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For some reason, killing off Superman is a popular idea. It may be because, being the Ultimate Hero, it is awesome to see him make the ultimate sacrifice. Maybe it's because he's normally invulnerable to nearly everything and so his death comes as a shock. Maybe it's a Christ allegory. Or maybe it's because some people can't stand the character and want to see him offed even if only for a short while. Whatever the case, this has been done several times in various media over the decades.
The final episode of Superfriends (aired in November 1985), was also titled "The Death of Superman", and opened with the funeral ceremony, featuring the coffin being sent into the sun. He gets better — he was only mostly dead. An earlier story from Challenge of the Superfriends also featured Superman (and the rest of the League) being killed.
However, the most famous instance was the "Death of Superman" Story Arc in the Superman comics during the 1990s, and the animated movie (based on that story) titled Superman: Doomsday that came out in 2007.
The Death of Superman is split into three parts:
- Doomsday! (November, 1992-January, 1993)
- Funeral for a Friend (January-June,1993)
- Reign of the Supermen! (June-October, 1993)
In this story, a monster named Doomsday comes out of nowhere and thrashes both Superman AND the Justice League of America. When it attacks Metropolis, Superman must unleash all of his hidden power to stop it, killing Doomsday but also getting mortally wounded in the process. He dies in Lois Lane's arms', while his ragged cape ended up hung on a pole as a sort of tragic flag: possibly the most effective visual ever seen in comic book history.
Naturally, DC Comics was NOT planning on really killing off one of their main most famous characters permanently: it was a publicity stunt to boost sales, and the plan was to soon bring him back. However, the general media picked up the story and ran with it, and a lot of people believed it. This is because, at the time, this thing hadn't been done to death; this story may have been the Trope Codifier for the Comic Book Death.
The Death of Superman arc happened by accident: originally, the then-current Superman writing were going to get Superman and Lois Lane married; however, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was already green-lit at ABC, and the producers of the show wanted the wedding to happen first on the show. Forced to come up with a new storyline to replace "The Wedding" arc, Jerry Ordway, the then-current writer for The Adventures of Superman, jokingly said at the next meeting, "Let's just kill 'im!" Normally, the other writers would laugh it off, but this time, they would do the deed.
Reign of the Supermen
DC then decided to milk the story a bit more, and extended it to last nearly a year, with the rather inventive idea of having not one but FOUR people showing up and claiming to be a resurrected Superman. These were:
- The Man of Tomorrow (Cyborg Superman): A cyborg version of Superman, whose DNA was a match for the original's and whose mechanical parts were Kryptonian tech; he claimed amnesia about how he was repaired, and other parts of his past.
- The Last Son of Krypton (The Kryptonian Eradicator): A vigilante with a personality similar to the one Superman had demonstrated in an earlier arc, where he (under the influence of a Kryptonian artifact called The Eradicator) became ruthlessly logical.
- The Metropolis Kid (Superboy): A reckless, fame-seeking teenage (assumed) clone created by a secret government project. He cheerfully admits to being a clone, and plans to become Superman's successor. "Don't ever call me Superboy!"
- The Man of Steel (Steel): A black hero wearing a suit of Powered Armor. He was the only one to both admit he was NOT Superman from the start and not actively claim the name for himself. John Henry Irons merely wanted to keep the spirit of Superman alive (although there were hints that he may have been literally serving as an anchor for Superman's soul).
Each of these characters was allowed to star in one of Superman's then current titles for a few months. It was eventually revealed that the real Superman was none of them, he wasn't even dead but rather in Suspended Animation and in fact the Cyborg Superman was a villain, with Mongul as his Dragon. whom the others had to team up to stop. Superman was soon Back from the Dead afterwards, and (very infamously) came back with a mullet, which lasted four maddening years. The Superman legacy carriers stuck around for other stories, with two of them (Superboy and Steel) even getting their own series. Steel would also appear in Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited.
The storyline also had a huge impact on Green Lantern. The Cyborg Superman turned out to be a villain collaborating with Mongul to prepare Earth to be converted into a War World (basically like a Death Star). He started by annihilating Hal Jordan's home town of Coast City, while Jordan was in space. When Jordan returned, his grief drove him into his controversial turn as Parallax.
Later stories brought back Doomsday as well, who was revealed to have been created as an experiment on Krypton and buried on Earth long ago. However he hasn't been quite as menacing since then, probably because he no longer has a story-backed reason to be (see also Generic Doomsday Villain, a trope which he named).
The entire arc including The Death, Funeral, and Reign are often referred to officially as The Death and Return of Superman, taking into consideration his return after several months.
The animated movie is more or less the same as the comics arc (especially the death sequence) but with the exclusion of the Justice League and the Superman wannabes (except for an (adult) clone), probably to make the story simpler (or for licensing reasons.)
Prior to the Superman: Doomsday movie, the Justice League animated series episode "Hereafter" did an homage to this story as well, in which Superman is (apparently) disintegrated by one of Toyman's weapons. The Man of Steel is mourned and buried (symbolically, they had no body to inter) by the other heroes, the people of Metropolis, and even Lex Luthor. Then the episode takes a turn for the bizarre when Lobo shows up, demanding to fill Superman's place in the Justice League. Then the action skips forward 3000 years to reveal that Supes wasn't killed, but blasted forward in time. Future Earth is a red-sunned wreck, and a depowered Superman must team up with Vandal Savage--now the sole survivor of humanity--to rebuild a time machine to send Supes back.
Doomsday also showed up in this series, in the episodes "A Better World" and "The Doomsday Sanction", but was revealed to be an altered clone of Superman and doesn't get to kill Superman.
- Affirmative Action Legacy: Sort of with the African American Steel. He didn't outright want to replace Superman, but just wanted to keep his spirit alive.
- Back from the Dead: Superman, he can't stay dead forever.
- Badass Long Hair: Supes came back with The Super-Mullet that he wore for a good portion of the nineties. He cut it back to his traditional spitcurl when he got married to Lois.
- Cash Cow Franchise: The compiled first part of the arc, called "The Death of Superman", is the best-selling graphic novel of all time.
- The Dark Age of Comic Books
- Died in Your Arms Tonight: Superman in Lois' arms.
- From Nobody to Nightmare: Dr. Hank Henshaw was actually a gag Expy of Reed Richards of The Fantastic Four. Who would have thought he'd become one of Superman's greatest foes.
- The Hero Dies: One of the most iconic examples ever.
- Heroic Sacrifice: How Supes goes out.
- I Am Not Left-Handed: Superman kills Doomsday by not holding back against him.
- Legacy Hero: Superman gets four of them.
- Mutual Kill: Supes and Doomsday
- Nineties Anti-Hero: Both Cyborg Superman and the Eradicator are pastiches of this 90's trend. Only the Eradicator plays this straight. Cyborg Superman (aka Hank Henshaw) is a villain.
- Red Skies Crossover: The arc affected everyone on The DC Universe's Earth, seeing as how their Big Good had just been killed. It got a nod in the lead-up to the Batman arc Knightfall.
- Younger and Hipper: Superboy is a pastiche of this type of trend.
The Death of Superman has been referenced in:
- Dragon Ball (which borrowed heavily on the Superman mythos): Goku was killed off at the conclusion of the Cell Saga with the intention of ending the series there and implying a Changing of the Guard. (Executive Meddling resulted in a bringing the character back.)
- Shortpacked: Resident Jerkass Mike makes a Too Soon joke about the then-recent death of Pope John Paul II, referencing the Reign of the Supermen.
- This Wonderella comic
- FoxTrot: Jason and Paige draw mean comic strips about each other, including strips saying the other caused Superman's death.
Paige in Jason's strip: He saw me in a bathing suit.
- "Superman's Song", by the Crash Test Dummies, is essentially a eulogy to the fallen hero.
Superman never made any money
- Although the song was released a full year before the Death of Superman storyline even took place.
- So this is literally a Too Soon moment!
- Parodied in a Deadpool storyline called "Funeral for a Freak", some ten years after the event.