Superman died once, did you know that? You probably did; considering the eruption the story caused in American pop culture in the early ‘90s, it would be hard to not know the Man of Steel once died. This was back when consumers were still just gullible enough to believe Superman would actually be dead forever, and before publishers realized the death and resurrection trope was a goldmine they could exploit into oblivion. It is without a doubt one of the most iconic Superman stories ever told, but it’s also one we really don’t need to see adapted aver again.
However, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment are well on their way to releasing a new adaptation of The Death of Superman through the DC Universe Animated Original Movies line. The story will be split into two films, The Death of Superman in late 2018, and Reign of the Supermen in early 2019. It’s clear that Warner Bros. sees this story as Superman’s response to Batman’s The Dark Knight Returns films from a few years back. However, what does it say about the character that his most iconic story, which apparently needs multiple adaptations in quick succession, is about him dying?
The Many Deaths of Superman
To understand the infatuation with the Death of Superman, you have to look beyond the initial story. It wasn’t exactly an original idea to kill the Man of Steel in 1992; the publisher had been doing it for decades, only those stories didn’t count. Much like Marvel’s What If? stories, DC told Imaginary Stories (basically non-continuity), which is how we got the first “The Death of Superman.”
In 1961, Superman creator Jerry Siegel returned to the character for Superman #149. By this point, the Silver Age of comics had transformed the character into an embodiment of pure fantasy. Each issue became an exercise in the suspension of disbelief, as Superman gained new extraordinary powers and was shown to be capable of doing just about anything. At this time, Superman comics were more a laundry list of amazing feats than actual storytelling endeavors.
By the time the original “The Death of Superman” story debuted, it made sense to explore what it would be like if the hero didn’t always win, and if the superhero was actually capable of dying. In Superman #149, Lex Luthor finally manages to kill the Man of Steel, and it was permanent — even if it didn’t really count.
Inevitably, in-continuity stories were told about Superman dying, if only for a short amount of time. In 1966 Otto Binder and Curt Swan created “The School For Superman Assassins” in Superman #188. An assassin actually managed to kill Superman in this story, but the hero was brought back to life. In 1977, Steve Englehart and Dick Dillon told the story “The Carnival of Souls” in Justice League of America #145, where Superman is killed by magic and the League must save his soul.
This practice of bringing the most powerful man in the world to his knees continued on over the years. In Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s seminal Superman story “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow,” DC said goodbye to the Silver Age version of the character in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths. The 1986 tale deals with the disappearance of Superman, and though it is revealed that the man never actually died, the superhero did. It’s a story that deals with the mortality and lasting legacy of the greatest superhero that ever existed.
Even after DC finally decided to kill Superman “for real,” the idea has been revisited many times over, though usually lacking the nuance of the original. By 1999, DC upped the ante to comically horrendous and brutal extremes with the continuous murder of Superman through time travel in The Kingdom and the brutal death of the original Golden Age Superman in Infinite Crisis. “The Final Days of Superman,” which saw the end of the New 52 era Superman eventually looked back to the past with a title borrowed from “The Last Days of Superman” in Superman #156. The mortality of a seemingly invincible man has always been, and will always be, a central part of Superman as a character.