cave trolls. It was a financially underperforming, critically lambasted disaster that kneecapped your planned “DC Extended Universe” before it even got off the ground. Your fixation on two stories that moved a few million copies almost thirty years ago (the other being The Dark Knight Returns, another bestseller you need to get over) likely cost you a potential film franchise that could have been worth billions.

Meanwhile, Marvel – yes, we’re going to talk about Marvel, because every decision you’ve made since the end of the Silver Age has been motivated by an inferiority complex towards them – have been doing everything they can to distance themselves from the one-time boundary-pushing novelties of the late ’80s and the excesses of the ’90s, which is why we will never see a version of the “Clone Saga” made into a movie, or see Darkhawk introduced into the MCU anytime soon. They moved on, you haven’t. That mostly has to do with the fact that Marvel went bankrupt in 1996. Fate punished them for their bad decisions and gimmicky trend-chasing. But you didn’t hit a similar rock-bottom. To you, those years weren’t an embarrassment; they were the glory days. And you’ve been chasing those dragons ever since.

A second animated adaptation of this story? Really? On top of that, you’re stretching this thin plot out to two whole features? That would be like making an animated film out of The Killing Joke and adding a sexist subplot where Batgirl screws Batman on a rooftop.

Oh wait, you guys did do that!
What. The. Hell?!

The first step is admitting you have a problem. You need to stop forcing your rich, decades-old mythology of some of the most iconic characters in fiction to be defined solely by a handful of popular trade paperbacks from a relatively narrow window of time. Those days are over. They’re never coming back. Do right by Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the rest of your roster of costumed superheroes and kick this habit. It’s not too late.

Best of luck. The only thing that could shake our faith in your recovery is if you produced some cheap-looking, absurdly “edgy” live-action Teen Titans reboot show.