In November 1992, readers of “Superman no.75” (Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding) looked up wide-eyed from the last pages of what is now regarded as one of the most significant issues in comics history.
The decision to brutally murder Superman, a paragon of hope and comfort in fictional literature, had an impact that was felt worldwide. Millions of television viewers found out about his death as reported on the evening news. Superman’s sacrificial act of laying down his life for the people of Earth was treated as factual. The world’s greatest hero was dead.
In March 2016, Superman was killed again. This time, instead of being a massive event following decades and decades of rich comics history, his murder at the hands of the creature known as Doomsday occurred in the third act of a much-maligned theatrical cut and after only his second appearance within the DC Extended Universe, now rebranded the DC Universe (DCU).
It would be all too easy to simplify the differences between the original comics storyline and its live-action retelling. In the comics, Superman dies to save the world. In “Batman v Superman,” he seemingly dies to advance Batman’s character development and to provide a catalyst for the Justice League’s creation. While the Death of Superman storyline resulted in high tempers (and comic book sales), its live-action adaptation lacked significant emotional impact for the majority of viewers. It is certainly worthwhile to explore a few of the reasons why.
For weeks prior to the creature’s appearance, suspense was built up around Doomsday via the last pages of “Superman: The Man of Steel,” “Superman,” “Adventures of Superman,” and “Action Comics.” Readers were shown only Doomsday’s powerful fist repeatedly punching a steel wall, bony extrusions tearing through his glove. The recurrent caption accompanying these final pages warned readers that Doomsday was on his way and culminated with the ominous announcement that he had arrived. This was an extremely effective method of establishing Doomsday as an intimidating menace.
Unfortunately, Doomsday’s live-action appearance in “Batman v Superman” was not given the same level of intentionality, and any sense of mystery concerning his involvement was squandered as soon as he appeared in the film’s trailer. Most of those familiar with the “Death of Superman” comics storyline immediately made the assumption that the film would be attempting an adaptation of that famous story, which seemed unwise so early in the DCU’s line-up of films.
Zack Snyder, the director of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” addressed the decision to reference the “Death of Superman” storyline so soon within the character’s renewed cinematic presence. While giving a live commentary of the film in March 2020, Snyder explained that Superman’s death was intended to reinvigorate a rage-filled Batman’s hope for humanity. Indeed, the film does seem to serve Ben Affleck’s Batman far better in terms of a fully realized story arc than Henry Cavill’s Superman. The opening credits accompany a moving portrayal of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murder in Crime Alley, and the ending credits carry with them the promise Bruce Wayne makes at Clark Kent’s internment: “I failed him in life; I won’t fail him in death.”
Batman is absent from the main “Death of Superman” storyline in the comics; however, “Batman v Superman” places him in the center of the action. The Kryptonite spear that he created to destroy Superman is the very same one that Superman later wields against Doomsday. Batman’s Kryptonite-infused gas weakens both Superman and Doomsday, making them susceptible to fatal injury. The resulting guilt from his actions, as well as the realization that he has aided in the death of what could have been a powerful long-term ally, helps bring him back to being the Batman he was before his quest for revenge.
While the DCU has only recently established the Justice League in 2021’s “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” (the events of which take place after Superman is killed), “The Death of Superman” storyline in the comics enjoys the benefit of having a fully-realized Justice League of America and other superhero teams present and established during its titular tragedy. The sorrow of those who worked with and had the utmost respect for Superman provided an excellent mirror to readers coming to terms with such an influential character’s absence. This is a Superman who is treasured in his world. He has proven himself to be a leader, guardian and friend.
Whereas the Superman in the comics dies while surrounded by citizens of his beloved Metropolis, Henry Cavill’s Superman dies an outsider still searching for connection and acceptance. He is not lauded as one of the world’s greatest heroes, and because it is the Dawn of Metahumans, many regard him as nothing more than an alien threat. Ben Affleck’s Batman certainly shares that opinion for the vast majority of “Batman v Superman’s” runtime.
It is this Batman who, along with Lois Lane and Wonder Woman, witnesses Superman’s clash with Doomsday. It can be argued that the sacrifice Superman makes in the film has even more depth than that in the comics. Instead of dying for those who love and cherish him, Henry Cavill’s Superman lays down his life for a world that is still largely wary of his presence. Regardless of this distrust, “Batman v Superman” does depict a global reaction that is similar to what is seen in the comics.
The shocking conclusion of 1992’s “Death of Superman” was followed by the storylines “Funeral for a Friend” (showing how the world and its remaining heroes mourned Superman’s loss) and “Reign of the Supermen” (where multiple variations of Superman attempted to take his place in the world). Superman in the DCU was resurrected to aid in the fight against Steppenwolf within “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” making certain that the live-action films will not follow the same arc as the comics. With the recent announcement of Henry Cavill resuming his role in future films, it remains to be seen whether the decision to kill off his Superman prematurely will be as divisive as it is now.