Reign of the Supermen
"Reign of the Supermen" is a DC Comics storyline that has gone down in pop culture history for helping reinvigorate the Superman mythos and led to much of its new characters growing their own fan following and subsequently appearances in animation and live action television series and movies like Steel and Superboy. In the wake of past movies like "Superman/Doomsday" - the first in the DC Universe direct to movie line or the live action "Justice League", "Reign of the Supermen" presents those close to Superman and those impacted by Superman with the dilemma of adapting and moving on in a world without him and the question of can they all be heroes like him?
It's a story that mainstream audiences can follow with little to no knowledge of the 1990s comic book event that inspired it yet it is also one that rewards long time viewers of this direct to video line. Six months after the events of "The Death of Superman," Lois Lane is still struggling to cope with Superman's death and Lex Luthor, still haunted by Superman telling him the city would never love him, tries to "cope" in his own way. Steel tries to honor Superman's memory by paying it forward and suiting up in return for having his life saved during the Atlantis incident in "Justice League: Throne of Atlantis". Superboy has the fullest arc from a brash corporate teen throb to a humbled super hero in the making that learns he's the clone of both Metropolis' greatest hero and villain. Eradicator is a technological embodiment of Kryptonian power without the humanity Superman acquired from being brought up on Earth. Cyborg Superman is an amnesiac mystery who emulates the heroics of his predecessor. Lois isn't so easily fooled (let's ignore the whole prescription glasses disguise) and dusts off her journalistic prowess to discount the Supermen as the real deal. And...Eric and Becky? Yeah, some random couple in Metropolis has a full arc from the start of the movie to the end. Poor Becky.
Darkseid is revealed to be the creator of Doomsday and Cyborg Superman and to have been plotting his return to Earth ever since he was ousted in "Justice League War". In terms of the movie, the creative team made the right call in making Darkseid more of the Emperor to Cyborg Superman's Darth Vader circa "Empire Strikes Back" rather than hands-on mode Emperor in "Return of the Jedi". Darkseid's brief inclusion gives us the answer to the questions we were left with in "The Death of Superman" and reminds the audience that's he's still around in this canon, while leaving the door open for an impeding rematch with the Justice League who decides its finally time to be proactive instead of reactive to the big bads.
I did enjoy all the little nods and easter eggs. Cyborg's idea for a new base finally comes to fruition and after being touched upon in "Batman: Bad Blood", the Watchtower is done at last. The Watchtower also looks very much like what we saw in the Justice League animated series. Another great callback was to "Justice League War" and Wonder Woman's discovery of ice cream. Or we got to see Superman spend a chunk of time with both the black suit and the glorious 90s mullet and the revamped Rebirth blue and red. President Joan Dale, in addition to being Miss America in the comics, was the First Lady in "Justice League War". We were never given her name in that movie and her husband, the President at the time - we only knew his first name was Julian. So in-universe, in she won the 2016 election and succeeded her husband. Nice touch! Dug how most if not all of those newspapers were homages to comic book covers from the Reign of the Superman arc like Steel taking down gangs and Eradicator's service robots were included (but none named outright as Kelex). Even a Metallo cameo like in the previous movie. Some nods were surprising like the Wonder Woman 1977 spin... that had to have been dictated from James Tucker, right? Or Superboy's Bizarro line. Even got in a "Great Caesar's ghost!" And a brief appearance of our recurring fictional country of Kasnia, this time split into two nations warring with each other. And what's a become something of a tradition, there's a couple Phil Bourassa designs reused here and there for background people like Season 1 Megan Morse, Season 2 Mal Duncan and Catherine Cobert from "Young Justice."
The animation is superb as always thanks to Maven Image Platform. The assorted fights the individual characters get into and the final battle between Superman and Cyborg Superman were epic. Sam Liu really steps up his craft and excels with the fight choreography in this movie. I suppose it helps that he had to outdo the big Doomsday battle from the previous movie. Frederik Wiedmann knows when to crank up the sadness in the more emotional scenes like Lois breaking down in Clark's apartment, slipping in some callbacks to the previous movie, finesse a bit of a thematic horror when it comes to Hank's flashes to Apokolips, and give an adrenaline rush in the big Watchtower fight. I enjoyed his spin on the classic Superman theme at the end of the movie as well as the Superboy rock theme when Lex debuts him at the gala. Another small but appreciated touch, but love trying to figure out how Phil Bourassa tweaked Cyborg's design. Loved the blue replacing the red on his armor and the flashing blue piping when he's fighting the Parademons.
Cameron Monaghan embodies the cocky 90s Superboy to the fullest. I point to him as the stand out performance among the four Supermen. Cress Williams continues as John Henry Irons, who is now Steel, and puts out a solid performance. Very stoic but dug when Williams got to flex a bit of humor like the butt dial line. Charles Halford in addition to Bibbo gets to voice Cyborg the Eradicator. Not surprising how day and night these characters differ but Halford pulls it off, you wouldn't think they were both voiced by the same person. Halford owns the binary aspect of Eradicator. Patrick Fabian gets to do his own spin on the Big S as Superman but once the masquerade is over and the real Superman arrives, it was entertaining to see Fabian flip the switch and give us an unhinged villain who can longer wait to unleash his anger. Rainn Wilson did an interesting take on honoring both Gene Hackman's take and the more modern version of Luthor and a rare moment when he shows a speck of humanity to Lois in hoping Superman really is still alive. Rebecca Romijn shines as the unspoken star of the movie and gets some genuine moments of emotion and levity with the likes of Ma and Pa Kent, John Henry Irons, Lex Luthor, and Superboy.
I echo the sentiment from "The Death of Superman" that I wholeheartedly agree it was a boon to do this latest adaptation into a two movies. Granted Peter Tomasi had an easier task with the first part of this adaptation -- I mean, all he had to work with was 7 issues and he had to kill Superman -- Jim Krieg and Tim Sheridan had a tough task of not just adapting but excising and distilling something like 22 or 23 issues from the Reign of the Superman arc into a 87 minute movie that has its own ongoing continuity churning along. Short straw drawn. To be fair, Sam Liu, too. He's directed this one on his own whereas "The Death of Superman" was a team effort between Liu and Jake Castorena. With 22 issues to go through, it makes sense to get rid of a lot of plot points like Lex Luthor II, Pa Kent's heart attack and out of body chat with Superman's soul, Blaze, Gangbuster, Tana Moon, Toastmaster and White Rabbit (but still hat tip to them on a newspaper), Supergirl, and Maxwell Lord or to completely reduce roles to mere appearances like Ron Troupe and Green Lantern/Hal Jordan and even swap Mongul for Darkseid or reimagine a new origin for Cyborg Superman. Aside from being a quip machine and making cool hard light constructs, Green Lantern hasn't had much of an impact to justify the destruction of Coast City, who also had only brief appearances in the canon, and psychological ramifications like in the comics.
One nitpick I have about the cast centers around the Justice League and the other heroes of the world. The idea of ambushing the League with a Boom Tube and sending them on a one-way trip to monster planet. While it does serve to advance Cyborg Superman's mission, the world's reaction to their disappearance is underwhelming. The work is done to establish the members of the League are stretched thin when Wonder Woman meets with Lois at Ace O'Club's, hence why Aquaman and Shazam are absent and not even mentioned. The work is done to mention the Teen Titans are busy covering for the League. But there's no follow-up on "Justice League Dark" to dispel the notion that the likes Zatanana or Constantine could just whip up a locator spell and easily fix the situation. They go to the trouble of referencing the Titans but not Dark? Or even the extended Bat Family? The other nitpick I had was they didn't really bother too much with explaining how Darkseid made Cyborg Superman like Doomsday, he just made them. It's reliant on suspension of disbelief and if you watched "Justice League War" when Superman was kidnapped to Apokolips briefly so you could surmise they probably stole some DNA then and went to work. Also, how lucky was it that Lois noticed the Sun shield control at the most important time in the movie?
On the surface, "Reign of the Supermen" is a solid story and tight plot that drives you in a straight line to the epic conclusion, spared by what could have been a large mess of the who's who in Metropolis reminiscing and sulking about Superman. It still felt like a movie choked by a big cast fighting for screen time like hungry chicks in a nest, whether it was the four Supermen or Lois and even Bibbo. It unfortunately feels like it was bouncing too much between being story driven movie and being character driven when it should have been the latter. Dare I say this two-parter could have benefited from having a third movie to better flesh out the characteristics of the Supermen to make them more important to the audience and better string along the mystery of if one of them is the real Superman. Instead, here's the core components of the Supermen: Steel is the heart, Superboy is the mouth, Eradicator is the brawn, and Cyborg Superman is the creepy obvious villain. Hope you accept them right away. Oh yeah, and here's the real Superman - he's neither of them - like we were going to really kill him. It sort of continues from a critique I had for Krieg's screenplay for "Batman: Gotham by Gaslight" in which I love that this movie line is starting to embrace the detective story and mystery genre but Krieg hasn't quite cracked writing it as a 78-87 minute movie nor the pacing needed. He takes us on a beeline - here's this, here's that, and that - but then lulls us then just throws us down from the highest point to the answer without giving the audience much time to process. First half of the movie, great. Second half, eh. Ending, yes! But on the flip side, these movies are finally moving past the standard 75 minute timeframe and the creative crew had to be also be economical about story and cast.
The bonus features for "Reign of the Supermen" is frustratingly lacking, a featurette, a sneak peek, and two classic episodes. With a deluxe edition having been already announced and a key feature being exclusive new scenes in the combined version of the movies, it stands to reason the special features budget of these individual releases may have been barebone and/or the complete gamut of special features will be in the deluxe set. "Lex Luthor: The Greatest Nemesis" runs 16 minutes and 8 minutes and is this release's talking heads commentary from crew of the movie, comic book professionals, and executives at Warner Home Entertainment. It's a head scratcher why this featurette wasn't about the four Supermen. Even the general audience knows who the hell Lex Luthor is. The sneak peek at "Justice League vs. The Fatal Five" is 9 minutes and 28 seconds. It has a mix of finished footage, animatics, storyboards, character design, recording sessions, and talking heads. It drives home the point that the main crew loves the Legion of Super-Heroes (uh...good thing...), how they picked which characters from who they wanted in this Justice League, choosing a unique villain(s), and how to make these character mesh with each other like Jessica Cruz and Thom Kallor bonding over their mental health issues. They don't address the white elephant in the room of if the movie is canon or not to the classic continuity that spanned from "Batman: The Animated Series" to "Justice League Unlimited" because of the common character designs and voices used for Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman in this upcoming movie. The two bonus episodes from the vault is the Steel origin episode "Heavy Metal" from "Superman: The Animated Series" and "Panic in the Sky" from "Justice League Unlimited" in which the heroes have to fight a massive conscript army and a sociopathic doppelganger like in "Reign of the Supermen". The trailers before the main menu screen are of the recently released "Aquaman" live action movie, "Constantine: City of Demons" and 4K Ultra commercial. The trailers accessible from the menu are for the upcoming live action movie "Shazam!" and "The Death of Superman".
A unique blend of a classic comic book event being loosely adapted into an ongoing continuity of movies, "Reign of the Supermen" is a powerhouse addition to the DC Universe line of direct to video movies. Focusing on Superman instead of Batman or the Justice League is the right step forward. It would have been very illuminating to have a special feature about the four Supermen with commentators from DC Comics and Warner Bros Animation or a featurette about the process of picking what to adapt from the 22 issues of the original comic book arc. I did have minor issues with how they framed Earth's vulnerability, Cyborg Superman's creation, the large cast, and the limitations of the mystery aspect but overall, the movie is a standout Superman Family story that also brings aspects of the ongoing continuity forward naturally, amazing animation from Maven, much improved action set pieces, and has a surprising amount of heart and humor. "Reign of the Supermen" is a recommended purchase.
Main Feature: 3.5 out of 5
Special Features: 2.5 out of 5
Average Rating: 3 out of 5