Reign of the Supermen (2019)
The direct follow-up to last year’s death of the Man of Steel has a looser adaptive philosophy, which translates into a less-focused — and less effective — final product.
Starring Jerry O'Connell, Rebecca Romjin, Rainn Wilson, Cress Williams, Patrick Fabian and Cameron Monaghan
Released by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Written by Tim Sheridan and Jim Krieg
Directed by Sam Liu
In the pages of DC Comics’ monthly Superman titles in the early 1990’s, the talented creative teams led by writers Dan Jurgens, Roger Stern, Louise Simonson, and Jerry Ordway knew that they had to try and deliver a powerful story telling the Man of Steel’s return, especially with all the new attention the character’s death brought to the books.
The resulting story, now largely referred to today as “The Return of Superman,” is itself a testament to the creativity of the comic book medium. With cadre of creative teams imagining four distinct paths toward the character’s ultimate return, it was decided in the end to take things in an unexpected direction by simply doing them all.
The story ended up with a surprising amount of swerves and unexpected occurrences, but it all ended up funneling into a conclusion that brought the Man of Steel back in a relieving and triumphant way. When adapting the story of Superman’s death in other media, Warner Bros. didn’t really manage to emulate the emotional power of that original story until 2018, when The Death of Superman resulted in a surprisingly close and emotionally powerful adaptation of that original story, all packaged into a brisk, 75-minute run time.
Adapting his return with the same kind of truthfulness would be no easy task, especially considering the much higher level of complexity the return had when directly compared with the story of Superman’s fall. Unfortunately, this is also a task that the team at WB Animation just don’t manage to live up to in the same way in their adaptation of this resolution in Reign of the Supermen.
Featuring a new duo of writers stepping into the spot filled by Superman comic book scribe Peter J. Tomasi in the last film, Reign of the Supermen ultimately decides to go in an entirely different direction concerning the source of the story’s primary antagonist, and the details of the full story told here differ pretty significantly from the stories told in the early-90’s Superman titles featuring the four characters that attempted to fill the gap left by Superman’s absence.
In some cases, the characterizations themselves are altered to a point of significant divergence, but thankfully everybody on display here is at least familiar to those of us who appreciate the intentions of the original stories, and that demonstrates an attention to some detail in the writing. Still, the lack of closeness in the adaptive philosophy also makes the movie’s story seem rather aimless, indicating a more truthful direction before going somewhere else entirely to find the film’s source of villainy, while also making the core Justice League far more important to the way things play out here than they were in the books.
Now, going somewhere new is not a bad thing, and there are more than a few comic book films out there that have actually done things better than the original stories in the comics did. Those kinds of occurrences just don’t happen very often, though, and the old adage of the best comics-based movies remaining true to their source material is an idea that is maintained by Reign of the Supermen.
That’s not to say that what is here can be classified as “bad,” far from it. Some of the inventiveness actually serves to call back to the origins of some of the characters, with Superboy being a primary example: how do you make a character debuting in 2019, but with roots in the 90’s, into a “90’s kid?” Well, because he binge watched a bunch of 90’s sitcoms like a ravenous maniac, so he’s absorbed the style and slang of that decade today!
The spirits of many characters are pretty well-maintained, with the one most closely observed being Dr. John Henry Irons, aka Steel. While it’s disappointing to see that Steel doesn’t have nearly as much to do here as he probably should, what we do get from him totally reinforces his overall position as a hero in his own right, probably doing the best possible service to the symbol of the S-shield than anyone else who wears it over the course of most of this film.
Most of the cast from The Death of Superman returns for this film, which makes for nothing to complain about. While the voice direction is generally not as sharp as the days that Andrea Romano was calling the shots for DC-based animation, the cast all does a solid job in playing their characters. Jerry O’Connell is a great addition to the overall cast of this straight-to-video iteration of the DC Universe, and Rebecca Romijn makes for the most consistent and strong Lois Lane we’ve heard in animation outside of the days of Dana Delaney on Superman: The Animated Series.
Rainn Wilson, at first hearing, seems a little on the higher side considering that he’s playing Lex Luthor, but his delivery drips with an arrogance and self-belief that combines into a very truthful interpretation of the Man of Steel’s greatest enemy. Patrick Fabian also doesn’t disappoint as a distinctive addition as the Cyborg Superman, and Tony Todd is one of those smack-your-head no-brainers when he makes his debut here as Darkseid for the first time outside a Lego-inspired animated film.
All in all, the cast is solidly assembled, though their direction leaves something to be desired in terms of creating a sense of vocal urgency, if that makes sense. Characters aren’t monotone, per se — unless we’re talking about the Eradicator, which makes sense — but some more tense moments in the story are undercut a little by some matter-of-fact delivery in a few places. To be fair, though, this was an issue present in the last film. Maybe it wasn’t as easily detected in that work, though, because of the potent screenplay driving a more closely-adapted story in The Death of Superman.
In the end, Reign of the Supermen is the best adaptation of the story relating Superman’s return to life, but that’s only by default. This is a film that doesn’t really concern itself with adapting many of the particulars of the original comics story from the early 90’s, which was disappointing for this fan of the original material.
That’s not even to say that the film needed to stay rigidly in-line with the story as it was told over 25 years ago. However, considering the last film’s general closeness in adapting the groundbreaking story of Superman’s fall, it’d stand to reason that the film that would follow would have a similar philosophy.
Alas, Reign of the Supermen’s screenplay falls short of the standard established by Peter Tomasi on The Death of Superman. It’s certainly not a bad movie, nor is it a bad Superman movie, but it would’ve been better if it more closely observed the trajectory of wonder and unpredictability that the likes of Dan Jurgens, Roger Stern, Louise Simonson, and Jerry Ordway all hatched together back in 1993.