1992’s The Death and Return of Superman was an emergency filler arc, and it shows. The basic problem was this: Superman and Lois Lane’s relationship, which had spent most of the 20th century in stasis, had been developing rapidly since Crisis on Infinite Earthsand the ensuing 1987 Superman reboot. She learned his secret identity, met his parents, and by 1992, they were engaged, their wedding soon to be a major event across all four Superman titles (Superman, The Adventures of Superman (not to be confused with The Superman Adventures, the all-ages spinoff of Superman: The Animated Series), Action Comics, and Superman: The Man of Steel).
But at the time, Warner Bros was developing a new Superman TV series, Lois and Clark, focused on the relationship between its title characters. There were already plans for there to be a wedding episode eventually, so the wedding in the comics was put on hold until the TV series could get there. This meant the writers of the Superman comics had to cancel stories that had been planned for the better part of a year, and hastily assemble a replacement. According to (probably apocryphal) lore, Gerry Ordway jokingly proposed solving their problem by simply killing Superman off, and this became a running gag in ensuing meetings among the pressured, frustrated writers. Finally–unable to come up with an actually good idea that could be executed in the time available–they ended up just going with it.
That the event was born from a dearth of good ideas becomes obvious when Doomsday, the villain of the first of four arcs comprising the event, is considered. He is given no backstory or context: each of the four Superman comics showed, in the last page of its final issue before the beginning of the event, Doomsday’s arm as he punched his way out of a metal box somewhere, and that’s it. He appears to have been bound by someone in metal rods or cables and something like a green straightjacket, stuck in a box, and left in a random patch of countryside somewhere near the Great Lakes. When, how, or why is never answered (within the event and its tie-ins, though an origin was retconned in later), nor is how or why he escaped. He has no dialogue (except slurring the word “Metropolis” after seeing an ad for a wrestling match there), no motivation except evident pleasure in killing things, and initially not even a name–during his fight with the JLA, Booster Gold dubs him Doomsday. He has literally no identity except being a Really Big Strong Guy.
Which, in turn, means the entire first arc is incredibly boring. It is nothing but Doomsday killing things until the JLA shows up, then beating on the JLA, then fighting Superman. Other than the title and marketing, there is no reason to believe Doomsday is any different from the other Really Big Strong Guys Superman has fought–but it turns out Doomsday is a Really Bigger Stronger-er Guy, so Superman dies. The second arc which follows is mildly interesting: Lois and the Kents’ grief is palpable, and Jonathan Kent’s ambiguous hallucination/journey through the afterlife to find and rescue Clark’s soul from demons posing as his Kryptonian family is a beautiful, moving portrait of an adoptive father’s grief over losing his son and lingering self-doubt about whether he counts as a father. (Later issues subsequently ruin this by loudly and firmly declaring the afterlife journey to have been entirely real.)
The Reign of the Supermen arc then settles back into comic-book business as usual, as four new characters compete to be Superman’s successor: the Cyborg Superman, who has prostheses and looks weird and is therefore an evil impostor in league with Mongul and out to destroy the world; the Eradicator, who looks like Superman and is therefore not that bad no matter how many people he murders; Steel, who is easily and unquestionably the best thing to come out of this benighted plotline; and Superboy, who is an obnoxious little fuckhead apparently created solely to mock creators DC has cheated out of their characters and then beaten in lawsuits–his issues consist mostly of him seeking publicity, demanding not to be called Superboy, and trying to trademark the name “Superman” and associated logos.
Finally Superman comes back from the dead through complicated contrivances that (once again demonstrating how poorly thought through this entire arc was) characters repeatedly assure us cannot happen again Because Reasons, and leads the various Supermen in an assault on the Cyborg Superman and Mongul, who have fridged 7 million people to set up the next big Green Lantern storyline. (This then leads to the attached image, from Adventures of Superman#504, which I saved as “peak 90s.png.”) Several issues of robot- and alien-punching later, they win.
This is not a review series, and I normally don’t include plot outlines of the things I discuss–certainly not to this extent. Why, then, have I spent several paragraphs outlining the plot and awfulness of The Death and Return of Superman? Well, the truth is, I haven’t: the above left out quite a bit of the awfulness. For example, I barely mentioned Supergirl, whose compliant fawning over an obviously, blatantly evil Lex Luthor is frankly the most sickening element of the entire arc–quite an accomplishment in the arc that created Superboy! But that fawning is part of an ongoing storyline that began before Death and Return and continued after; it cannot be laid at the feet of Death and Return.
The point was not to catalog everything wrong with Death and Return, but rather to establish that it was a handful of bad ideas executed with, at best, uneven results, leading to the main question of this piece: why, if it’s so bad, does it have such staying power? Why is Death and Return the most well-known and oft-repeated Superman story after his origin? Why has every reboot since included or been followed by some reference to confirm that something like Death and Return is still “in continuity”? Why do elements of it show up in Smallville, the live-action Superman Returns and Batman v. Superman films and the Justice League cartoon? (Not to mention further elements implied in the trailers for the Justice League film.) Why was it adapted as the first of DC’s direct-to-video animated movie series, with another animated adaptation recently announced as of this writing?
Consider Superman: Doomsday, that first DTV animated adaptation. It makes significant changes to the story, most obviously that the four replacement Supermen are collapsed into one (he’s a clone like Superboy; identical in appearance to Superman, but overzealous and excessively violent, like the Eradicator; the monster whose defeat forms the story’s climax, like the Cyborg Superman; and ultimately just wanted to protect the people of Metropolis, like Steel) and the action confined almost entirely to Metropolis itself. More importantly, the story is given a single main villain and a single main protagonist. As villain, Luthor releases Doomsday (mostly by accident) and creates the replacement. This is already a massive improvement, because it shifts Doomsday from being the villain of the first act to being a weapon wielded by the villain of the entire story; his utter lack of personality is thus not that important.
Superman is the hero of the story–that is, he is a virtuous warrior who defeats the monsters unleashed by the villain–but he is not the protagonist. He spends most of the story dead, and even when he’s around, he is usually just punching. He has no character arc or development; he’s just alive, then dead, then alive again. The protagonist of this adaptation is, instead, Lois Lane–she’s the character whose interiority is shared with the audience, whose feelings we get to see. She is the window through which we see Superman’s defeat, the one whose grief we witness, the one who rejects the replacement Superman and whose investigation uncovers the Luthor connection. And, in the denouement, she’s the one who gets the happy ending–Superman does exactly what she asked for at the beginning, allowing her into both his identities. In other words, the Lois Lane/Clark Kent relationship is depicted as Lois‘ reward, not Superman’s, though of course it’s a positive development for both.
More important than what changed, however, is what didn’t: Superman died at the hands of Doomsday, was replaced, then came back from the dead and saved the day by defeating (one of) his replacement(s). Consider some of the other adaptations we’ve mentioned: Smallville keeps Doomsday as a villain but discards almost everything else; of the three Justice League episodes which adapt elements of Death and Return, “A Better World” and “The Doomsday Sanction” feature variations on the fight with Doomsday, while “Hereafter” (which is mostly an adaptation of a different Superman comic, “Under the Red Sun”) depicts Superman’s (apparent) death, public funeral, and return; Batman v. Supermanhas him fight Doomsday to their mutual deaths and its sequel Justice League is slated to depict his return.
In other words, the specific elements which endure and recur are Superman’s fight against Doomsday, and his death and return itself. Those are the elements which are remembered, and therefore which are recreated in adaptations and homages. So it is those elements themselves which we must examine to answer the question of why.
Doomsday is relatively easy to understand. Despite being generally uninteresting as a villain (note that both Superman: Doomsday and Batman v. Superman make Doomsday a weapon used by Luthor rather than a villain in his own right, while Smallville gives him a human alter-ego), he is the near-apocalypse made manifest, a seemingly unstoppable force of total destruction. He also resonates with Superman in particular, as Superman’s originating trauma isapocalypse. Like the destruction of Krypton itself, Doomsday is introduced as an a priori fact, something that simply is, without any need for causation, because it itself is the cause of the ensuing story. He is uninspired and uninspiring as a character, but it nonetheless makes sense that he would be what kills Superman, for the same reasons that it makes sense that Kryptonite hurts Superman: both are recreations of his original trauma, in their own ways.
The death and return, on the other hand, is a little more problematic. Lots of superheroes die and come back–they’re rather notorious for it. The Death and Return of Superman, however, is notably messianic about it. Little references to Christian stories of Jesus’ resurrection abound, including the underground tomb from which his body disappears (twice!), battling demons in the afterlife before returning to the living, the grieving women who discover the disappearance of his body and are the first to see him return, and of course just the general structure of a supernaturally empowered man who sacrificed his life to save humanity. Death and Return, in other words, is the completion of a process which began almost as soon as Superman was introduced as a character. Siegel and Shuster, both Jewish, created a Superman who clearly draws on Moses, a foundling who is raised by members of the dominant culture but eventually discovers and embraces his identity as an outsider, then goes on to perform miracles and espouse a moral code. (Admittedly, they did this over some time–the character shown in Action Comics #1 is barely recognizable by this description.) With time, however, he became more and more like Jesus instead: by the 1978 film, for instance, he is depicted as Jor-El’s only begotten son sent deliberately to Earth to serve as a moral exemplar and savior. That series of Superman films ended with Superman Returns, in which Superman’s death and return is again referenced, both in its beginning, when he returns after having departed the Earth for a time, and at its climax, when Superman is stabbed in the side and then hangs apparently dead in a crucifixion pose until he is resurrected by light.
Death and Returns keeps bubbling back up because it is Superman’s martyrdom, his sanctification. A bad idea poorly executed, it creates a paradox: a Christ-figure who can’t be hurt. But then, that’s what the Christ-figure has always been. The Jesus story is one of a martyr who cheats death, an elaborate sleight-of-hand by a god who sacrifices himself to himself, only to steal the sacrifice from himself. Jesus is depicted as a figure with two distinct, seemingly incompatible identities, an immense power who nonetheless suffers an intensely traumatic experience, after which he decides to protect all the little people. And, wrapped up in this story that purports to be about someone perfectly good, are all sorts of problematic ideas about authority, hierarchy, violence, and punishment.
In short, we shouldn’t be surprised that one of the most enduring Superman stories echoes one of European cultures’ most popular myths. Nor should we be surprised that the first superhero eventually turned into Jesus; after all, Jesus was the first superhero.
And in a few entries, we’ll see just how destructive outright worshiping a superhero can be.
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