Superman has always been my least favourite of the big superheroes: he is the archetype of all modern superheroes, but he is such a do-gooder in every instance, with no grey areas, that he has always bored me. Yes, the story of Superman reflects the character’s creators’ own story, as writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster were Jewish immigrants to the US, but besides that I’ve never found much depth to his mythos. I’ve never been a huge fan of the various live-action films either. However, a film of based on the Mark Miller comic book Superman: Red Son, which is an ingenious what-if scenario of “what if Superman had been raised in the Soviet Union?” instead of being raised on that Kansas farm in Smallville.
It’s a fascinating take on the character without taking a stand on the politics, which is probably a smart idea on the creators part. Superman is quickly adopted by Joseph Stalin’s regime as the Übermensch and war weapon to destroy Western imperialism. It’s set over the entire latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, although the breath of the story is condensed here for the purposes of a 80-minute animation feature.
The film and graphic novel don’t just give Superman a reinvention. In this alternative universe, Lois Lane is married to Lux Luthor, who is the US Government’s main countermeasure to build something that could defeat the Man of Steel. Perhaps most interestingly, Batman gets a radical reworking as an anarchist terrorist who sees Superman as responsible for his parents’ death. It’s an intriguing take on the character, because Batman is routinely considered one of the more authoritarian characters in the comic book canon, but like all Superheroes his philosophy is always open to interpretation. He is actually even more convoluted in the comic book: while still an anarchist, he is in cahoots with the head of the KGB and Luthor to bring Superman down, whereas in the film it’s vaguely just Luthor.
One of the biggest changes from the comic book is that Wonder Woman is openly lesbian in the film, there is a hilarious line where Superman tries to ask her out and she rebuffs him, explaining “I’m from an island with just women, what do you think I’m into?” (Lesbian undertones were always there since the inception of Wonder Woman: the creator William Moulton Marston was in a polygamous relationship with his wife and their shared female lover, when he died the two women continued their romantic relationship till their deaths, and both women were a basis for the character.) The Green Lantern also makes an appearance in a new guise.
The animation is relatively strong, even if it probably at times looks cheaper than you would want, given all the possibilities from the influence of Soviet propaganda posters. Jason Isaacs plays the Commie Man of Steel. Issacs also appeared in The Death of Stalin, but this is a better revisionist take on the Soviet Union than that woefully overrated film. The rest of the voice cast is mainly character actors who find steady work doing voiceovers, often for DC animated features and TV shows, all of whom are fine voice actors.
The narrative eventually starts unravelling, and I do wish they had gone with the ending from the graphic novel, which is far more expansive and quite the twist. There are rumours of a possible live-action version of Red Son down the line, and if there was, I would be the first in line on opening day—I can’t say that about any other possible Superman film.
The disc has a featurette about the comic and film, a motion comic of Red Son (just read the damn book!), a new unrelated DC short, a preview of the upcoming Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, along with some other previews for older DC animated feature titles and a two-part Justice League cartoon from 2011.