A few days ago, I finally received my long awaited Blu-ray of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition. When that film was originally released in theaters on Good Friday (and not by coincidence), I was one of its few apologists, and perhaps the most ardent at that. It’s not that I failed to see the causes for criticism that fellow fans and fellow reviewers had found with the film. Like them, I groaned at the awkwardly inserted cameos of the Justice League members, more divergent and distracting than even Thor’s premonitions of Ragnarök in Age of Ultron. Like them, I’d have preferred for Henry Cavill to smile more, to bring the same charm and optimism to the role that Christopher Reeve had before him. And like them, I see how, absence of context, the fight with Doomsday appears obligatory and inorganic to the story – a superfluous special effects set-piece calling back to a well known but not well aged comic arc.
It’s for that reason I spent so much of my review contextualizing the mythological and theological motifs at play in Dawn of Justice. Because unlike in the Death of Superman comic, Doomsday in the film exists not merely to give Superman a mindless monster to pummel, but rather as the embodiment of the primordial dragon found throughout ancient mythologies, with particular emphasis the Judeo-Christian character of the Serpent in order to fit the Christological paradigm the film utilizes as its primary motif. In that sense, Dawn of Justice, far from being derivative of the Death of Superman, instead elevates what was comic book camp into genuinely great cinematic art.
Path of Doom pulls from the same source material, but lacks any greater message or metaphor. Instead of utilizing the general familiarity with Death of Superman to tell a more sophisticated story, it instead assumes no familiarity with the ‘90s classic, spending far too many panels per issue having characters allude to or tediously explain the events of that era in excruciating detail. Or worse, talk around them as a means of creating faux dramatic tension. Lois struggling to hide from John the details regarding his father’s first fight with Doomsday is clearly intended to build up to a big reveal, but it’s already clear exactly how such is going to play out. He’s a child with the emotional maturity thereof, and when he finally finds out that his father had his otherwise invulnerable ass handed to him, such a revelation is going to devastate the boy. This arc is only a few issues in, but already this particular plot point seems overly drawn out.
In fact, Path of Doom commits all the same sins as Dawn of Justice sans any of its saving graces. Obligatory cameos by members of the Justice League? Check. A superfluous fight with an overrated monster simply for the sake of spectacle? Check. Even the characters themselves are bored by the brawl with Doomsday. Even as he hulks mere meters away they stop to chat about Clark Kent’s true identity and other less pressing matters, speaking at a length which belies the urgency of their situation.
Moreover, while the characters have cause for concern, with Superman saying to Wonder Woman, “[Doomsday’s] capable of killing anyone, Diana. Even us if we’re not careful,” the reader finds in such dialogue only the façade of deadly danger. DC’s killed Superman too often in the past several months alone, in both the comics and on screen, for another death at the hands of Doomsday. Such would be received at best as blasé, and at worse as utter creative bankruptcy. As such, what need is there to even to suggest such to be the stakes when the readership readily sees through the charade?
Too often in comic, but especially so in Superman, the main conflict is the struggle to survive. Surely such contributes to the criticism that Superman himself is not a compelling character. After all, being practically invulnerable robs that particular source of conflict from much of its dramatic potency. The misguided solution that sours so many readers is the one presented here in Action Comics #960 and most other Doomsday stories as well: simply come up with a more physically powerful threat so that Superman does face mortal danger. The more elegant solution, however, and the one all the best Superman stories employ, is make the underlying conflict political, psychological, or spiritual.
Such is why Dawn of Justice succeeds. The actual battle is not over whether or not Doomsday will kill Superman or destroy the city. Rather, the real struggle for Superman is to prove to himself and all those who’d placed their faith in him as a god and savior that they were right to do so. Such says something far more interesting about the character than that he’s “more powerful than a locomotive.” It says that Superman is a secular Jesus for a modern mythology, a perfect man for us to emulate.
Action Comics since Rebirth, on the other hand, says “Remember the early ‘90s and the Death of Superman storyline. That sure was cool, wasn’t it?” It’s a vacuous story with nothing of importance to say and a dull, longwinded way of saying it.