MOVIE REVIEW: Superman: Red Son an imaginative, thought-provoking alt-history of a Soviet Superman
Updated: Apr 12, 2022
Superman: Red Son, Warner/DC Animated, Released February 2020
Superman: Red Son (2003) was one of my favorite Superman Elseworlds stories (nowadays, it would fall under DC’s Black Label for imaginary or non-continuity tales). Mark Millar and Dave Johnson created a fascinating 3-issue alternate history tale that asked, “What if baby Kal-El’s rocket landed hours earlier, on the other side of the world, in 1930s Soviet Russia?” How would a grown Superman be different, having been raised learning Communist dogma, with Joseph Stalin as a surrogate father? How would world history be different with Superman fighting for Russia’s global interests and Communist expansion? How would America respond to Russia’s new superweapon?
Writer J.M. DeMatteis and Director Sam Liu’s DC Animated movie version of this saga expands on these questions a bit, as well as drastically changing some of the events in the Elseworlds story. Comics purists won’t like the changes, but will keep those same people guessing and surprise them when they happen. Some have been made to streamline the 3-issue story down to a 2-hour movie, some happen to address current world issues, and some just for shock value.
The opening credits sequence faithfully uses the design and art from the iconic covers of the Elseworlds series, which depicted art in the style of Soviet propaganda posters, with black and Communist red being the dominant color scheme.
In 1946, when young Mischka reaches puberty, he begins developing superhuman abilities, and his family and friends feel those powers belong to the Socialist State, so he is raised by the government, under the guiding hand of Stalin.
In 1955, newsreel footage is distributed worldwide, displaying the abilities of the Soviet “Superman,” who ends the Korean War in minutes.
Wonder Woman is welcomed as the ambassador of Themyscira and the Amazons, and she begins a tenuous friendship and alliance with Superman and Russia, saying “Perhaps we can change the world for the better.” This is the first of many quotable lines by longtime comics veteran DeMatteis, who does a great job both using key dialogue directly from the comic, and creating new dialogue for events that veer from the comic.
America’s response to this Super threat to World Order is to employ smartest man in the world Lex Luthor (married to Lois Lane in this reality) to create a super-powered clone, to be the American Superman that takes down the Soviet one. Fans of Superman comics know that experiment doesn’t ever end well, and turn out...bizarro. The clone’s appearance is very different from the comic, appearing entirely human at first. The battle between the two Supermen is well-choreographed and fast, with wise, slow-motion pauses in the action to highlight key blows.
After the fight above Metropolis, Superman is confronted (and instantly smitten) by Lois Lane, who enlightens him about the Soviet Union’s human rights abuses. Disbelieving her, he quotes Stalin (and Trump) by calling her and the press the “enemy of the people” and leaves.
Curiosity gets the better of him, and he searches and discovers a gulag in Siberia. He is shocked at what he sees, including a teary, angry young boy whose parents have just died from abuse. After he finds his childhood friend, a redheaded woman named Svetlana, near death, he rushes to confront Stalin about the evil he has witnessed. Stalin spouts platitudes about keeping order: “The unpleasant truth, my son, is that certain people must die for the system to work.” How Superman reacts in the next scene is the biggest departure from the comic.
“Now, I save the world.”
Proclaiming himself ruler of Russia, Superman uses his power to spread Communism around the globe in a non-violent manner. After all, who would stand a chance opposing him anyway?
The rest of movie includes an alien invasion, a fight with an anarchist dressed as a bat, President Luthor’s war on Superman, fueled by reverse engineered tech from a crashed alien ship, a final plea from an ally to stop his plans for world domination, and a betrayal. The climactic battle and conclusion is exciting and heartfelt, sparked by who else than Lois Lane, who holds a mirror up to Superman to get him to see what he has become.
The movie ends differently from the book, as it omits an epilogue that includes a clever time loop.
Superman: Red Son will be enjoyable to anyone, whether they are longtime comic fans or who just want a standalone story that they can immediately understand and enjoy. The animation is a step up from tv series quality, with a CGI assist that gives vehicles an added touch of realism. Lois Lane is especially well-illustrated, never looking more beautiful. Smoke from her cigarette is as realistically animated as any I have ever seen. The backgrounds are beautifully designed and painted; the extra effort and DC Animated movie budget shows.
The voice cast includes stars such as Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter) as Superman, Amy Acker (Angel) as Lois Lane, Diedrich Bader as Luthor, and Paul Williams as Brainiac, all excellently cast and expertly directed. Isaacs in particular has a standout performance, with a decent Russian accent, and a hint of menace.
Superman: Red Son can be seen on DC Universe, and purchased wherever DVDs and Blu-Rays are sold.