"The Death of Superman" is one of the most iconic comic storylines ever, inspiring such films as Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, as well as a DC Animated movie adaptation. With Tales from the Dark Multiverse: The Death of Superman turning Lois Lane into a superpowered being seeking vengeance, it's clear the industry is still fixated on how the world copes without the Man of Steel. However, 2003's Justice League animated series gave us not only one of the best death stories ever involving the Last Son of Krypton, but one of the best Superman stories period. The two-part episode highlighted how much the hero's life and demise mean to the world.
The two-part "Hereafter" focused on a battle in Metropolis, with several of Superman's rogues fighting the League. In the melee, Toyman aimed a disintegrator ray at Wonder Woman and Batman, only for Superman to take the hit and disappear. The world considered him dead and mourned, except for Batman, who felt his friend was alive. Seeing the world and its heroes grieving, especially the League, really hit home, which was made all the more impactful when even Lex Luthor showed up to console Lois Lane. There was a true emotional connection, which admittedly Snyder didn't even achieve with his adaptations.
The Dark Knight being in denial, plus Flash convincing Wonder Woman not to kill Toyman, helped paint the League, once thought invincible, as distraught and desperate figures to show the ramifications of Clark Kent's sacrifice. What made this story even more intriguing was Lobo replacing Superman by force and how his actions stood as the antithesis to Superman, reminding everyone what the Man of Steel meant. Batman even broke down and confessed how much he missed Clark's leadership. This narrative made Superman the hero of all heroes, and it's the Man of Steel we know and love: a paragon of virtue and symbol of undying hope.
While statues were erected to paint him as an immortal institution and flagship of justice, just when it seemed people accepted he was gone, we found out Clark was tossed 30,000 years into the future with a red sun scorching the Earth. Vandal Savage's terrorism wiped out humanity and left the villain alone, wallowing in self-pity over the planet he destroyed. The storyline saw Superman using a car, growing a beard, losing his powers and running on the natural instinct to survive by fighting wolves and wearing their skin, all while trying to find a way back. This led him to Vandal and, after some tense moments, the villain showed regret for what he did, and so he helped the Man of Steel travel to the past to undo his terrorist act.
Vandal's redemption arc gave us a very human Kal-El, and it's one of the most vulnerable versions of the character we've ever seen in any medium. His basic humanity emerged when he pursued vengeance, almost killing Vandal with a rock. However, the good in him surpassed his thirst for revenge, allowing him to take pity on, and help, the former villain. Vandal found a way to send Superman back and when the timestream was fixed, he faded away with the future preserved. He even called Kal-El "friend," proving that Superman could reach his greatest of enemies, something many heroes are never able to achieve.
The repentant Vandal and this alliance were so unlikely and unfathomable if you were watching the series from day one, and just like Lobo trying to replace Kal-El, there was a genuine sense of surprise, shock and awe in one of TV's most unpredictable adventures. "Hereafter" showcased Superman's resilience and his unwavering desire to safeguard mankind, while humanity and everyone who fought with or against him recognized that a world without the Man of Steel wasn't one that felt right. In short, this was a story filled with style and substance, which is yet to be replicated, not even with all the Doomsday adventures recreated across several mediums. "Hereafter" was thought-provoking and nuanced. It stuck to the core essence and warmth of the DC characters relevant to the Man of Steel, and made Superman truly feel like the most important hero of all time.