"Superman: Doomsday": A Great Start For A New Line
If there had been more news in November of 1993, maybe it wouldn’t have been the huge headlining event that everybody seemingly heard about. The death of Superman was a story that practically ran away from the control of DC Comics as they were doing it, since the intention all along had been to bring him back in the traditionally convoluted manner of comic books. But for whatever reason, it became the singular defining benchmark of early 90s comics, for better or worse, showing both the darkness that could be achieved in this modern Post-Crisis age but also demonstrating some of the ambivalence in really making it stick. You the reader will probably have already noticed that I have my issues with the Death/Return storyline from the comics, which is why I had a mixed reaction to hearing that it would be the frontman project for DC’s new line of animated direct-to-video properties. Yet, despite my reticence, Superman: Doomsday takes what worked from the original storyline, and then takes its various lemons and fills up the gaps with lemonade. In fact, more than just being viewed as an adaptation, Doomsday deserves credit as being simply a top-notch action/superhero picture.
First and foremost, what should be brought up is how effective is Superman: Doomsday in terms of action and awesomeness. After all, this is what the real main draw of the story proves to be, no matter what the emotional stakes. This is a tale of really powerful punches. And you should all thank your lucky stars, because Bruce Timm and his crew (culled from all over WB animation, including TimmCo alumni, Legion folk, and The Batman folk) brought their major A-game. This is probably the single most incredible action piece, or series of action pieces, that TimmCo has ever produced. Obviously, the characters that the storyline involves require that kind of stepping-up, from Doomsday to the threat of the third act – yes, I’m being deliberately coy about spoilers – and so they beg a particular level of fight intensity that would not have been necessary for a plotline involving someone like Mr. Mxyzptlk. The feature format grants Timm the leeway to beef up the action sequences to a length of appropriateness, especially given what the obvious outcomes of at least one of them has to be. For Superman to kick the bucket, it’s going to take some serious effort on the part of the murderer, and none of the fights disappoint at any level. Additionally, since there’s so much super-strength fistfighting going on in this story, huge credits to Vietti, Montgomery, and Timm for never allowing anything to seem repetitive, even when the fight scenes from Acts One and Three exist as dark reflections of each other. There’s a visceral wallop to the whole affair that sells the storyline better than even Dan Jurgens provided back in 1993. Note to parents, though: there is some blood. There’s nothing especially gory; in fact, the camera tends to cut away when the story requires gore to keep going. Still, the red stuff does make its appearances on several notable occasions.
Storywise, the comics were piecemeal, much like comics often are. The adaptation from Timm and Capizzi cut so much of the chaff from it that it amazed me. They actually found a story beneath all that stuff! In the watching of the film, you find that you don’t miss Dubbilex, or Cadmus, or the Guardian, or red-haired “Lex Jr.”, or especially the protoplasmic Supergirl. There’s a purity to the Superman mythos that gets utilized here that can fit into almost anybody’s perception of the character or section of his history. Superman: Doomsday instead gets right down to the core of what the tragedy of Superman’s death would be, which would be the loss of a selfless protector and what happens in the wake of such a loss.
The main debate that the film raises is the nature of protection, and why it’s so valuable to have one particular man, super or not, who has great excesses of power but the ability to restrain himself and serve only where necessary. Beyond simply doing the right thing where others cannot, he sets an example that Superman: Doomsday shows as quickly dissipating in the wake of his death. Jimmy Olsen makes a choice here in the film that he refused in the comics, with the filmmakers daring to take the unlikable route with him and letting Superman’s pal plummet. That’s only a big example; smaller things like Perry drinking more noticeably and Lois losing a bit of her edge also speak to the effect of the loss. The most changes come in the adaptation of “Return”, and I won’t spoil it too much, but the point is that Lex (that is, a Lex that we recognize far more than the red-haired Fabio clone) gets involved due to his own bizarre and sinister insecurities regarding the loss of Superman and totally screws up the basic structure of Superman’s life and relationship with his city, which is that Superman does what’s right by Metropolis. Everything seems to boil down to the question of protecting the people – even Doomsday gets into the act by essentially being an unspoken threat against anything he sees – and the need to protect remains the big question throughout the whole story.
There’s another key element to Superman: Doomsday‘s story that must be given its proper due: the romance. The Lois/Clark relationship has been one of the most tiptoed-around of romances in animation, and here a plot has been provided that remarkably enough has plenty of room for that romance. One of the most intriguing elements of the whole story is the question of whether Lois does or does not know that Clark is Superman. This may be the smartest version of Lois written yet. She’s curious and intelligent enough to put two and two together, but still willing to not just blurt out her suspicions and wait instead for the guy(s) in her life to come clean. Lois’ partial knowledge, without ever being distinctly said so in the film, is crucial to how she finds the need to seek out the truth. And before that even happens, there’s a beautiful scene where she goes to meet Martha Kent for the first time, and these two women who have never met find a common ground in their different loves for this one man – if it is indeed one man. This is the scene that everybody on the commentary points to as their favorite, and it’s the right choice because it’s perfectly acted, perfectly voiced, perfectly scored, and perfectly written. Duane Capizzi tried his hand at the Supes/Lois romance in his previous DTV Superman feature, a film that most of us would generally like to forget. But here, Capizzi has busted way out of what I felt he was capable of doing in the past. I’m still not fond of some of his earlier works, but that doesn’t change the fact that Duane Capizzi has done a truly fantastic job with the plotting and screenwriting of Superman: Doomsday. Kudos to you, Mr. Capizzi. It’s your finest work yet, and now I eagerly await what it is you do next.
Attention should, of course, be paid to the superlative voice cast. Andrea Romano keeps circling around this material, these superpowered universes and characters, and it never seems to daunt her so much that she falters. Romano always finds a new and effective take on the casting and direction that lends complete credibility to whatever project it is. This takes a kind of microscopic analysis and understanding of each project and its cast of characters, needed so that she can find the subtlest of shifts in what actors would be right for the roles. Adam Baldwin, one of the few notable DCAU veterans who appear in Doomsday, proves to be so dead-on in the Superman role that there really is barely any awareness of an actor being behind the character. The same goes for Adam Wylie as Jimmy Olsen and Ray Wise as Perry White; all of these actors melded completely with their characters so well that even this old DCAU fanatic failed to have any friction in the transition in hearing them. James Marsters gives a very different take on Luthor, but as the project goes on, you realize just how right he is for this particular smart and creepy Luthor. Anne Heche took a little time for me to jive with, mostly because her feistiness isn’t quite Dana Delany-brand feistiness. But then the project ends up squarely on her shoulders sooner than you’d expect, and Heche proves to have more than enough acting chops, so she ended up rocking it by the end. And, of course, there’s that scene I mentioned earlier, which you’ll just have to see for yourself.
Like I said earlier, I have my issues with the original comic story. Superman: Doomsday does a fantastic job in solving those problems, but it can’t solve them all. It’s still a somewhat disjointed story thanks to Doomsday himself; try as TimmCo might, they couldn’t quite fix the fact that he’s a walking and grunting mess of a plot device. There’s a great story in this feature, but it happens outside and around of Doomsday himself. Doomsday provides great action, sure, and that’s a crowd-pleasing facet to him, but he’s still just a big monster that has but one purpose, which is to beat Superman to death. Thankfully he’s just first-act material and we table him quickly enough to get on with the rest of the plot, but I still felt like he robbed some of that precious 70-minute running time that could have been devoted to giving this new take on Luthor enough breathing room.
After all, this is a very different take on Luthor, psychotic in a practically codependent way towards Superman in a manner that borders on the perverse. But because time is at a premium, we are only really introduced to that perverse Luthor as opposed to getting to explore it, and I blame Doomsday for sapping the running time. Doomsday got a curious change on his famed existence in JLU, but there’s hardly any space or reason to do a Cadmus twist on Doomsday here and so we only get him in his original tiny-Godzilla form. Essentially, I wonder if this might not have been an even better film had Timm and Capizzi not been a little hamstrung by the need to have Superman die the way we all remember him dying. But, of course, I’m arguing against populist appeal here, and I don’t expect to get that much agreement from the masses; I wasn’t all that happy to see Venom in Spider-Man 3, either.
The DVD is well-stocked with features. It doesn’t have a complete probing documentary into the making of the movie itself, deciding instead to give its “probing documentary” budget to a retrospective on the original comic story. Very informative and interesting, although I suspect your personal worth in it will vary on your opinion of the original story in the first place. The commentary from Timm, Capizzi, Montgomery, Vietti, Romano, and Gregory Noveck is a great one, although there are some curious blank spots where I wonder if some editing has occurred, but maybe I’m just paranoid. Other features include random WB trailers (is this really the audience for The Last Mimzy?), a fun voice-cast featurette, and an extended sneak preview of Justice League: The New Frontier that couldn’t possibly have more praise for Darwyn Cooke – although, if anybody deserved a deluge of compliments, there’s the guy for it. As proof of that, the DVD also comes with a small section of Darwyn’s original comic of “The New Frontier”, but I suspect buyers should act quickly because you never know when they’ll stop selling DVDs with extra stuff like that. Mostly, though, buy this DVD for the feature, because DC has finally arrived into the DTV for-fans market, and the first premiere is a damned good one.