Timm and many of those who worked with him to create the mediocre Batman and Superman animated series, and the absolutely fucking godawful Justice League and Teen Titans shows, are also the creators of this film. Free from the budgetary and artistic limitations of producing a 22-minute children’s superhero cartoon, they show themselves for the first time to be talented artists capable of more than mild, kid-friendly violence and superficial characterization. In Superman: Doomsday, characters behave more or less like real people, actions have actual consequences, and people die. Lots and lots of people.
The film is rated PG-13 — a first for a DC animated feature — for “action violence.” This includes not only the death of Superman himself, but also dozens of civilians and soldiers at the hands of Doomsday, and one particularly cold-hearted murder by Lex Luthor. Violence is used in this story more frequently (and effectively) than in either of the recent live-action Superman or Batman films. The two main-event fight sequences - between Superman and Doomsday, and Superman a rogue clone, respectively — are not mindless action set pieces included to accomplish plot points and pad out the running time; they each tell a story, and allow for characterization in addition to being effectively and brutally staged.
More than the level of violence sets this apart from previous DC animated efforts. The look of the film, especially the more detailed and realistic backgrounds of important settings like the Daily Planet offices and the smashed streets of Metropolis, is a cut above what we’ve seen previously from the Timm shows. The animation has gotten a lot better too. There was something very unconvincing about the way ordinary characters moved around in the Batman/Superman/Justice League shows, something off about the timing. Not so with the cast of Doomsday, who are made to move much more naturalistically than their predecessors on KidsWB and Cartoon Network.
I also can’t fail to mention the work of the voice cast, all of whom do good work, and two of whom — Anne Heche as Lois Lane and James Marsters as Lex Luthor — are just outstanding. Marsters is particularly good, the first time outside of the comics we’ve gotten a truly sinister and formidable Lex, much sharper (physically and mentally) than his counterpart on the animated series, who had a habit of openly discussing the details of his illegal supervillainy over the telephone in his corporate office, for the benefit of the six-year-olds who comprised most of the audience. This Lex is not that one-dimensional cartoon, or the deployer of one-liners portrayed in the live-action films by Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey; the Lex of Doomsday is a narcissistic genius whose biggest regret about the death of Superman is that Doomsday beats him to it. Outside of Michael Rosenbaum in some of the better episodes of Smallville (in which Marsters has also starred), this is the most compelling version of Lex I’ve seen outside of the comics.
So obviously I liked it, but where would I place it among the other film and TV entries in the Superman franchise? Pretty high, I think. Just beneath the first two Christopher Reeve films, and beneath Bryan Singer’s superb Superman Returns (still the best superhero film yet made, for my money), and beneath the Fleischer shorts, since it just don’t get much better than those, but above everything else — the other films, the various animated series, Lois & Clark, the Superboy series — even the George Reeves Adventures of Superman show, of which I am a huge fan.
Doomsday is Superman very nearly at his best, and a great example of what can be done with superheroes when the target audience isn’t full of first-graders, and their creators are allowed to tell stories with emotion and brains.