Note: this is a spoiler-free advance review of Superman: Red Son, which will be released on Digital HD on February 25 and on Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray on March 17.
DC has an entire brand known as Elseworlds, one that explores the many ways in which tiny changes to history can have huge effects on the stories of iconic heroes like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. Several of these Elseworlds stories like Superman: True Brit and Superman: Speeding Bullets ask the same basic question – what would happen if Kal-El’s space pod crash-landed somewhere other than Smallville? What happens when the Last Son of Krypton is raised by another set of parents under a different culture? That’s a question 2003’s Superman: Red Son set out to answer, and now Red Son is a competent, albeit somewhat flawed, addition to DC’s animated movie library.
In the alternate DC Universe of Red Son, Kal-El’s pod landed not in Kansas, but on a Ukrainian collective farm in 1938. Instead of embodying Truth, Justice and the American Way, Superman becomes the most powerful symbol of the Soviet Union, one that completely alters the course of 20th Century history. In this world, Lex Luthor is the US government’s last, best hope of stopping the spread of communism, Wonder Woman is a Themysciran ambassador enamored with the Man of Steel’s vision of a better world and Batman is a terrorist hellbent on tearing down everything Superman has built.
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The original comic by writer Mark Millar and artist Dave Johnson is an inspired choice of source material. For one thing, the comic is just the right scope and length for the rigid 70-ish minute format of these movies. Poor pacing is one of the most common problems with these projects, with many either stretching limited material past the breaking point (as with Batman: The Killing Joke and Batman: Gotham by Gaslight) or trying to distill too much plot into one film (as in The Death of Superman and its sequel Reign of the Supermen). Red Son is able to offer a tightly paced story that manages to lend a fair amount of depth to most major characters in between the major action sequences.
The concept is certainly fascinating, shining a light on just what aspects of Superman’s character are immutable versus those that are shaped by his upbringing. Like most DC animated movies, Red Son skews in a darker direction, even to the point of depicting Superman and Batman as killers. It’s a risky storytelling choice that winds up working in this particular context. Where something like Injustice: Gods Among Us never fully succeeds in justifying a murder-happy Superman, Red Son uses that plot point to its advantage. Superman’s entire arc in the film is built around the question of whether the ends justify the means. Confronted with the grim reality behind the ideals of Soviet collectivization, Superman becomes obsessed with making his vision of utopia a reality. How much killing is justified in the name of utopia? Is a better world with no free will or room for dissent truly a better world at all?
Part of the novelty of Red Son is that it’s a superhero movie where the conflict doesn’t involve clearly defined factions of good and evil. Superman may be the main protagonist, but he’s not necessarily the hero of the story. Similarly, it would be reductive to label Lex Luthor as the villain. While Lex shows all of his usual arrogance and casual disregard for those he deems his lessers, he’s also painted as a man trying to save his country from an existential threat. This is one of the more enjoyable takes on Lex in a DC movie in quite some time. The movie mostly avoids falling into the usual East vs. West pop culture tropes and even has quite a bit to say about the dangers of xenophobia on all sides. Wonder Woman is the only truly heroic figure in this story, as she embraces Superman’s ideals but becomes disillusioned with the barbarous world of men.
Even though Red Son is paced better than most DC animated movies, there are certain characters who feel a bit under-served by the story. It would have been nice to see more attention paid to the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane, with the two only really sharing one important scene together. Batman could also have benefited from additional character development leading up to his climactic confrontation with Superman. But to be fair, there’s only so much ground the movie can cover in the course of 70 minutes, and the comic itself is guilty of those same problems.
Red Son is largely a very faithful retelling of the original story, following a very similar structure and merely streamlining certain elements here and there. Occasionally it even manages to improve upon the comic, especially when it comes to Wonder Woman’s characterization. Unfortunately, Red Son’s most significant deviation is also its greatest misstep. The ending falls completely flat. It’s abrupt and simplistic to a fault, losing sight of the nuanced themes driving the conflict up to that point. It’s all the more frustrating given that the comic shines best at the very end, as Millar and Johnson celebrate the enduring power of Superman. But whether or not you’ve actually read the comic, the movie’s ending is a disappointingly safe way to end an otherwise daring take on the Superman mythos.
Visually, Red Son sticks to the same house style as the vast majority of these animated movies. It gets the job done, but Red Son hardly stands out in that regard, much less replicates the bold style of Johnson’s artwork. Given the period setting, it’s a shame the movie couldn’t have opted for a look more inspired by the classic Fleischer Studios animated serials. As it is, in most scenes Red Son barely even looks like a movie set in the past.
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The voice cast is rock solid, however. Red Son wisely doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel with most of these characters, instead relying mostly on a cast of DC animation veterans like Jason Isaacs (Superman), Diedrich Bader (Lex Luthor), Vanessa Marshall (Wonder Woman) and Roger Craig Smith (Batman). Isaacs actually has a fair amount of experience playing Russian characters thanks to films like Hotel Mumbai and The Death of Stalin, experience which serves him well here. He’s able to convey the humanity and self-doubt in this version of Superman even with the thickly accented dialogue. For whatever its faults, Red Son places a priority on ensuring viewers understand and empathize with this very flawed version of Superman.