In comics, stories that re-imagine heroes in entirely new situations are commonplace. Story arcs from both Marvel and DC have explored what it would be like if their heroes were to embrace their darkest aspects. The danger these comics pose is that they can occasionally become gimmicks meant only to sell comics, rather than insightful character studies. One such story that delivers on both captivating moments and meaningful character analysis is DC’s famous comic “Superman: Red Son.” The story follows an alternate timeline where the last Kryptonian crash lands in the USSR and is raised to believe in the Soviet ideals. Finally, after its initial release in 2003, “Superman: Red Son” has been adapted into a superb animated film.
As mentioned earlier, Red Son tells the story of a Superman that isn’t raised believing in the American dream, but instead is fully devoted to the ideals of Karl Marx and the Soviet state. As a hero loyal to the state, Superman becomes the symbol of the Soviet Union and its expansion through Asia and Europe. In the U.S., he is opposed by the billionaire genius Lex Luthor as he works tirelessly with the U.S. government to combat this living super weapon. As the film unfolds, audiences bear witness to Superman’s struggles as he fights to lead the USSR while also protecting every citizen that relies upon him. Like the comic, the film captures the essence of Superman and explores whether his devotion to peace and justice is innately within him or dependant upon his upbringing. The film succeeds in this feat by faithfully adapting its source material while also successfully streamlining some of its more complex moments.
Though the original source material isn’t as lengthy as other iconic graphic novels, it still covers a lot of ground that could easily overwhelm a film adaptation. The comic features countless characters from DC comics and spans several decades. A straightforward adaptation would easily become burdened by the lengthy worldbuilding that would quickly lose audiences. Luckily, the animated film adapts the comic by streamlining many of its crucial plot points by presenting them in a digestible format that never sacrifices quality. Each successive plot point and character introduction serves its purpose and rarely feels rushed. Even the central themes throughout the original comic remain present in the film as it explores the nature versus nurture debate with regards to the man of steel. Each obstacle and opponent Superman faces tests his resolve. This insightful character study of Superman’s core ideals is a captivating ride that is sure to keep audiences interested throughout.
Building off the film’s faithful adaptation of the comic’s story, it wholeheartedly succeeds in its alternative adaptation of DC’s iconic characters. Jason Isaacs does a superb job voicing the Russian Superman, delivering on his portrayal of the man of steel as a complex totalitarian figure that is both strong and sympathetic. Joining him is perhaps one of the best portrayals of Lex Luthor (Diedrech Bader) in recent memory. Though Lex remains the arrogant, genius billionaire; the nature of his antagonism toward the man of steel has changed. Lex is no longer alone in viewing Superman as a threat as now all of America fears him and the expansion of the Soviet Union. His personal mission to best Superman is now a patriotic endeavor backed fully by the U.S. government. His role as America’s last and best hope is a refreshingly new take on the iconic villain and is true to his character in the original comic.
Rounding out the cast includes two great and memorable interpretations of Wonder Woman and Batman. Wonder Woman is in some ways improved upon in this film as she is no longer simply an Amazonian ambassador infatuated with Superman. Instead she is given more complexity as Superman’s staunchest ally and equal. Batman, on the other hand, is far more faithful to the source material. A far deviation from the character we all know, this Batman is a murderous terrorist hell-bent on tearing down all that Superman has built. Like most characters in the film, he offers Superman with both physical and philosophical obstacles that call into question his methods as the Soviet leader. All in all, almost every character in the film lands as a slew of recognizable DC characters are adapted to fit this alternate timeline.
The film’s biggest flaw, however, comes with its handling of the villain Brainiac and his role in the finale. In the original comic, Brainaic presents Superman with his greatest failure despite his success at capturing the cybernetic conqueror. In both the film and comic, Brainiac’s invasion of the Soviet Union results in the irreversible shrinking of Stalingrad.This event and Superman’s inability to restore the city and its citizens plagues the hero and plays a major role in the comic’s conclusion. The film’s handling of Brainiac and the shrunken city of Stalingrad are oversimplified and streamlined in a way that minimizes its significance. Though streamlining benefited the film in many ways, doing so here makes its finale fall flat and carry far less emotional weight than the comic’s did. The end feels somewhat rushed and fails to carry the same emotional blow that the original comics conclusion had.
With all that said, “Superman: Red Son” is undoubtedly one of DC’s best animated films in recent memory. Wisely choosing to adapt a beloved comic, the film beautifully captures Superman’s character despite its unfamiliar context. Like the comic, the film delivers on a meaningful story that questions whether Superman is innately good.
Verdict: “Superman: Red Son” is one of DC’s best animated films to date. Its representation of a Superman raised in the Soviet Union is fascinating as it explores whether his upbringing is crucial to his character or if it is in his nature to be a hero.