In September 1961, DC Comics published a little story called “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that featured in The Flash #123 and brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen. In the process, DC Comics created the concept of the multiverse, the idea that DC Comics continuity was comprised of an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to exist and, more importantly, interact and I’ve been celebrating this ground-breaking concept every Sunday of this month!
Released: 25 February 2020
Director: Sam Liu
Distributor: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Stars: Jason Isaacs, Amy Acker, Diedrich Bader, Vanessa Marshall, Roger Craig Smith, and Paul Williams
In an alternate timeline, Krypton’s last son crash-lands in Cold War-era Russia and Superman (Isaacs) is raised to be the figurehead of Joseph Stalin’s (William Salyers) Communist campaign. In response, Lex Luthor (Bader) devises a plan to neutralise and destroy the Soviet Superman while a renegade terrorist known as Batman (Smith) and the alien cyborg Brainiac (Williams) both plot to overthrow the superpowered tyrant.
Having met with considerable success with their animated ventures, such as Batman: The Animated Series (1992 to 1999), Warner Bros. Animation began producing a number of direct-to-video animated features based upon existing and popular comic book storylines but Superman: Red Son was a bit of a change of pace as the last few animated features had been part of a shared universe. Red Son was based on the three-issue miniseries of the same name written by Mark Millar in 2003, a story that was part of DC’s “Elseworlds” imprint. A surprisingly dense text, it was a popular and poignant “What If” scenario published by DC Comics for its deconstruction of Superman’s ideals. Similarly, the adaptation received generally positive reviews and sold quite well on home media. Having never gotten around to reading the original comic and, although I’ve been aware of it and the premise for some time, this was actually my first time properly experiencing this alternate take on Superman.
These days, the “Evil Superman” story has been pretty much done to death; it was a big part of the Injustice franchise (NetherRealm Studios/Various, 2013 to 2017), movies like Brightburn (Yarovesky, 2019) have explored the concept further, and even Henry Cavill’s version of the character has walked the line more than once, particularly in the questionable “Knightmare” scenario present in the DC Extended Universe films. Interestingly, Red Son takes Superman’s core values of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” and simply transposes them into Soviet Russia; as a boy, Superman fears hurting others with his powers and hides them from the world as a result but, after showing them to Svetlana (Winter Ave Zoli), is encouraged to “give them to the State” in order to put them to the best use (i.e. for the betterment of their Communist superiors).
As a result, the Soviet Superman isn’t initially evil in the way a lot of alternate versions of Superman are; he begins as a humble Communist patriot who is simply acting in the best interests of his country, which is basically what the mainstream Superman does more often than not. At first, the Soviet Superman basically acts as a nuclear deterrent to the rest of the world, ensuring the strength, superiority, and prosperity of Soviet Russia in a similar way to how Jon Osterman/Doctor Manhattan acted for the United States in Watchmen (Moore, et al, 1986 to 1987). This Superman is uncomfortable in the spotlight and sees himself as a “servant of the State”, a man simply doing his part in ensuring Russia’s success, and is quick to attribute his feats to the betterment of the country rather than simply his actions.
Similarly, he doesn’t hesitate to act to intervene when Metropolis is threatened by a falling satellite, expressing that the citizens of the United States aren’t his enemy or those of his government, and yet he is sceptical and distrustful of the press, such as Lois Lane-Luthor (Acker). In this version of the DC Universe, Lois is still a reporter but is married to Luthor; Lois’s ideals clash with those of Superman’s, with each of them disapproving of the actions and methods of each other’s governments. Clearly intrigued by Superman, it is Lois who opens his eyes to the horrendous actions of Stalin, which have left his beloved Svetlana dead after being imprisoned in a hellish gulag for knowing his true identity.
Disgusted at the torture and treatment of the prisoners, and enraged at Svetlana’s death, Superman frees the inmates and brutally kills Stalin, usurping his authority in the process and beginning his own totalitarian regime. Just as she encouraged him to give his powers to the country, Svetlana’s dying words motivate Superman to be the strongest of the strong and to ensure that the Russian people are never again oppressed. Just as Luthor hoped, this causes Superman to become a significant threat as he easily ends the Korean War and demolishes the Berlin Wall, accepting collateral damage and loss of life to safeguard the majority and spreading a message of peace through aggressive intervention. Luthor’s machinations speed up his vendetta against Superman, which sees his him cloning a bizarre version of Superman using genetic material from this landing craft.
This “Superior Man” (Travis Willingham) resembles the traditional Superman in many ways, save for a “US” symbol on his chest, and has been programmed with complete subservience to his country (and to Luthor), however he’s little more than a blank slate. Luthor unveils Superior Man in a very public display and wastes no time in sending him to confront Superman, leading to a massive brawl between the two through the streets of Moscow. Horrified at the devastation and loss of life their conflict causes, Superman quickly diverts the battle away from innocent lives (interesting that the Soviet version of Superman is more concerned with safeguarding innocent lives than Snyder’s Superman in his debut film…), but the clone soon degenerates into a monstrosity and, finally, painfully dissolves when Luthor purposely overloads him with more power to test Superman’s limits and psychologically unnerve his superpowered opponent.
Superman: Red Son isn’t anything massively new when it comes to animation since it appears very similar to other DC animated movies and draws heavy aesthetic influence from Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s animated works. The story continuously jumps through time, showing characters aging and noticeably changing (Luthor starts off quite athletic and with a full head of hair but soon grows pudgy and balding while Superman’s costume becomes darker and more adorned with military insignias and accessories as his campaign escalates), which covers a lot of ground very quickly in order to establish that these events take place over a long period of time and slowly shows the expansion of Superman’s Communist strength.
As with many alternate world stories and animated features, Red Son includes several cameos and additional characters, recast and changed by their place in this parallel world. This Superman forges a powerful alliance with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Marshall), who admires his accomplishments and his commitment to his ideals of unity through strength; their relationship is built out of a mutual desire to change the world for the better with their powers and resources rather than a romantic liaison since Diana is a lesbian in this world. In time, however, Diana comes to question Superman’s methods when he turns insurgents into little more than zombies. Similarly, Superman faces opposition from the Soviet Batman, here little more than a terrorist who openly opposes Superman’s regime after suffering in the same gulag as Svetlana and losing all faith the superpowered Premier. As with many alternate versions of Batman, the Soviet Batman is perfectly happy to kill, blowing up a museum dedicated to Superman’s accomplishments and killing numerous innocents in the process. Batman has also inspired several followers, who all wear his symbol and willingly follow his orders, which causes them to be subjected to brainwashing by Superman’s reprogrammed Brainiac technology. After many years of striking against Superman, Batman eventually overwhelms Wonder Woman and subdues her with her own Lasso of Truth in order to lure Superman into a trap. Using artificial red sunlight supplied by Luthor, Batman weakens Superman and mercilessly beats him into submission as payback for his part in the death of his parents and to liberate Russia from his oppressive rule. Ultimately, though, Wonder Woman breaks free from her binds and restores Superman’s powers, though Batman choose suicide over being subjected to Superman’s brainwashing and the whole ordeal causes Diana to walk away from man’s world.
Finally, Luthor’s ongoing efforts to bring down Superman lead to him not only becoming President of the United States and repositioning the United States as a prosperous democracy, but also discovering Abin Sur’s crashed spaceship and bequeathing the power ring on his finger to Captain Hal Jordan (Sasha Roiz) to create an alternative version of the Green Lantern Corps. Although not wishing to go to war with the United States, or to simply remove Luthor from power, Superman is forced into action when the Green Lantern Corps attack; although saved by Diana, he refuses to listen to her pleas for peace and loses her trust and friendship forever when Themyscira closes its borders to the rest of the world. Although Brainiac’s invasion of the world is limited to a brief montage, its influence on the story is significant; defeated and reprogrammed by Superman, Brainiac not only subtly influences Superman’s methods and gives him the technology necessary to better enforce his rule, but has also been secretly plotting to take over the world through Superman’s increasingly aggressive methods. This comes to a head in the finale, where Brainiac’s machinations lead Superman to the White House and the world to the brink of all-out war. Thanks to Lois, Superman realises the error of his ways and even works alongside Luthor (in a version of his signature mech suit) to battle Brainiac on the White House lawn; Luthor’s technology even ends up playing a pivotal role in disabling Brainiac’s forcefields and allowing Superman to destroy the machine, faking his death in the process and retreating to a simple, unassuming life to allow humanity to make their own destiny…and their own mistakes.
Superman: Red Son is an entertaining glimpse into an alternate version of Superman, one whose ideals of patriotism and justice are skewed by his Communist beliefs and upbringing. Initially a propaganda tool used to showcase the might of the Soviets, Superman evolves into a surprisingly layered dictator, one who laments and avoids the taking of innocent lives but is willing to aggressively expand his empire through force, if necessary. In time, his regime enforces a notable peace through the expansion of Communist ideals, which makes him colder and more inhumane in his efforts as he subjects those who defy him to lobotomies and yet still believes that his methods are more humane than those of Stalin. Superman is positioned as the enemy of the free world, particularly Democratic nations such as the United States, which seeks to liberate the Soviet nations from his oppressive rule but, as with Superman’s methods, Luthor’s aren’t exactly benevolent. One thing I found particularly interesting was that Superman doesn’t have another name; renouncing whatever name he had as a boy and becoming a symbol of Communist power and ideology, he’s also far more separated from humanity because of the emphasis on his alien nature, which is skewed by Communist beliefs. It’s an interesting take on the character and helps to make the story stand out and showcase the surprising amount of depth to Superman, who retains his trademark desire to only do good and help others but this desire is distorted by his totalitarian ways.
What did you think to Superman: Red Son? How would you rank it against the other DC animated features and how do you think it holds up against its source material? Are you a fan of the Soviet Superman concept? What other alternate scenario would you like to see Superman thrust into some day? What is your favourite alternative take on Superman and what are your thoughts on the “Evil Superman” trope in comic books and other media? Whatever your thoughts on Superman: Red Son and other parallel versions of iconic characters, go ahead and leave them down below.