In our speculation about who's in Supergirl's latest Kryptonian mystery pod, we picked Doomsday as the frontrunner. Because Doomsday has two main functions -- cause as much damage as possible, and kill Superman if it has the chance -- naturally we were all set to wonder whether Supergirl and/or her cousin would be in mortal peril next season.
We then learned that Season 3's main baddie would be Reign, a Worldkiller from the New 52 era of Supergirl comics. While we'll get to her background shortly, we still like the idea ("like" being a macabre term here) of seeing what Supergirl would do with the Death of Superman.
The comics' death of Superman came about in part because the creative teams were joking around: "Why don't we just kill him?" However, since Superman is only a sometimes thing on Supergirl, the show could actually afford to do it. Even if it's just for the better part of a season, we think both Supergirl the show and Supergirl the character could benefit from showing her perspective on the now-classic saga. Coincidentally, this fall marks the 25th anniversary of Superman's death, so it's a good time for a new view of this super-epic.
From Print to Screen
As it happens, the Death and Return saga took about the length of a TV season. It unfolded in three phases across the four Superman titles (Superman: The Man of Steel, Superman, Adventures of Superman and Action Comics); it started with January 1993's Superman: The Man Of Steel #18; and it wrapped up with October 1993's Action Comics #692.
Phase 1 was the 6-part battle with Doomsday which ended in Superman vol. 2 #75, with Superman and the monster trading terminal blows at the front doors of the Daily Planet. Phase 2's Funeral for a Friend lasted two months, as friends and family grieved and the world adjusted to life without Superman. After it ended in Superman #77, the Super-titles took a break for about 3 months, with only a handful of specials to fill the gap.
During that time the main books were getting ready for Phase 3, which kicked off in the spring of 1993 with Adventures of Superman #500. This first chapter of Reign of the Supermen! featured Jonathan Kent -- himself near death following a heart attack -- retrieving his adopted son's soul from the Kryptonian afterlife. It then teased the four replacement Supermen who would each headline a title over the summer. The armored John Henry Irons got Man of Steel, the half-machine Cyborg Superman took over Superman, the teenaged clone Superboy moved into Adventures of Superman, and the artifact-in-humanoid-form Eradicator appropriated Action Comics. Each had some claim to being the original, from being the vessel for his spirit to having his DNA; but those were all misdirects. The real Superman was healing, slowly but surely, in the Fortress of Solitude.
Reign of the Supermen! lasted four and a half months and spanned 20 issues of the four regular Superman books (plus an issue of Green Lantern which ended up contributing to Hal Jordan's downfall). It fit perfectly into the "weekly" storytelling mode the Super-titles had been honing for the past few years, because it could finally afford to exploit the franchise's massive supporting cast. In fact, MOS and AOS each added cast members, like Steel's villain the White Rabbit and Superboy's love interest Tana Moon. That kind of heavy serialization exemplifies the kind of long-form storytelling which dominates today's TV series.
Likewise, ROTS! drew on the considerable amount of continuity the Super-titles had built up since the 1986 reboot. Only John Henry was new as of AOS #500. The Cyborg started out as Hank Henshaw, a Reed Richards pastiche introduced in May 1990's Adventures of Superman #466. Superboy came from the Jack Kirby-created Cadmus, which debuted in October 1970's Jimmy Olsen #133 and was brought back in 1988's Superman Annual #2. The Eradicator was the human form of an ancient Kryptonian artifact which Supes picked up in deep space, in 1989's Action Comics Annual #2. The Eradicator and the Fortress of Solitude (which the former built) played such a significant role in the real Superman's revival that ROTS! might be seen as a sequel to that 1988-89 Superman in Exile storyline.
Most of ROTS! involved the four replacements' adventures, including their interactions with other heroes like Guy Gardner and, of course, Supergirl. The Maid of Might was featured prominently in Action Comics and teamed up with Superboy in Adventures. Since this was the Matrix version of Supergirl, her powers were slightly different, and her invisibility helped Kal-El and company infiltrate Mongul's headquarters during the climactic battle. She was also working for Lex Luthor II, which would take too long to explain and probably couldn't be adapted into a Kara-and-Lena subplot.
Since we hadn't gotten to it yet, ROTS!'s plot involved the Cyborg Superman returning to Earth for revenge on Superman, with Mongul as his lackey. With Supes himself out of commission, the Cyborg settled instead for ruining his good name. The villains sought to turn Earth into a new Warworld -- the old one had been commandeered by Brainiac -- and their first assault built a giant engine on the ruins of Coast City. Green Lantern fought Mongul, while the revived Superman destroyed his cyborg counterpart. A blast of Kryptonite radiation, filtered through the Eradicator's humanoid body and restored Supes' powers. The only downside was the unfortunate mullet/ponytail which both Clark and Superman rocked for the next few years.
Now put all that in the back of your mind, because we're jumping ahead to the New 52. In Supergirl issues #5-7 (March-May 2012), writers Michael Green and Mike Johnson and artist Mahmud Asrar introduced the character of Reign. A genetically-engineered being grown by Kryptonian scientists to be a living weapon, Reign was one of five "Worldkillers" (each with different powers and appearances) who lived only to fight and conquer. She met Supergirl in the ruins of Argo City, a chunk of Krypton which had found its way into a decaying orbit around a blue star. Both Reign and Supergirl were looking for answers, although Reign wanted revenge on her Kryptonian creators and Supergirl was hoping to find some living Kryptonians. The two fought both on Argo and in New York City, with Reign bringing in three of her Worldkiller siblings (Deimax, Flower of Heaven and Perrilus). When Reign boasted that only a Worldkiller could defeat a Worldkiller, Supergirl took her seriously and slammed one into another. Unwilling to risk her friends' lives, Reign and the Worldkillers took off, never to be seen again.
A couple of years later, when Supergirl had become a Red Lantern, she encountered Worldkiller-1. This fifth Worldkiller was a sentient suit of battle armor which had possessed the leader of a race called the Diasporans; but when that host body burned out during its fight with Supergirl, Worldkiller-1 tried to possess her instead. Supergirl defeated Worldkiller-1 first by flying through a Kryptonite cloud (to "spoil" her body) and then flying into the Sun. This destroyed her Red Lantern ring but amped up the rest of her powers, and she destroyed Worldkiller-1.
Could Supergirl's producers meld Reign and the Worldkillers with Reign of the Supermen? Not to be snide about it, but we'd love to see them try. It might go something like this:
-- One of the other Worldkillers comes to Earth and starts wreaking havoc. Superman and Supergirl have their hands full until Superman ends up delivering the final blow. Supergirl puts the Worldkiller into the Phantom Zone; but Superman's been hurt too badly, and (mostly) dies.
-- As Earth mourns Superman, Supergirl realizes she's got to step up her game in order to take his place. Mon-El is gone and the other superheroes all have various commitments. Occasional multiversal help is only temporary.
-- Apparently out of nowhere, three replacement Supermen arrive in Metropolis, who we recognize as the Eradicator, Steel and Superboy. (Clearly the Cyborg Superman wouldn't have the same role in this version of the story.) Each has a different relationship to Supergirl, but for various reasons none of them is exactly right. Steel -- who might even be Jimmy Olsen's second superheroic identity -- isn't powerful enough, Superboy is way too cocky and the Eradicator (whose origin might also need tweaking) is too brutal.
-- As the season heads into its homestretch, Reign and the other Worldkillers arrive at Earth while the Fortress of Solitude's computers kick into overdrive. Kelex's replacement (probably working with Winn and the DEO) has figured out how to revive Superman. It all comes together predictably: Superman returns in time to help Supergirl and the replacements take down Reign and the Worldkillers.
You can see how this could fill up the bulk of a 22-episode season. We can think of at least a dozen episodes already: Two for the initial battle, one for the funeral, at least two for Supergirl to relocate to Metropolis (perhaps only temporarily); plus one each for the replacements, a few mini-crossover episodes featuring other Arrowverse characters, and a two- or even three-part season finale. (When we thought Warworld would be involved we imagined the Legion of Super-Heroes showing up, but we don't want to get ahead of ourselves.) That still leaves room for the official Arrowverse crossover and a handful of semi-standalone stories.
In any case, by the end of Season Three, once again Supergirl will have proved herself capable of being Earth's greatest hero; Superman will have come back from a Kryptonian grave; and Supergirl will have developed a few new S-shield characters. The arc would also be an excellent way to introduce Lois Lane, Jonathan and Martha Kent, and other traditional supporting cast like Perry White and Lana Lang.
Pros and Cons
We admit that a big part of this mashup comes from wanting to see Reign-the-character incorporated into Reign of the Supermen! Accordingly, we know that's not likely to happen. Superman will probably be just fine throughout Season Three. We still think a death-of-Superman storyline would be an excellent way for Season Three, or a future season of Supergirl, to explore Kara's heroic journey.
Indeed, all else being equal, the main problem with such a storyline is timing. As far as many moviegoers are concerned, Doomsday already killed Superman last March in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Movie Supes won't be dead for much longer, but Supergirl Season Three will air concurrently with his cinematic return in November's Justice League. Granted, it may not be as big of a deal, since Supergirl's viewers probably haven't confused its Superman for Henry Cavill's.
Of course, the main difference is that Supergirl's version would be told from the Girl of Steel's point of view. In terms of the TV series' general themes, the death of Superman seems like a natural progression from Supergirl coming into her own during Season One and trying to "have it all" in Season Two. Additionally, with Superman dubbing her the "champion of Earth" in the Season Two finale, his death would give Kara a chance to see if she really does have what it takes. (While the "champion" speech was in the context of who'd face down Rhea, its more symbolic meaning was hard to ignore.)
Moreover, Superman has always (and sometimes literally) been in the background of Supergirl's TV adventures. In Season One he was a disembodied text message, a distant silhouette, or an anonymous unconscious half-costume. Season Two finally brought him on screen, but only at the season's beginning and end. While Season Three could do the same in terms of episodes, removing him from the equation entirely would change Supergirl's role considerably. Telling the story of Superman's death and return would a) give the show a different perspective on its Superman comparisons, b) contrast with the Season One episodes where Supergirl squared off against Superman's old foes, c) open up the show's scope by taking viewers to Metropolis and beyond, and d) illustrate how Kara would deal with being not just the last Kryptonian, but the Earth's most powerful superhero. Even when Superman returns at the end of the season (whichever one it might be), the show will have made perhaps its most powerful case for focusing squarely on Supergirl.
That brings up an obvious question: Does Supergirl still need that sort of justification? Haven't the past two seasons convinced viewers that she doesn't take a back seat to Superman? We think the answers are both "maybe." No, Supergirl doesn't really need to build up its main character; because yes, she's proven herself over the past couple of seasons. Again, though, those answers come from the audience's point of view. Superman's death and return would settle those issues from Supergirl's perspective by giving her the challenge of her career. We know she can take over for Superman, but she might not know it -- or at least she hasn't seen for herself that she can. Sometimes Kara can be her own harshest critic.
Conversely, a Supergirl-steps-up mega-arc could also address a perennial Superman trope: What if someone with that much power really did throw herself into her super-career, forsaking everything else to protect the people of Earth? The Flash has explored this here and there, but not that extensively. More to the point, it would affect Kara's sunny personality a lot more than it did Barry Allen's. We don't want Supergirl to lose any of its sparkling charm, but we're curious nonetheless. At the very least it would redefine her quest to "have it all."
Up, Up and Away!
It's been almost 50 years since Otto Binder, Al Plastino and Curt Swan created Kara Zor-El for May 1959's Action Comics #252. Starting out as Superman's teenaged "secret weapon," over the next two decades Supergirl grew into a capable adult superhero, as powerful as her cousin and arguably more independent. After her death in October 1985's Crisis On Infinite Earths #7, DC put the very idea of Supergirl in limbo for a few years, and didn't bring back Kara for almost twenty years. When Supergirl did "return" in 1988, the new version had a convoluted origin (an artificial being from a "pocket universe") which only got more complicated (protoplasm plus human plus angel) when she got her own series in 1996.
The point is, ever since Crisis DC has never really let Supergirl get back to that point of being an experienced adult who faced down the Phantom Zone criminals (in Steve Gerber and Gene Colan's 1982 Phantom Zone miniseries), helped Superman defeat Warworld (in December 1980's DC Comics Presents #28) and ultimately saved Superman from the Anti-Monitor in Crisis #7. As the TV show progresses, it will get closer to that version of Supergirl, almost by default.
Apart from their familial bond, Supergirl and Superman have a unique relationship. She's not his sidekick, because he doesn't really have one. She's not his protégé anymore (and on TV, arguably she never was). She's like Nightwing, forever tied to a mentor-figure and able to take over for him, but kept from that by the practicalities of the genre. However, not all of comics' conventions translate to other media. Although Supergirl can stay young forever in print, that won't work on television. The death of Superman doesn't have to be the end for the Man of Steel, and it could be the start of a whole new phase for Supergirl.
Should Supergirl kill off Superman, even temporarily? Should Reign do it next season? Let us know in the comments!