Superman: Red Son review: A refreshing revisionist rendition of a Russian Man of Steel

Photo: Superman: Red Son.. Image Courtesy DC, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Photo: Superman: Red Son.. Image Courtesy DC, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment /

What would happen if Superman landed in Russia during the Cold War? This film answers that question and delivers a thoughtfully tragic tale in the process.

DC’s collection of animated films, which amazingly began with Superman: Doomsday in 2007, have certainly been a mixed bag of late. Sure, they rarely spit out something terrible, but many of the New 52-inspired movies have simply settled at being okay. It’s actually been the standalone flicks and Elseworlds stories that have risen above the mediocrity due in large part to how different they are.

In today’s oversaturated market of superhero products, you definitely gravitate toward the ones with some novelty. Particular highlights include the moral introspection of The Dark Knight Returns, the revisionist political drama of Justice League: Gods and Monsters, the Victorian steampunk tale Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, and the anime adventure Batman Ninja. Now, the folks at Warner Bros. Animation seek to emulate that success with Superman: Red Son.

Why that title? Basically, this explores what might happen if the last son of Krypton had landed in the Soviet Union during the Cold War instead of Kansas. Rather than truth, justice, and the American way, little Kal-El is raised under the ideals of the Communist Party. Sadly, he discovers that Stalin doesn’t exactly practice what he preaches. So, Superman takes over and strives to bring his utopian vision to the rest of the world by any means necessary.

Rising to oppose him is an alternate version of Lex Luthor, commissioned by the U.S. to counter the Man of Steel. The crafty scientist soon becomes embroiled in an all-out war with Superman, employing adversaries like Batman and the Green Lantern Corps in a super-powered arms race that could devastate the planet.

One of the joys of “What-If” stories is seeing warped renditions of established characters and settings, and this film definitely scratches that itch. What makes this tale so engaging is that Superman himself is not portrayed as a villain. He still wants to save the world; he’s just going about it the way he was taught. When his endeavors fail and he’s forced to go to more and more extreme lengths, the pathos that arises is truly heart-wrenching.

Photo: Superman: Red Son… Image Courtesy Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Photo: Superman: Red Son… Image Courtesy Warner Bros. Home Entertainment /

It’s all developed and paced extremely well and serves as a poignant commentary on how even the best of intentions can become corrupted. It’s also an effective thematic reminder of the freedom required to build a better tomorrow. You can’t rely on one person or party to solve all your problems, and the long, difficult journey that “Soviet Superman” takes in learning that is what makes his arc so engrossing. The fact that the drama is so politically and ideologically charged gives the conflict so much more weight than simply “superheroes vs. supervillains.”

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However, I would argue that it would have been more potent if we’d been invested in both sides. Over the first two-thirds of the story, the American characters (with some exceptions) are mostly portrayed in a pretty unsympathetic light, beating their chests generally acting like slimy scumbags. We often don’t see the genuine belief behind the jingoism like we do with Russia. Granted, you could argue that this was the point since we follow a Soviet protagonist.

On the other hand, when democracy eventually starts to win out over communism, it doesn’t feel entirely earned. This outcome still works on a personal level due to the emotional fallout that stems from Superman’s perfect vision collapsing; it simply could have worked additionally on an ideological level had U.S. been given more depth earlier on.

A more noticeable flaw in the storytelling emerges in the introduction (or lack thereof) of certain comic book concepts. For instance, we’re told in a newsreel that Superman thwarted an attack by Brainiac, an extraterrestrial A.I., and subsequently turned the alien machine into his tool for indoctrination. That’s a lot to swallow in a few seconds. Such rushed elements lead some parts of the narrative to feel truncated, and we’re left to wonder if the film would have benefitted from a longer runtime.

Photo: Superman: Red Son… Image Courtesy Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Photo: Superman: Red Son… Image Courtesy Warner Bros. Home Entertainment /

On the upside, this incomplete feeling is somewhat alleviated by how well the tale is presented. The voice cast—led by Jason Isaacs as Superman, Amy Acker as Lois Lane, Diedrich Bader as Lex Luthor, and Vanessa Marshall as Wonder Woman—succeeds in delivering foreign yet familiar renditions of these iconic characters. They have a suitably colder and more cynical tone what we’re used to, but they never lose the humanity behind it.

On top of that, the animation remains reliably accomplished, minimalistic during the conversation scenes and beautifully fluid for the fights. Director Sam Liu has had plenty of experience with other animated action projects, and he still knows how to frame the fights scenes in a way that puts you right in the thick of it. You’re almost dancing around the combatants’ bodies as they clash, making every battle an exhilarating affair.

However, what you might not expect is the wealth of shots showcasing the scale and beauty inherent in Superman’s exploits. Both the towering structures and emotional moments have a similar sense of grandeur, and they’re given greater impact by Frederik Wiedmann’s musical score, which is fittingly reminiscent of a somber militaristic chant for authentic period flavor.

These elements definitely enhance the experience, but it’s what the movie manages to do with the titular hero that sticks with you. While it has some notable narrative issues, Superman: Red Son succeeds on the strength of its core character and the tragedy surrounding him. In the end, it’s another solid entry in DC’s animated lineup.

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Did you enjoy this alternative take on the Man of Steel? What are some of your favorite “What If” stories?

Superman: Red Son is currently available on digital platforms like Amazon and iTunes. It will be released on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K on March 17.