Twenty-five years ago, we had an event that, for better or worse, shaped the history of superhero comics. DC actually went through with killing their biggest icon, Superman. It’s an event that still has impact today, but I’m not here to talk about the comics (that’s coming soon over at our sister site Women Write About Comics). I’m here today to talk about the adaptations.
The Death of Superman has been adapted directly once (with another adaptation in the works to be released in two parts, this year and next year) and indirectly a couple times. The direct adaptation was the animated Superman: Doomsday, released in 2007. That movie takes several liberties with the story, streamlining The Return of Superman and eliminating several characters from the story for space reasons. That is perhaps the second biggest flaw in the movie, because things it cuts for time are things that made the original story memorable and worthwhile.
The movie’s biggest flaw, however, is the cast. While James Marsters is an inspired choice as Lex Luthor, the other two main cast members were a bit less so. Anne Heche is not a choice that comes to mind when I think of Lois Lane, and Adam Baldwin was a supremely bad choice for Superman. This was before he exposed himself as a supporter of GamerGate, but even so, he was most well known for gruff jerk types with lots of guns.
Cast aside, the movie fails in several ways more important than that. The biggest of these is the emotional resonance of Superman’s death. In the comics, Lois and Clark were newly engaged when he died, and the funeral bits of the story were some of the most powerful comics I’ve ever read. In Superman: Doomsday, not only are Lois and Clark not engaged, they only recently began dating. Or rather, Lois and Superman just began dating, and Lois doesn’t even know his secret identity. She treats Clark like the dirt on her heel. We don’t get the passionate final kiss, we don’t get the heartbreak of Lois knowing that while the world lost Superman, she lost Clark. Even the reaction of Martha Kent is subdued, because the movie uses the continuity of Jonathon already being gone. The Kents watching their son die on TV is a huge part of the story, and having it only be Martha cuts that in half. The movie entirely misses all the things that make the story so resonant and long lasting, while it covers the plot outline fairly well.
Which brings us to the first indirect adaptation, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I have big problems with this movie, and how it characterizes both Batman and Superman within it. But those characterizations aren’t all that relevant to its strength as an adaptation of The Death of Superman, save one thing. The Superman who died in comics was a universally beloved hero, while Zack Snyder made half the world doubt and fear his version. That gives less weight to his ultimate end, and less weight to the story as a whole. This movie, however, does do better with the emotional impact of Lois’s loss, which is one of the most important parts of the story. Where it fails, though, it fails hard. The biggest failure of this movie is how long it actually takes to get to Doomsday, and how little there is between Doomsday and the end of the film. So while Batman v. Superman does do better with the emotional impact, the lead up is too drawn out, and the adaptation is much looser.
The other indirect adaptation is the one I actually set out to talk about here today. For the entire third season of Supergirl, they’ve been building to Odette Annable’s Reign. Her powers have been building, and so have her friendships with Kara and Lena.
Reign first appeared in the New 52 era of Supergirl, as one of the Worldkillers. The Worldkillers in the comics were immense Kryptonian weapons created by Supergirl’s father, Zor-El. Her origin in the show is tweaked some, but her purpose as a weapon of mass destruction remains unchanged.
In the midseason finale, appropriately titled “Reign,” we got to see the fruition of the season long arc to develop this villain. This episode in particular gives us the emotional beats missing in Superman: Doomsday with pacing that was missing in Batman v. Superman. The show uses Sam’s (Reign’s sleeper civilian identity) relationships to drive the tragedy of her own situation home even more. Likewise, scenes like the holiday party remind us of the friendships that Kara has built over the past two and a half seasons. This will be important, especially to this episode.
The pacing of the story works better in “Reign” than it does in Batman v. Superman, because we are actually led to the climatic battle, rather than just having it shoved in to give the heroes a last minute team up. Much like the comic that it is pulling themes from, “Reign” gives us a villain cutting a swath of destruction before a hero is able to intervene. This ups our anticipation of the battle that’s coming.
Kara currently doesn’t have a love interest, so you might think that that would leave us without a Lois analogue, which I’ve already said is one of the most important parts. Fear not, because while there is no romantic relationship, there’s something stronger in this show. Alex Danvers fills that role for our purposes, and it works exceedingly well, mostly because this show is always at its best when it focuses on the Danvers sisters.
Both previous adaptations of the story did one thing very well, and that was the brutality of the fight between Superman and Doomsday. “Reign” is no exception to that, and does it even better than the previous two. The fight between Kara and Reign is unbelievably violent, and even painful to watch at times. The biggest difference between this and any fight between Superman and Doomsday is that this one doesn’t end with a draw. Supergirl loses, and she loses badly. Her body is tossed off a skyscraper and lies shattered in the equally broken pavement, and as the camera pans out, we see an image that took me immediately back to Christmas when I was eight years old. Supergirl staff writer Eric Carrasco says that the homage wasn’t in the script, but may have been intentional on the part of director Glen Winter, or it may have just been a happy accident. No matter if it was intentional or not, that image is certainly heavily reminiscent of Adventures of Superman #498, one of three comics that was given to me at Christmas 1992.
While that homage might not have been intentional, Carrasco says the tone and themes of the episode certainly were. This was Supergirl’s attempt telling the story of The Death of Superman, without using those characters, and despite being the loosest adaptation in terms of characters used, its the strongest in terms of how it felt. In 2017, Supergirl did something that two more direct adaptations failed to do, in that I felt like I did that winter twenty-five years ago, when Superman died. Supergirl returns on Monday, January 15, and we’ll get to see the full aftermath of Kara’s brutal fight with Reign.