Principal Cast : Jason Isaacs, Amy Acker, Deidrich Bader, Vanessa Marshall, Phil Morris, Paul Williams, Phil LaMarr, Jim Meskimen, Sasha Roiz, WIlliam Salyers, Roger Craig, Jason Spisak, Tara Strong, Travis Willingham, Winter Ave Zoli.
Synopsis: What if baby Kal-El’s rocket landed, not in Kansas, but in the Soviet Union?
Based on Mark Millar’s rather excellent Elseworlds DC Comic from 2003, Superman: Red Son takes a look at what might have happened had baby Kal-El, who would grow up to become the Man Of Steel, crash-landed in Soviet Russia rather than the American Midwest. The story has been adapted by Millar’s contemporary, JM DeMatteis, who himself has written countless comic books and now takes on Red Son in trying to distil the original plot reversing Superman’s idealism and American freedom into a compelling animated movie. Both the graphic novel and the film ask what Superman might be had he landed in Soviet Russia instead of the democratic nation of the United States, offering a more sinister and warped view of the famous Siegel & Shuster creation that parallel the argument over “nurture vs nature”. The premise is intriguing, to say the least.
In the 1950’s, a young boy (voiced by Tara Strong) grows up in the heartland of the USSR, coming to terms with a set of incredible powers – notably, super strength and the ability to fly, among others. The boy, rescued from bullies by his young friend Svetlana (Winter Ave Zoli) grows up to become a symbol of Soviet power, his incredible strength and invulnerability matched only by his unwavering dedication to the communist cause. As Superman (Jason Isaacs), he soon usurps Josef Stalin as the supreme leader of Russia, intent on subjugating the “wicked” Western countries from their insidious democratic slavery. He meets Lex Luthor (Deitrich Bader) and his girlfriend/wife Lois Lane (Amy Acker), the latter of whom attempts to see reason in his pursuit of dictatorial rule, whilst the former seeks to create a counter to Superman’s power, in the form of Superior Man (Travis Willingham), formed from Superman’s genetic template. Also entering the fray is the beautiful Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall) from the hidden island of Themyscira, who initially allies herself with Superman before realising his true motives, whilst Russian insurgent Batman (Roger Craig Smith) attempts to create anarchy in deposing the alien ruler.
I remember reading Millar’s “Red Son” back in the day, thinking it was a pretty crafty, well written and evocative take on the Man of Steel we hadn’t seen before, as a legitimate hero of a people so opposite to American values and ideas it made one stop and think. What would a communist Superman look like, how would he act, how would he react to certain scenarios. This fascinating thought experiment gives us the basis for Red Son’s dichotomy of having the most powerful person on planet Earth in control of one of the most powerful nations at the height of the Cold War – Red Son stretches from the 1950’s through to the 1980’s – and how the values instilled in him from an early age formed the basis for his thoughts and deeds in adult life. Is Red Son a cautionary story about how lucky we are he didn’t grow up in a communist country? Not really, at least not in this film, directed by Sam Liu, a long-time Marvel and DC film director (he co-helmed the recent Death of Superman and Reign of The Supermen films for Warner Bros), although the film does fumble several of Millar’s ideas in trying to give us a sense of ow the world might have turned out.
DeMattias’ screenplay wastes no time getting into the setup – a quick preamble with a young Superman (he’s never named as Clark Kent, nor is his Kryptonian heritage revisited openly) occurs before we’re whisked to him as an adult, where he quickly goes from “the pride of Russia” to murdering Stalin and taking control of the country, as his perceived destiny allows. This, naturally, brings him into an ideological conflict with the superhero-free United States, where Lex Luthor gradually rises from philanthropic businessman to President (sandwiched somewhere in between Eisenhower and Reagan, I think…) to eventual saviour of his country. In a similar way to the reversal of Superman’s position as the hero, here Lex isn’t the villain so much as a dedicated patriot looking to protect his country against the more powerful Russia. In some ways, the perception of American imperialism is turned on its head – Superman’s Russia is seen as the saviour of the world, hoping to eradicate such silly ideas as “democracy” in favour of a more even-handed approach to society.
These themes are handled gracefully in Millar’s original comic book, but they aren’t quite so evenly balanced in the feature film. The problem with communism isn’t explained well enough within the film’s context to allow us to embrace the idea of people fighting against it. A brief interlude with Stalin comes across as hokey and cliched before his untimely murder at the hands of Superman, where he decries the American ideal as a pipe dream and insidious evil, before things take a dark turn for the worse. Superman’s encounter with a Stalin internment camp (buried underground beneath layers of lead to avoid Superman’s X-ray vision) gives us a reprise of Svetlana’s belief in the system she lives in, before she succumbs to the desecration imprisonment has wrought upon her: you’d think this would give Superman the kick he needs to think a different way, but for some reason it only forces him to double-down on the “save the world by enslaving the world” proposition, which goes over globally about as well as you’d expect.
While Red Son doesn’t go deep enough into Superman’s motivation (for my liking, at least) the film does give us some mighty battle sequences and moments of delight as out-of-continuity Easter Eggs pop in here and there: the Green Lantern Corps, the relationship between Lex and James Olson, Braniac, a Dark Knight Returns-esque Batman, and the better answer to Nuclear Man in Superior Man all allow us some great subplots and arcs within the greater story, hiding somewhat the limited narrative argument for communism over democracy. The film assumes democracy is better rather than argue for it, presenting the Soviet Russian life to a simplified grey nightmare and a yoke of oppression – that’s fine, but develop this idea a little more and really hone in on why Superman makes a better hero in a free society than he does as a dictator. Still, the visuals continue to delight, the animation is decent and the vocal performances, whilst wooden (Office Space’s Deitrich Bader as Lex is… well, not great) and stilted here and there, and the ideas within the film are certainly well designed and executed. The best part is easily the Russian Batman, who uses guile and intelligence to nearly take down Superman (before Wonder Woman comes along and screws it all up); frankly, that’s the arc I’d rather the film had taken more often, rather than the second-act subplot it becomes all too briefly.
Superman: Red Son continues the tradition of decent animated takes on DC’s most popular stories and characters. Thankfully, now that we’re past the umpteenth take on The Death of Superman, and can focus on other popular stories from DC’s history, we can mine deeper into alternative takes on these classic archetypes. Under Sam Liu’s direction, Red Son takes a decent but largely cliched take on reversing the Superman mythology, favouring spectacle and empty exposition at the expense of a truly meaningful exploration for what it might mean for Superman to grow up thinking the communist model was the right way. Solid animation saves a lot of the wooden dialogue and simplistic plotting (the film isn’t really for kids, what with all the bloodshed on show here) but Red Son intrigues without genuine reward.