To recap briefly: Superman died, then four guys show up wearing the famous S shield. Eventually most people begin to think that the Cyborg Superman is the real deal, which is unfortunate because he is actually a maniacal villain bent on world destruction/destroying Superman’s good name. With help of the alien warlord Mongul, he annihilates Green Lantern’s hometown of Coast City, seemingly kills the Last Son of Krypton, and kidnaps Superboy. This leaves only the non-powered Steel to handle this mess because every other hero in the DC Universe is apparently tending to jaywalkers instead of looking into the major metropolitan area that was destroyed by aliens.
So it’s time for a quick good news, bad news.
Good news: Superboy escapes the clutches of Engine City and flies back to Metropolis to recruit Steel to go after the Cyborg Superman.
Bad news: They get distracted by a giant Kryptonian Robot coming into Metropolis. Is it friend or foe?
Good news: It’s friend. We think. Yes, it definitely is. It is a guy in a black suit with a silver S shield claiming to be the real Superman (life we haven’t heard that before). But he does look like the real deal except that he has longer hair.
Bad news: He does not have superpowers. That’s why he needed the giant Kryptonian Robot to help him walk beneath the ocean from the Antarctic Fortress of Solitude to Metropolis (tragically there was not a level in the Death and Return of Superman video game for Super Nintendo in which you guided the giant Kryptonian Robot through the sea and punched sharks; that would have been amazing).
Good news: He gets a pair of rocket boots from someone, so now we have two de-powered dudes heading with Superboy to Engine City. Hurrah!
Good news: Green Lantern returns to earth. He’s been in space. So we have another superhero that’s going to take care of business in the former Coast City.
Bad news: No one thought to tell him that his hometown has been blown to smithereens. Probably because no one seems remotely interested that, again, a major metropolitan area was destroyed by aliens. I’m pretty sure this is the real reason why Hal Jordan went crazy, destroyed the entire Green Lantern Corps, then tried to destroy time itself in an effort to make things right. Show, the dude some common courtesy.
But back to our most recent Superman. How do we know that he’s the real Superman (besides the fact that from the structural standpoint of the story arc, this would be a fantastic time to have the real Superman return)? Lois Lane, that’s how.
Lois and the new guy have a private chat. He tells that he is real. She has been burnt pretty badly recently and is logically skeptical. But then the new guy tells her about her relationship with Clark Kent. The main piece of this information that I remember is that new guy offers up To Kill a Mockingbird, which was apparently Clark’s favorite movie.
Two things: 1) I never read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, but I’m pretty sure a small part of the reason that I sought it out in adulthood and finally read it was this scene right here. And it is a wonderful book. 2) I have not seen the movie, but I can totally see why Clark would be drawn to the story of Atticus Finch. A guy doing what he can against overwhelming odds to help those that are powerless? Perfect movie for Superman.
So Steel and Superboy are like, “Hey, new guy, you going to help us take out the evil half robot that everybody thinks is Superman or not?” He tells them he’ll be there in a minute and they walk off. Clark then kisses Lois and tells her the exact same thing that he told her when he kissed her before he died.
This is our Superman. Now it’s just a question of whether he’ll survive the showdown with his homicidal robo-doppleganger (spoiler alert: he does).
The fly across country via rocket boots (except Superboy) to Engine City and what ensues is a melee with robots and aliens. Seriously, they fight robots and aliens for about a month. Superman, not having powers, carries with him a barrage of 90s-tastic laser guns. At some point in time, Cyborg Superman—at this point in full Bond villain watching his foes fight on a big screen mode—launches a missile at Metropolis. The purpose? Engine City 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Superboy, who henceforth has been mainly concerned with himself and his image, flies off to stop the missile. Ultimately, he stops it and it explodes over Metropolis Harbor; seemingly killing the teenaged clone. It doesn’t, but accomplishes the point of showing that this kid might actually be on his way to becoming a hero.
Where were we? Oh yeah, melee. This is what you need to know it ultimately comes down to: Superman, Cyborg Superman, and the Last Son of Krypton (he’s alive!) go into showdown mode. Superman closes the door to the main engine room so that if he doesn’t make it, Steel, GL, Superboy, and Supergirl (she showed up at some point) can try to help. Some wonder if the the Last Son of Krypton shut the door because they think he might be in cahoots with the Cyborg Superman.
Reveal Time: The Last Son of Krypton is actually the embodiment of Kryptonian artifact named the Eradicator. He stole Superman’s body and took it to the Fortress of Solitude (why he went around pretending to be Superman, I’m a bit unclear).
Reveal Time 2: The Cyborg Superman is actually astronaut Hank Henshaw. At one point in time, Henshaw and his crew were afflicted with radiation in space. If this sounds like the Fantastic Four, you’re on the right track. Except instead of making the four astronauts superheroes, it had pretty terrible results by either killing them (you know as radiation would most likely do) or giving them less photogenic superpowers (because this is still a comic book). Henshaw received the power of manipulating technology, but lost his human form. When he appeared to his wife in his creepy WALL-E form, she was rightly terrified and unfortunately this combined with the spaceship trauma ended up sending her into a psychotic state (I think). Naturally, Henshaw blamed Superman for not saving them and his life being ruined. How he got the Kryptonian technology and Superman DNA, I don’t remember. Maybe Superman’s birthing matrix. Regardless, Henshaw is Evil Reed Richards.
Reveal Time 3: Engine City is powered by Kryptonite. This isn’t good at all.
So after all of these reveals, Cyborg Superman pulls out a hose out of the engine and starts blasting Kryptonite energy at Superman and the Last Son of Krypton. The Eradicator, who has sworn to protect Kryptonian life, steps in front of Superman. The energy beam passes through him and into the Man of Steel.
Ultimately, Super Squad B decides they cannot let a powerless Superman fight on his own. They bust in and see nothing but Kryptonite gas everywhere. Green Lantern remarks that no one could have possibly survived this and he puts a protective bubble around everyone with he power ring (which is also providing an arm sling for him because I think Mongul broke his arm).
Cyborg Superman stands over the husk of the Eradicator’s body and furiously demands to know the location of Superman’s corpse. That’s when Superman emerges out of the shadows holding the Last Son of Krypton’s cape. He punches Cyborg Superman. Not only, is Kal-El not hurt by all of this Kryptonite gas (unsure of that one), but he has his powers back (when the Kryptonite passed through the Eradicator, it transferred power back to Superman).
Superman punches his foe again and it knocks the dude’s robot jaw off. Some of Super Squad B want to help, but Green Lantern holds them back. Superman punches Cyborg Superman so hard that it goes through his robot body. Superman’s arm is literally through the bad guy’s body. Superman begins to use his super-speed to vibrate his arm. Cyborg Superman swears that he’ll survive (which he does) and then shatters into a bajillion pieces.
Now, here’s the thing that I haven’t thought about since then. Cyborg Superman says that he’ll survive, but Superman doesn’t necessarily know that. So makes what Superman does enter into that morally gray area of whether he was going against his code of killing. Cyborg Superman survived and continued to menace Superman (and Green Lantern) for many years to come, so it never seemed like a killing. It doesn’t ruin the story for me, but it is simply interesting in light of the controversy around Man of Steel's ending.
Back to the story: Green Lantern can detect no traces of the villain in Engine City. Supergirl uses some random power to fashion a classic Superman costume out of the cape (since the black power suit is in tatters now). Super Squad B tells Supes to head on back to Metropolis and they’ll work on the cleanup.
So Superman heads back to Metropolis, makes out with Lois, lets his city know their true champion is back, uses Supergirl’s shape-shifting ability to save “Clark Kent” from Doomsday rubble, and he and Lois end up in Smallville to see Clark’s parents (how they got there is a little weirder; it involved a supernatural detective named Dr. Occult explaining how Superman came back from the dead). I point out that scene, because the image of Clark sprinting through the Kansas fields carrying Lois and being embraced by his parents was beautiful.
The World’s Greatest Superhero was back for good and better than ever (well, he kept the long hair for awhile, but you have to understand it was the 90s). That is “Reign of the Supermen,” the comics that were the catalyst for me still being a Superman fan today. I love it, ludicrous elements and all.