Most comic book movies have been adaptations of concept rather than of story. What we've seen have not been translations plot-for-plot from one medium to another, but instead familiar characters and situations being used to invent new adventures for a new audience. Such is the case with the recent direct-to-DVD release Superman: Doomsday.
Despite being animated, this movie is not wholly based on the previous cartoon series, either. The voice cast is all-new, including Adam Baldwin, James Marsters, and Anne Heche. The animation style is slightly different — a bit darker and more detailed (the lines on Superman's face suggest an older, more pessimistic character; whereas Luthor looks leaner and younger). And the story's tone is markedly different from anything that's come before.
The movie's first half-hour is based on the 1993 landmark event: the death of Superman at the hands of the alien Doomsday. And the team responsible for this adaptation has done a fantastic job portraying that titular villain, for Doomsday as a mindless organic killing machine has been captured in all his animalistic and fearsome glory. In all his frenetic action sequences, I never once got the impression that he was angry or vengeful or in any other way emotional, but just a mindless automaton. The closest we get to expression is when Superman is the first to not fall to a single punch: Doomsday cocks his head, intrigued or confused as a dog might be — before quickly resuming the fight. Probably the most humanity exhibited in this entire sequence was by the audience at the fight's climax; Superman (particularly Christopher Reeve) is one of my heroes, and to see his death in any medium is distressing.
And that's an accurate word for this cartoon, which is far more violent than its predecessors. Though the film is judicious in exactly what gets shown, the aggression is nonetheless apparent. In one scene, the camera focuses on a soldier's head disappearing into Doomsday's gigantic fist; the screen pans up to Doomsday's face before we see the muscles of his arm twisting and a sickening crunch sounding. We may not have witnessed the murder, but it certainly leaves little to the imagination. Doomsday isn't the only heartless killer; we also see Luthor economically dispose of one of his hirelings. This is all in vast contrast to the Saturday morning cartoon. As far as I know, there was only one death in Superman: The Animated Series's entire five-year span, and that was the bloodless vaporization of Dan Turpin.
For a story about the death of Superman, this escalation was both necessary and appropriate — and it's still probably less violent than the graphic novels. Yet I was still shocked, being unaccustomed to seeing such slaughter in any Superman vehicle. Shock is a good thing, though; when a character or story becomes predictable is when it loses me as a viewer.
It was this captivating and extended opening sequence that kept me through the rest, though I found the follow-up a bit disappointing. It's not just that the parallels to the comic book inspiration disappear after Superman's death; fitting the entire "Death of Superman" / "Funeral For a Friend" / "Reign of the Superman" story, which originally took more than a year of weekly comics to tell, into a 75-minute movie would be a herculean task. But the original story they've crafted to follow the Doomsday blitzkrieg doesn't strike any chords of emotion or intrigue. It's instead a rather mundane plot with no surprise heroes, villains, appearances, or twists — something I'd expect to find in another episode of a Saturday morning cartoon, if I haven't already, and not in a once-in-a-lifetime comic book epic.
Even if the circumstances of Superman's death and return are not wholly true to the source material, they needn't be; this is a different story, in a different medium. The parts that are done well are done extremely well and make the entire package worth viewing, if not owning.