This episode opens like so many episodes: villains assembling and developing a plot, a fight against the league, Kalibak badly losing a fight. I enjoy these fights, with the differences in strength and ability, but the opening is too straightforward. Things change in a hurry, though.
The death of Superman is not a new concept: it remains maybe the most famous event in comic book history, regardless of the execution. It ended with a mulleted Superman returning from the dead to save humanity, but before that, it was fragmented into separate storylines for each new hip extreme 90’s superhero, uh, Superman.
“Hereafter” is one episode comprised of several storylines, though each one has a very distinct tone. There are straightforward fights with the supervillains, some of which are fun to watch (Flash’s methods for dealing with Livewire and Metallo are clever), but the action is mostly extraneous to the actual story here.
When your greatest hero dies, it does make some sense to focus on that. There are a lot of perspectives on the incident, but mostly, grieving. Basically, the entire pre-Unlimited DCAU (non-Batman division) appears here, which is appropriate. Superman is as much a symbol as a character, involved in nearly every aspect of the universe here.
The sense of loss here is evident, from Flash talking about inspiration to J’onn delivering a powerful eulogy at the memorial service. Jonathan and Martha Kent are present, even Hippolyta attends the service – the entire world here is affected. Maybe the most powerful scene, though, is Lex Luthor appearing, with Lois Lane breaking down with grief, only for Lex to state that he’ll miss Superman too.
Let’s not get too somber here, though. It doesn’t take long for the answer to all our problems to arrive. The best bounty hunter in the known universe, the Main Man, Lobo, is here. I won’t dwell on his appearance – it’s a real shift from the memorial service, but I do like how he is handled. I think of Lobo as a 90’s Image Comics character, the only person not in on his own joke. He does fill in for Superman in one sense, though, providing Kalibak with yet another beating.
And then, the first part ends, with Superman very much not destroyed, seemingly placed on an alien world.
It comes as little surprise that Dwayne McDuffie is the writer for this episode. I can only wonder what his influences were here: I Am Legend, or maybe the game Fallout. Superman’s journey under a red sun, one hot rod in the wasteland, is straight out of 1960’s science fiction. Could road flares create enough heat to forge a sword? It barely matters. Bless McDuffie for essentially giving us an Elseworlds story, letting Superman become a barbarian for the better part of this episode.
From the moment Superman wakes, it is apparent that this world is a different place. Seeing him struggle to extract himself from the rubble suggests a loss of power; blood on his palm confirms it. But Superman is nothing if not a boy scout, proving himself capable, and following his league communicator to a forested canyon where he finds the wreck of the Watchtower. Still no Justice League, but someone with an explanation is there. Vandal Savage.
Unsurprisingly, the one survivor here is responsible for all the other deaths, Saturn being visible in the sky, etc. But he’s also had plenty of time to consider the consequences. This Vandal Savage might pick fights above his weight class, but he does seem relatively self-aware. And 30,000 years alone gives a person plenty of time for self-evaluation, healthy or not. What I’m trying to say is that this represents both a logical progression for Savage, and frankly, a quantum leap forward in terms of character development.
The serious Superman and the penitent if loony Savage make a great team, honestly. They’re the original odd couple! Savage here is basically a James Bond villain who wasn’t stopped in time, or maybe a Hank Scorpio who called the U.N.’s bluff. The episode does great work in developing their relationship, going from Superman nearly smashing Savage’s head with a rock to a genuine handshake at the end. Plenty of villains have redemption stories, but making Savage sympathetic because he destroyed the Earth is a great transition.
Things do end, eventually. It’s quite an episode that essentially starts with the death of Superman and comes full circle to redeeming Vandal Savage, but “Hereafter” accomplishes this and more.
- Voice casting in this one:
- Kalibak is voiced by Michael Dorn. This is one of my favorite inside jokes of the series, and I probably don’t have to explain why.
- Metallo, Toyman, and Weather Wizard are all voiced by Corey Burton.
- Maria Canals fills in as Livewire here.
- Phil Morris returns as Vandal Savage.
- Lobo is voiced by Brad Garrett of all people.
- And Efrem Zimbalist Jr. returns as Alfred Pennyworth.
- J’onn’s eulogy:
Though we gather here today, bound together in sorrow and loss, we share a precious gift. We are, all of us, privileged to live a life that has been touched by Superman. The Man of Steel possessed many extraordinary gifts, and he shared them with us freely. None of these gifts were more remarkable than his ability to discern what needed to be done, and his unfailing courage in doing it, whatever the personal cost. Let us all strive to accept his gift, and pass it along, as an ongoing tribute to Kal-El of Krypton, the immigrant from the stars, who taught us all how to be heroes.
- If there is a disappointment here, it’s that this is only one episode. I would have loved to see this cover a mini-arc in Unlimited, showing Superman’s absence in the present and his work with Savage in the future over a few episodes.
- This is so hard:
- A Better World
- The Terror Beyond
- Only A Dream
- The Secret Society
- Tabula Rasa
- Maid of Honor
- Hearts and Minds
Basically, “Eclipsed” and “Hearts and Minds” are tolerable, and everything else is great. The order is definitely more personal preference than quality.
- Some good moments in the heroes remembering Superman. From Diana nearly destroying Toyman, to John telling a story, to Shayera weeping, this affects everyone. Batman gives a very good confession at the memorial, too. But Flash stopping Diana is powerful stuff, and then there’s this:
“I used to be able to goof around so much because I knew Superman had my back. Now all I’ve got is his example, and that’s gonna have to be enough.”
- I wrote 1100+ words here, and I barely touched on Savage – I feel like I could have used the stray thoughts for his great lines alone. Okay, maybe just one:
- Superman: You’re insane.
Vandal Savage: True, but that doesn’t mean I’m not good company. Say, you wanna come over to my house?
(Superman is surprised)
Vandal Savage: Like you’ve got something better to do.