The latest outing from DC Comics and Warner Home Media is the animated adaptation of one of DC’s best Elseworlds stories, Superman: Red Son! I was excited for this when it was announced at San Diego Comic-Con, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some reservations. While I would consider DC’s animated films mostly enjoyable, they tend to tread too far from the source material – often resulting in a final product that just doesn’t hold up as well when all is said and done. Whether they’re adding content to pad a story, or to simply subvert expectations, I feared DC would implement something like this and ultimately diminish the impact of this specific movie.
Thankfully, that’s not the case. While there are some noticeable differences compared to the book, you can tell the team behind this film made a point to stay true to the core message created by Mark Millar and Dave Johnson. As a result, this is probably the best DC animated film that’s been released in quite a while – the exception, perhaps, being The Death of Superman!
Note: This section can be skipped by those who have never read or have no interest in the source material.
Superman: Red Son
In this vivid tale of Cold War paranoia, the ship carrying the infant who would grow up to become Superman lands in the midst of the 1950s Soviet Union, where he is raised on a collective. As he becomes a symbol to the Soviet people, the world changes drastically from what we know — bringing Superman into conflict with Batman, Lex Luthor and others.
What if baby Kal-El’s rocket landed, not in Kansas, but in the Soviet Union? That is the premise of this Elseworld’s tale from DC Comics.
When you think about Superman, you probably think of the ideal superhero. He’s well mannered. He has a strong moral code, and never really pushes the boundaries. Because of this, some people claim that he’s “boring” because he’s such a good guy. Hell, even Warner Bros. themselves admitted that they aren’t sure how to make him “relevant to modern audiences.”
Now, those of us that really know Superman know that’s ludicrous. We know that his draw lies in his heart and endearing nature. It’s not so much his heroics that inspire us – even though they do – it’s actually his humanity that inspires us. He’s the hero that gives you the feels, and forces you to reflect on yourself so you can become a better person… But what if we decided to look at Superman differently? What if he wasn’t the upstanding citizen we’ve come to know and love? What if he were morally compromised?
If you’ve read comics within the past decade, then you know this is a question that’s been posed by many writers. I mean, let’s face it. The new fad in comics is deconstructing heroes. This was something that Stan Lee started to a degree by making his heroes more “human,” and then creators like Frank Miller and Mark Millar took to a new level when they started making them darker, grittier, and morally complex.
This became a popular trend in comics because it created an engaging read, relatability with the character, and an overall fascination for what makes the characters tick. It led to many successes in the comic book industry – especially with street heroes – and helped drive the likes of Batman, Daredevil, Wolverine and more to the massive brands we know them to be today. But a character we didn’t really see this done with is Superman. For the most part, he continued on as DC’s “boy scout.”
All of that changed in 2003, when Mark Millar and Dave Johnson created their Elseworlds story Superman: Red Son. Back then, this concept wasn’t as tired as it is now. Yes, there have been some explorations of an evil Superman, but nothing like this. Rather than just question what an evil Superman would be like, Superman: Red Son dives into the full social construction of Superman based on where he’s reared, the mentality of the time, and how social influences play a critical role in our character. It isn’t necessarily the deconstruction of Superman that makes this story so intriguing, but the fact that Millar chose to approach this story by having Superman land on earth in 1938, in the Soviet Union.
This is spectacular for so many reasons! For one, Superman was created in 1938, so having him land on Earth during that year is a nice nod to his creation in general. Aside from this though, it also allows Superman to grow up during a unique time. He’s a child during World War II, and lives his formative years in post-war Europe. He’s also raised and utilized under a communist regime. It’s freaking brilliant, and works so much better than other attempts to make Superman evil. Rather than having something tragic happen to him (as they did in Injustice: God’s Among Us – which I do enjoy, by the way), Red Son completely rebuilds the character from scratch based on these social influences.
You might be asking why I’m referencing the comic book so much in a movie review. Well, that’s because the movie fully embraces all of these elements from the book!
There are no clear heroes here.
Now, I do want to clarify… I keep referencing an evil Superman, and that’s not exactly a fair assessment of Superman in Red Son. That being said, I definitely wouldn’t consider him a hero either. Is he the protagonist? Yes, but he’s a protagonist that is flawed. And that’s what makes this story so interesting. Since the social constructs surrounding him define so much of who he is, it’s hard to blame him or hold him responsible for how he chooses to operate. Yes, he’s colder and more distant than the Superman we’ve come to know and love, but he’s simply misguided in his actions.
We get to watch him transform and grow from a young boy from rural Ukraine, to a tool and symbol for the Soviet Union, and eventually a world leader. The intrigue is how he handles this leadership though. It’s clear he has the best intentions, but goes about them the wrong way.
There are many nuances in Superman here, and they’re handled perfectly by Jason Isaacs! From an acting standpoint, I worried about how the interpretation might skew the original intention. Would they be able to pull off a believable and nuanced performance in this medium, with this specific form of animation? I’m happy to say yes.
Having an actor of the caliber of Jason Isaacs plays a large part in the movie’s success. A lesser actor wouldn’t be able to hit the right emotional beats and tones needed to sell the complexity of this character and the world at hand. Superman’s character is constantly changing based on his experiences, and the actors are forced to deliver these changes with barely any time to fully commit. This is a testament to both the actors and the script, both efficiently capturing what needs to be captured.
Isaacs isn’t the only standout here either. The relationships Superman has, define so much of who he is and who he becomes. From his childhood friend, Svetlana (this world’s version of Lana Lang), to Stalin, Wonder Woman, Batman, Lois, and even Lex. Each relationship shapes how he views the world, and how to potentially lead it.
Lex Luthor has the largest impact here, and the two don’t even meet each other until the very end of the film. It’s an example of how perception establishes so much of our opinions as opposed to truth, and results in an interesting rivalry that spans decades in Red Son. But just as I wouldn’t consider Superman the hero, I wouldn’t’ consider Lex the villain either.
Is there a rivalry between Superman and Lex? Absolutely! Lex is the American opposition to the mindset of the Soviet Superman, but the reality is that both men ultimately want the same thing, they just have different ways of going about it. Lex is still the brilliant, arrogant, inventor and political figure that we know him to be, but perhaps not as diabolical… Or, not as time passes anyway.
Much like Superman, Lex grows and changes drastically based on his experiences and the people around him. Superman and Lex are essentially mirror images of one another – capturing both their similarities and specific differences – under the backdrop of the U.S./ Russian conflict of the 60’s. Deidrich Bader does a respectable job in delivering Lex, but I do feel he’s often overshadowed by his peers – specifically Amy Acker as Lois Lane and Phil Morris as James Olsen. More on them in a bit.
What I really enjoy about this film, and Elseworlds stories in general, is the way they get to play with known characters. We get versions of Bizarro, Batman, the Green Lantern Corps, and more – all of which are fun, unique representations of them in a specific time and situation.
Batman, more than anyone else, is perhaps the biggest shock. Here, he’s essentially a terrorist seeking revenge against Superman and the Soviet regime for the torture he and others endured in Stalin’s gulags. This is a change that spans more than just the traditional depiction of Batman, but the film also contains a more violent and extreme interpretation of Batman than the source material! I know some people probably won’t like this change, but you can’t deny that it adds a different and unique layer to the story as a whole.
Did somebody say, powerful women?
As entertaining as Lex, Batman, and the other guys are, the pivotal characters are actually the female influences! The first key player – I won’t say major because she’s barely in the film – is Svetlana, Superman’s childhood friend. If there’s a single character that’s key to shaping who Superman is, it’s Svetlana. She’s the one that inspires him to become Superman and serve the Soviet Union, but also plays a much more crucial role in his development later on as well.
While Svetlana may play a critical role for Superman, the biggest impact for the film itself comes from Amy Acker’s Lois Lane! If there’s one character they knocked out of the park here, it’s Lois! She’s strong, confident, challenging, and manages all of this without having to tear anyone else down. She’s fearless, has a valid opinion, and she knows her worth. It’s exactly what you want to see from Lois Lane.
Wonder Woman also plays a crucial role here. Moving away from the love-interest role she played in the graphic novel, the creators behind the film opted to move her into more of a friendship and confidant position as an ambassador for Themyscira. The change is a brilliant one, and adds a unique depth to the relationship she has with Superman. Diana has an interesting arc in the film, even if it is rushed, but it does appear to fall victim to “man-hating” at some times. She blames man – not humanity, but actual males – for nearly all of the world’s problems. I understand the stance they tried to make with this since Diana comes from an island of all women, but I did find it to be a little heavy-handed at times.
Finding a moral compass.
Despite a strong script and a stellar cast, I believe it’s the theme of this film that really make it a success. There are so many questions around leadership, belief, and the lengths we go as people or nations that are put to the test here. The film moves quickly through the various perceptions, but it still manages to handle them well and deliver where needed.
The idea that there’s no real hero or villain weighs heavily on the film. I mean this in a good way. It actually made the viewing experience a little unenjoyable at first – if I’m being honest – because I didn’t find any of the characters likable. But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy watching these flawed characters try to find their way, learning and growing from their mistakes, until eventually becoming heroes in their own respective ways.
This is what will stick with you and provide an emotional impact in the end. It’s relatable. I think we all struggle to be the best that we can be, and sometimes we’re too critical of ourselves and others for mistakes or decisions that are made under misguidance. It’s something to remember and reflect on because there’s almost always another chapter to life. Superman: Red Son captures this beautifully.
Skewing in a darker direction.
One of my biggest gripes with DC’s current slate of animated films is that they try, desperately, to make them more “adult.” I still haven’t quite figured out what their intention is with this, because the quality of writing still appears to be targeted towards younger audience aside from infrequent moments of language, violence, or sexuality. It often feels forced for the sake of being “edgy.” Thankfully, Red Son doesn’t fall victim to this, despite having some “mature” content.
Everything here feels… Natural. There’s language in the film, and I never felt like it was there to seem “cool” for younger viewers. There’s also increased violence and killing, but those moments are so intertwined into the narrative – and in some ways historically accurate – that it never comes across as a desperate attempt for shock value. Instead, it feels sophisticated. It actually feels like a mature representation rather than wanting to be mature. We’re given situations that ultimately reflect a product of the times, and helps the story carry significant weight. So, kudos to the team behind Red Son because they finally got it right.
Speaking of the target audience though, why is the runtime only 84 minutes? It’s like DC and Warner Home Media are sending mixed messages. On one hand, they’re saying, “Yes it’s animated, but this is totally for adults! No, really! There’s cussing and gory violence!” And then, on the other hand, they’re like, “Nope. We can’t expand on these characters or subplots. We need to keep the runtime below an hour and a half so we can hold people’s interests.” It’s a shame. Considering the quality of this film within its confines, an additional 10 to 30 minutes could have easily lifted this from “good” to “excellent.”
I don’t want to create the impression that the movie isn’t good because of its runtime, I just want to stress that if you’re making these movies for an older audience, you can indulge a little more in the details. I would’ve loved to have seen more of the supporting characters, and some of the sub-plots that were barely touched from the book. Adding this texture and diving a little deeper into these themes would’ve made a world of difference had they just taken the leap.
I also wish the team behind the film would’ve embraced history a little more. For all intents and purposes, this is a period piece, and while we get some nice scenes showcasing that, there are also portions of the film where it almost feels like it’s depicting present day. A little more embellishment – even if it is just in the design – could’ve helped this.
Which brings me to the animation. The animation used here is in-line with the previous DC animated films. It’s fine. It’s not the best – especially concerning motion – but it gets the job done. Is there better animation out there? Absolutely! That being said, DC and Warner Home Media are churning out animated films rather quickly, so I’m ok with this. In fact, I’d rather keep this release schedule with a few movies a year, but I would push for higher quality in regards to the script. Overall, these are just minor quips for a solid, well-rounded movie.
Superman: Red Son is one of DC Comics and Warner Home Media’s strongest animated films released in quite a while. Remaining relatively true to its source material, the movie explores the idea of “What if Superman landed on Earth in 1938 Soviet Union?” – an idea that explores a range of moral questions of humanity, the lengths we take, and the need for free will. The designers are great here, and while the animation is just mediocre, a strong script and cast make Superman: Red Son well worth your time and money!
Superman: Red Son is currently available on 4K, Blu Ray, and Digital HD.