The DCEU has finally completed its “Death and Return of Superman” arc with Justice League – and now the dirt has settled, it might just have been the shared universe’s biggest mistake.
The DC Extended Universe is five movies deep, and only one of those – Wonder Woman – can be called an unprecedented success. The rest have admittedly made money (bar Justice League, which is currently looking to lose Warner Bros. up to $100M) yet stand out as critical failures, earning mostly negative reviews across the board. The reasons for this are plentiful and heavily discussed, but ultimately come down to the bold-albeit-challengingly-flawed artistic vision and reactionary studio meddling (the three worst-received movies – Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad and Justice League – were all tampered with in post-production to varying degrees).
However, there is a third factor, one more ingrained in the actual text that nevertheless looms large over the franchise and not only represents the core issues but actively developed them. It really cannot be overstated how much the DCEU’s fate hinged on The Death of Superman. And what a folly it was.
Warner Bros. Obsession With Killing Superman (This Page)
Warner Bros. Has Been Obsessed With Killing Superman For Decades
The notion of killing Superman isn’t some abstract idea, but a focused one powered almost exclusively by 1992’s The Death of Superman. The mega-event-to-end-all-mega-events, Dan Jurgens’ storyline did what it said on the tin; the Man of Steel was killed in a brutal brawl with the freshly-introduced Kryptonian monster Doomsday, an epic turn in the then-54-year-old character’s history. What followed was an arc originally called Reign of the Supermen but is now commonly known by the more accurate The Return of Superman; four potential replacements to the mantle appeared in the months after Kal-El’s death vying to be crowned the “true” Superman, until the real Supes returned care of the Fortress of Solitude (now with infamous black suit and mullet).
While it’s famous and remains a popular trade paperback (there are few more definitive Superman stories), the tale has some major problems. Predominantly, it was mainly a marketing ploy. Comics were right in the middle of what was known as the “speculator bubble” in the early-1990s, where adult collectors drove sales up and led to a rise in special editions and a desire for potentially valuable issues. The death of the superhero was deemed by DC as the biggest they could cultivate, hence its mega-mega event status. Indeed, as a story, it’s not up to much: Superman is punched to death then brought back after a period of treading water in the most obvious fashion.
But that didn’t matter to Warner Bros. They saw the sales success of the comic run and understood the cultural cache of killing off one of modern culture’s defining icons (as well as the subsequent excitement of a return), so became obsessed with turning it into a film. They came very close in the late-1990s with Superman Lives, a Tim Burton project starring Nicolas Cage as Supes, but that fell through after the company suffered a string of financial failures (including Batman & Robin). However, the idea remained and resurfaced in several of the proposed Superman scripts over the next decade; elements even featured heavily in Superman Returns. It was an obsession that transcends executive rule, and in 2016 they finally got their wish – and with it discovered why it was such a bad idea.
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