With the introduction of Doomsday in the latest trailer for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, a seemingly-unthinkable question has been floating around the Internet for the past few days:
Will they kill Superman?
I'm here to tell you that, first of all, it's incredibly unlikely that they will kill Superman in this film.
And second, it isn't entirely as clear-cut as that.
Now a little bit of background for those less comics-savvy: In the early '90s, it was decided that they would kill Superman. The death, it was decided, would have to come at the hands of a new enemy, and it would be the result of a brutal head to head battle that ended with both combatants utterly spent.
At the time, there were four monthly Superman titles, one coming out nearly every week of the year. The story of Superman's battle with this new villain -- created by then-current Superman writer/artist Dan Jurgens and called "Doomsday" -- ran through seven parts: two each of Superman: The Man of Steel and Superman, as well as one of Action Comics, one of The Adventures of Superman and one of Justice League America, which Jurgens wrote and drew and of which Superman was then a member.
There are a couple of pieces of information buried in all of that which we'll come back to later.
Since Doomsday was a new character when he was introduced, and since The Death of Superman went on to become one of DC's best-selling stories ever in both the monthly comics and in collected editions, that story continues to define Doomsday to this day.
From 1992 until 1999, when most of the remaining creators involved with the Death and Return of Superman stories were replaced in a kind of soft reboot, Doomsday appeared very rarely, and was generally given an event of his own when he did, such as the square-bound Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey and Superman: The Doomsday Wars miniseries, both of which were written and drawn by Jurgens. Once Jurgens, Superman: The Man of Steel writer Louise Simonson and longtime Superman group editor Mike Carlin were gone, the character became a bit less "special," but by then there had been nearly a decade of hammering in that Doomsday was incredibly powerful, that he was special and that every time he appeared, Superman had at least a moment of fear, thinking back to having died in the streets in front of The Daily Planet building. With that drummed into the fan base, it reinforced the thing that likely would have happened anyway: Doomsday was (and still largely is) entirely defined by that first storyline, and its impact on Superman and the DC Universe (fallout from the Death of Superman continued to be felt all the way through 2004's Green Lantern: Rebirth).
So, here's the thing: Henry Cavill is already listed as one of the stars of Justice League Part One, which will start filming fairly soon and will follow Wonder Woman on DC's release slate. The odds are very low that, while introducing and setting up the rest of the League, Warner Bros. will want to spend time trying to figure out how to revive a Superman left dead at the end of Batman V Superman.
That's a big part of why there's very little chance he'd die. Another part: Frankly, its impact would be significantly blunted by how few times we've seen him. Yes, Superman is a global icon and he comes with his own kind of built-in fan base so it isn't quite like we're talking about Iron Man in his first movie or two. Still, part of the reason The Death of Superman had such an impact is that his impact on the world was felt -- something that simply can't happen without developing his supporting cast and the larger DC Universe a bit onscreen first.
The counter to that? Well, first of all, it wouldn't be the first time Warner Bros. has considered killing Superman on film.
Leaving aside the animated feature film Superman: Doomsday, in which the Man of Steel fell more or less the same way he did in the comics, there was a run at making a film called Superman Lives, which would have very loosely adapted the story of Superman's death and rebirth from the comics book source material. In that movie, which would have been a solo Superman film rather than a DC Universe epic, Superman would have fallen to Doomsday and then been revived all in the span of a single movie.
That, of course, is the product of huge success in comics sales: there's a desire to ape the story on film. You can see that everywhere, from The Dark Knight Rises to Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War. Numerous elements of Man of Steel call back to The Man of Steel and the post-Byrne '80s and early '90s comic books, as well as Mark Waid and Leinil Yu's Superman: Birthright. So there's certainly precedent for wanting to use elements of the Death of Superman story onscreen.
Still, none of the aforementioned films are even close to a direct adaptation of Knightfall, The Winter Soldier or Civil War. It's unclear the extent to which Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice will adapt the Death story (technically called "Doomsday!" in the comics at the time), but given what the needs of the films are, the death itself seems very unlikely.
There are two other reasons it would be unlikely: one has to do with Lex and the other with the very premise of the film...and the presence of the "classic" Justice League.
We'll go with Lex first.
Something that never sat quite right with me in Superman: Doomsday was Lex Luthor's involvement with Doomsday. It gave Superman's greatest, most storied enemy a hand in killing the Man of Steel and took away some of the most interesting elements of the Funeral For a Friend storyline that followed Superman's death: Lex's dismayed reaction at not being able to be the one who killed Superman.
Second, and somewhat more specific to the film, is that there has long been a contingent of fans who said, basically, that Superman may not have died during his battle with Doomsday if he had been backed up by the likes of Batman and Wonder Woman.
In the late '80s and early '90s, the Justice League underwent some changes. The team broke up and, when it was revived, the new League was populated not with the biggest and best-known names in the DC Universe but primarily with second-stringers or fairly new characters who stood to benefit from the visibility of being on the team and the recognizability of the "Justice League" brand.
By the time Superman was brought on to lead the League (when Jurgens took over the title, shortly before Doomsday's debut), the lineup consisted of Booster Gold (a tech-based hero from the future), Blue Beetle (a Batman-like character), Fire and Ice (you can more or less guess what they do), Maxima (a super-strong, telekinetic space princess), Guy Gardner (who used a yellow power ring not unlike Green Lantern's) and Bloodwynd (J'Onn J'Onzz the Martian Manhunter in disguise).
It was that team that went up against Doomsday and was soundly trounced, which of course has led to a lot of "Well, if it were the 'real' Justice League..." kind of arguments over the years.
I've never really bought into that argument since it ignores that the point of the story was to kill Superman, and there are any number of ways those characters could have contained Doomsday if the objective of the story were to have somebody besides Superman take him down. You can see one in the Flashpoint issues of Booster Gold, where the title hero contains Doomsday by using his own force field against the monster.
Nevertheless, the reality is this movie will feature Batman and Wonder Woman, as well as Aquaman and Flash and possibly Cyborg. This is the "Dawn of" the Justice League and it's hard to imagine that the iconic DC superteam would lose their first fight out of the gate. Theoretically, the mission statement of the League is to take on threats too big for any one hero -- and so when these three team up to face down Doomsday, they have to win in order to lend that mission statement any credence.
It's also probably hard to overstate how damaging it could be to Wonder Woman's big-screen debut if she makes that grand entrance as seen in the trailers and then doesn't have the necessary power to help Superman take down Doomsday. it wouldn't come off as Doomsday being so incredible he took down the "Trinity," as it would in the comics. It would come off as Superman losing to the zombified corpse of a guy he already beat once, and Batman and Wonder Woman being basically useless. Which is not something DC wants.
Back when The Dark Knight Rises was in production and Bane had been announced, there was a sense of "why use him?" if he didn't get to break Batman as he was created to do (Knightfall, which came after Doomsday, followed a very similar trajectory). Here, some fans will ask the same question -- and it won't be unwarranted -- but the reality is, Doomsday is likely not being seen as "the creature that killed Superman" here, but a threat big enough to demand Wonder Woman's help in taking him down.
In Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, fearing the actions of a god-like Super Hero left unchecked, Gotham City’s own formidable, forceful vigilante takes on Metropolis’s most revered, modern-day savior, while the world wrestles with what sort of hero it really needs. And with Batman and Superman at war with one another, a new threat quickly arises, putting mankind in greater danger than it’s ever known before.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice opens March 25, 2016.