Distributor: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Director: Sam Liu
Writer: J.M. DeMatteis, based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Plunkett
Composer: Frederik Wiedmann
Starring: Jason Isaacs, Roger Craig Smith, Diedrich Bader, Amy Acker, Vanessa Marshall, Paul Williams
Genre: Superhero, Animation, Action, Sci-Fi
Warner Brothers Animation has delivered their 37th straight-to-DVD animated film with their new adaptation of Mark Millar’s famous storyline, Superman: Red Son. The film loosely adapts the broad-strokes of the famed 2003 comic book story by exploring how the world would react if Superman had been born and raised in Soviet Russia instead of the United States.
Violence/Scary Images: Characters brawl and fight. A character swells and dies in pain. A finger is cut off of an alien (no blood shown). A character is vaporized.
Language/Crude Humor: Mild/little serious language.
Drug/Alcohol References: None.
Sexual Content: A character implicitly describes themself as a lesbian. Another character alludes to his sexual disinterest.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Content: Themes of violence, death and conquest.
Positive Content: Themes of self reflection, peace and human flourishing.
Superman is a character a great deal of people just don’t GET viscerally. So many people believe him to be boring, too powerful and lacking serious flaws. Personally these faults have never fazed me. Superman is my favorite superhero. I’ve read dozens of his comics and I’m acquainted at this point with just about every cartoon and filmic version of the character. The reason why is fairly simple: Superman is the embodiment of what it means to be a good person. He understands everything he’s been raised to believe in and he embodies those ideals better than anyone.
Superman is uniquely earnest in the way that most superheroes aren’t. He carries with him the same simplicity and gentleness embodied by characters like Mr. Rogers or Atticus Finch. He simply understands what the difference is between good and evil, and he lives it out. The impossible fantasy at the heart of the character is that life can be better if only people lived out their lives to the best of their abilities. Because he was raised as a humble farmer in the rural United States by good people, he’s an example of the best of what it truly means to be an American.
This has always been the cute narrative trick that Mark Millar’s famous comic book storyline, Superman: Red Son, has worked with. What if earnest Superman had happened to land his rocket in a different place on Earth other than Kansas? In the story, he’s raised on a Soviet farm collective in the 1940s under the reign of Joseph Stalin. When he grows up, he becomes a symbol of everything the Soviet Union stands for. He’s a true believer in the cause of advancing communism around the world, and under his influence, most every country in the world except the United States ends up joining him. Against him is Lex Luther, a corporate genius in bed with the United States government who becomes Superman’s rival over the decades as he creates plans to take on the “Soviet Super Man” and defend American capitalism and liberty from Superman’s benevolent strides.
The version I’m discussing today is Warner Brothers Animation’s new straight-to-DVD animated adaptation of the comic story which was just released this month. To be perfectly honest, I’m not the biggest fan of Warner Brothers Animation. I hate their lukewarm animation style which gets recycled in every one of their films, the watered down scripts they use for their movies, and the naked fanservice found in most of these productions. The violence and swearing in most of these children’s films is obnoxious, and the fact that they continually draw upon the most overexposed Batman and Justice League storylines to pander to fans makes these movies repetitive (plus there’s an embarrassing subplot in their adaptation of Teen Titans: The Judas Contract where Beast Boy guests on the Kevin Smith Podcast, as if this didn’t need to be made dated and awkward). I’m reviewing this version only because I’m a huge Superman fan. After The Death of Superman left me completely cold, I’m curious to see what they could do with a better Superman comic as their foundation.
Thankfully Mark Millar’s storyline offers lots of interesting ideas to work with. The idea of Superman being raised in Soviet Russia raises a lot of questions that the story explores. Just because an idea is earnestly believed, does that equate to its legitimacy? Does Superman’s power propagate the idea further than it would’ve lasted? Is a benevolent autocrat better than a malevolent one?
Superman, as we meet him, is a true believer in the Marxist vision of the world. He yearns for peace, the flourishing of humanity, and the abolition of the capitalist system which he’s willing to go great lengths to achieve. For one, this version of Superman has no moral qualm against taking human lives, which he is willing to take in so far as his fatality rate is lower than the death count of what would happen if he didn’t act. He starts wars unilaterally and uses his immense powers to end them almost instantly. This is pretty on-the-nose satire if you’re aware of Superman in other media and how out-of-character these actions are.
Granted, he genuinely thinks he’s doing the right thing. When he finds out about Stalin’s Gulags, he deposes the dictator and rejects that version of communism for a truer vision he believes he can achieve with himself in charge. He also doggedly refuses to invade the United States and force communism upon them because he believes people need to embrace it by their own volition.
The story isn’t designed to hold up Soviet Communism as a solution though. Maybe the most creative idea the story conjures is that in the absence of Stalin, a flourishing communist state on its best terms would still look like Brave New World‘s vision of a dystopia instead of 1984‘s one. This isn’t “boot stamping on a human face forever” tyranny, it’s the tyranny of a populace that’s drugged, engineered and brainwashed into a state of perfect bliss to the point where they simply don’t care about ideas like humanity and freedom.
Thus Batman rolls into the story as a radically reinterpreted anarchist terrorist who has taken measures to destroy the Soviet state from within. He ends up having one of the more interesting side plots in the film as we find out who he is and how he’s able to accomplish what he does. A lot of classic Justice League characters show up in minor roles to create interesting dilemmas for the story. Hal Jordan and Jon Stewart both show up with a radically reinterpreted version of the Green Lantern Corp for a few scenes. Wonder Woman is probably the least altered character from her normal status quo. Beyond changing her sexual orientation to being a lesbian, she’s still a Themysciran Amazon but her story is ultimately one of conscience than anything else. She wants to mediate peaceful solutions, and Superman’s progressively more violent means places her in a situation where she must draw her support and leave the world of men to its own destruction.
There’s a lot going on with this version of the story that adds onto the original comics in interesting ways and changes some major events. In truth, I think I actively prefer this version of the story than the comic one, if only because the comic book version was dancing across the line between exploring this idea and sympathizing with Soviet Communism too much. By the end of that story, Superman comes to the same conclusion as the one in this film, but the resulting civilization we see come out of it is a far more radical vision of society than I think the story justifies.
Mind you, most of this story is undercut by how it’s explored. DC Comics stories all have a bad habit of making their narratives immensely heavy handed while not fueling its drama in emotionally effective ways (see also Batman vs. Superman). They’re ambitious but they don’t tell their stories effectively. Superman: Red Son wants to cover a lot of ideas and characters without fleshing them out enough.
For one, the story really doesn’t explore the inverse of the Soviet cause or what America’s claims to legitimacy are by the end of the story. The United States – as we see it depicted in both versions of the story – is a corporatist shill. The government obeys Lex Luther who is the stand-in for the entirety of the American system. He can make the government do what he wants and he’s literally in bed with the media, as we see with his wife, Lois Lane. His vision of “Americanism” is a shallow jingoist “America First” vision of American life, embodied by this universe’s version of Bizarro. It’s clear within the story that corporatism and violent nationalism are bad but where’s the empathy? If it can find empathy for those living under Soviet Communism, what does it have to say about America that makes it more worthy than the Soviet Union?
The story still comes to the conclusion that Superman’s version of benevolent communism is artificial, oppressive, and in need of replacement, but by the end of the story it’s not clear what alternative system should ultimately be in power. The only conclusions it arrives at is that Soviet Communism is bad and American Corporations are also bad. If anything, it’s just advocating for some vague notion of a post-corporate neo-liberal status quo.
I’m probably expecting too much from either Mark Millar or Warner Brothers. The “DC Original Animated Movies” brand is held in high esteem by comic fans for its general ability to retell the stories of classic comic storylines in earnest ways, but it’s far from ambitious or artistic. They produce every one of these films with the same in-house animation design that looks like a beefed up version of the style they used on the Batman and Justice League Animated Series from the 1990s and early 2000s, and it hasn’t stopped looking cheap even in their better adaptations like The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Assault on Arkham.
Being a straight-to-DVD production means that the movie has some interesting ideas and a handful of solid action scenes but it’s largely nothing to write home about. Jason Isaacs does a decent job playing Superman but his Russian accent is mostly awkward. It’s funny that he just played a Soviet General in The Death of Stalin with an ironic British accent and now he can’t put on a Russian one in this film. The whole film is made up of eccentricities like this. That said, compared to some of Warner Brothers Animation’s lesser adaptions of The Killing Joke or The Death of Superman, this film mostly holds together thanks to a thematically loaded script and a more cohesive story. It’s definitely worth a watch for Superman fans.
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