Superman: Red Son, now out on Blu-ray and 4K, offers a fascinating alternate-reality premise. What if Superman grew up in Soviet Russia? But at heart, it’s also potentially a bold political examination. Critics of communism say the ideology is inherently evil, while defenders argue that every nation which ever claimed it improperly practiced the ideology. So what if a character we all know to be inherently good took up the mantle? Could he practice communism “correctly” and create a worker’s paradise? Or would the inherent flaws corrupt even Kal-El? A compelling premise, made more so by the fact that Lex Luthor is the embodiment of capitalism. But in opposing a Soviet Superman, Lex is America’s hero, without necessarily changing any details of his usual villainy.
As is often the case with Mark Millar adaptations, some of the crazier, most out-there aspects of the comic have been toned down. Characters have been removed and arguably improved. In this version, Superman himself murders Josef Stalin after discovering the existence of gulags. And Wonder Woman, rather than pining for Superman’s affections, is an out lesbian who rejects the more explicit macho swagger of the U.S. Meanwhile, Russian Batman is a lone wolf, rather than an ally of Luthor.
There are minor spoilers ahead in this paragraph, but the problem is not the set-up. It’s a story that falls into familiar comic book tropes before finally revealing a common enemy. Rather than take any controversial sides in a political debate, Red Son merely suggests we can unite against larger foes. Wonder Woman’s ultimate takeaway, that perhaps the Cold War was simply an issue of male egos we should all walk away from, is as brave as it gets. This is notably not something that was in the original story by Millar and artist Dave Johnson.
Naturally, a cartoon set in the Soviet Union must have a voice ensemble who opt for fake Russian accents. Jason Isaacs’ Superman cuts a complex figure when not typecast as the icy villain. Diedrich Bader’s Lex Luthor is trickier. Hearing a comedian trying to play it straight is palpable.However, Vanessa Marshall’s Wonder Woman combines the power of Star Wars: Rebels‘ Hera and the animated Guardians of the Galaxy Gamora. Previous Batman and Captain America voice actor Roger Craig Smith is right at home as the ruthless Russian Batman.
This animated movie features at least one sequence that feels as inspired by Rick Veitch’s masterful The One as the original Red Son. In that miniseries, a premature nuclear launch triggers the return of God and Satan while revealing superheroes in east and west’s arsenals. Superman’s battle with Superior Man brings back memories of Veitch’s Comrade Bog. This scene also gets downright horrific for a Bruce Timm-styled animated film. The visuals across the board are strong, without the conspicuous sparseness of characters in key scenes which often marks DC DTV animated films.
In the end, though, Mark Millar is no Alan Moore. The latter could have had a field day with the politics of totalitarianism. This Red Son adaptation is closer to Batman v. Superman, except they realize their same “mother” is called planet Earth.
The Phantom Stranger animated short included on the disc is far more fun than the main feature. It stars Peter Serafinowicz as the voice of the Phantom Stranger, and he’s doing his best Patrick Stewart impression. Seemingly set in the ’60s, the short draws on both Scooby-Doo and EC horror comics. Four groovy guys and gals in a van pick up a new friend and take her to meet a cult leader at an old spooky mansion. And they would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for that meddling supernatural superhero. An entire movie like this could be amazing, although the Phantom Stranger probably lacks the recognition to make it happen.
Two other bonus featurettes include a making-of which features original artist Dave Johnson and a couple of history professors. They put the Cold War, and superheroes in general, into context, respectively. Then there’s an advance look at Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, which combines characters from the Justice League, Justice League Dark, and Teen Titans. It appears set to wrap up the New 52-inspired storylines that have intertwined so far. Tony Todd as Darkseid already has our interest and future dollars.
Grade: Red Son, 2.5/5. Phantom Stranger short, 4/5.