Through Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice through Justice League and now the “Snyder Cut,” director Zack Snyder and his collaborators have been remixing one of the biggest Superman stories to ever hit comic store shelves: The Death of Superman.
In bringing Doomsday to the big screen, Batman v Superman played out the first part of Superman’s legendary comic book death, and with Justice League’s resurrection, it brought him back in a not-so-comic-book way. But with Snyder’s final version of Justice League coming to HBO Max, the resurrection might have its own resurrection.
To explore how the Snyder cut of Justice League might bring in more comic book details from The Death of Superman, we first need to explore what those details were. So buckle up for a trip back to one of the boldest eras of superhero comics: the early 1990s.
How the Death of Superman happened
The Death of Superman was a 1992 crossover between DC Comics’ multiple Superman titles in which Superman tragically died saving Metropolis from an admittedly gimmicky space monster called Doomsday. But overall, it was a story that strove to be much more than a gimmick, in story and visuals.
As Doomsday and Superman came closer to clashing, the reader’s window into the comics page literally got bigger. The third-to-last comic in the arc had only three panels on each page; the second-to-last, only two. In the final issue, Superman #75, Superman and Doomsday go mano-a-mano in downtown Metropolis in an entire issue composed only in full-page splash panels.
Doomsday may have been slight, as a villain, but The Death of Superman succeeded by diving deep into what his death would mean for a DC Universe where he’d been beloved and depended on for years. Superman #75 gives full page spreads simply to Jimmy and Lois looking on in horror, or Ma and Pa Kent hugging desperately as they watch the live coverage on TV — until the reader gets to two, final double page spreads of Lois Lane cradling Superman’s lifeless body in the wreckage of his city, his tattered cape blowing like a flag of surrender from a nearby girder.
And DC’s creators didn’t stop there. The aftermath of The Death of Superman was given enough time and space to really count, allowing the fallout from his absence to make a gigantic mark on DC continuity. Most of the new characters invented just for The Death of Superman and its follow ups are still prominent in the DCU today, and its reverberations were felt in completely different pillars of the setting. The heel turn of Hal Jordan, the greatest of the Green Lanterns, into the fear-based villain Parallax, has its roots in the events of Death of Superman.
But why kill Superman?
Fun fact: Superman probably would not have died in 1992 if Warner Bros. hadn’t made Lois and Clark and a DC writer hadn’t made a joke.
See, Superman hadn’t been selling particularly well in the early ’90s, since the departure of writer-artist John Byrne, who had successfully redefined the character for the modern era after the Crisis on Infinite Earths. In an effort to halt that slide, editorial had upped the romance in the book, but with a bit of a twist — this time around, Lois found herself finally falling for Clark Kent instead of Superman. Clark proposed marriage to her, and then revealed that he was Superman.
But their wedding wound up being editorially postponed for cross-corporate synergy. Warner Bros. was developing a new Superman television series that would have the romance between Lois and Clark as its primary element, and the temptation of a simultaneous wedding between the comic book versions of the characters and the TV versions was too tempting. (It wouldn’t actually happen until 1997.)
In the meantime, the comics had to do something instead of a wedding story — a year’s worth of planning had just been put on hold pending the eternity of a television production schedule. And writer Jerry Ordway made a joke — “Let’s just kill him.” — that became less and less funny and more and more plausible as Lois and Clark’s success pushed its wedding further and further into the future.
Finally, DC editorial gave in. If Superman couldn’t get married, he’d have to die.
How did Superman die?
How Superman dies is actually pretty simple: A mysterious and terrible monster known only as Doomsday arrives on Earth, with the apparent goal of nothing but destroying everything in his path. He dispatches the entire Justice League in minutes, punching Booster Gold so hard he flies into space. Superman is the only force on Earth that can slow him down, and as the monster carves a swathe of destruction pointing directly to Metropolis, their showdown becomes inevitable.
The two meet in the middle of the city, and with a mighty simultaneous punch that shatters windows for blocks around they battle each other into mutual defeat. Underneath all the drama, though, it’s fair to admit that what happens is that a monster shows up and he and Superman punch each other to death.
And how did Superman come back from the dead?
In the aftermath of Superman’s death, a few Superman “pretenders” cropped up in Metropolis, with varying success. Two turned out to be villains, and two were good guys after all. One of them helped Superman resurrect himself in a very complicated and comic book-y way.
This Superman with granny shades here? This is the Eradicator, an ancient Kryptonian killer robot who went Krypto-supremacist after the destruction of the culture that invented him, and one of the four possible Supermans who showed up after Superman died. In the aftermath of the Death of Superman it was eventually revealed that the Eradicator stole Superman’s body from his crypt and placed him inside a Kryptonian device in the Fortress of Solitude called “the regeneration matrix.”
The regeneration matrix allowed the Eradicator to siphon off Superman’s powers for himself in order to pose as him as it slowly revived him from death, or at least some kind of special Kryptonian death-like state. With Kryptonians, as in The Princess Bride, there’s apparently a big difference between mostly dead, and all dead.
But upon Superman’s resurrection the Eradicator made sure to note, as if a forward-thinking DC editor had seized his body to speak directly through his mouth, that this did not mean that the Man of Steel was immune to death. “In fact,” he told Superman, “it’s safe to say this would not be possible ever again.”
Also, when he first got back, Superman wore a black costume with a white ‘S’ symbol.
Which brings us back to Superman’s death and the black costume
While Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice borrowed Doomsday from The Death of Superman, the theatrical cut of Justice League didn’t borrow much from his comic book resurrection, except that it was partly by the grace of weird Kryptonian technology.
In the theatrical release of Justice League, Batman concocts a plan to use a chamber in General Zod’s crashed Kryptonian ship and the motherbox, along with some energy from the Flash going fast, to resurrect Superman. When Zach Snyder’s new version of the film hits HBO Max, it’s possible that that plan will change, or expand, and maybe even include more elements from the comic book version of Superman’s resurrection.
But there is one detail we know for sure.
Before Justice League ever hit theaters, Henry Cavill made a little Instagram tease of Superman’s black costume. That costume didn’t wind up making it into the theatrical cut of Justice League, but it’s guaranteed to be in ZacK Snyder’s four-hour version of the film.
It appears that Superman’s black and white post-resurrection suit will show up in Snyder’s version of Justice League after all.
But, unfortunately, not his post-resurrection mullet. And that’s a real shame.