SUPERMAN: RED SON (2020) review

Superman: Red Son (Warner Bros.)

Superman: Red Son is available on digital platforms now, the film hits Blu-ray, Blu-ray Mini Fig, Blu-ray Steelbook and DVD on March 16, 2020.

Synopsis

Based on DC’s famed Elseworlds tale from 2003, Superman: Red Sontakes place in an alternate reality where the spaceship bearing the last survivor of Krypton crash lands – not in rural Kansas, but in Stalinist Russia. Can this Cold War-era Earth survive the coming of a Soviet Superman?

Review

It’s no secret that DC Comics has cornered the market with its direct-to-video animated movie line. Starting all the way back in 2007 with Superman: Doomsday we now find ourselves sitting here discussing the 37th entry to the franchise, Superman: Red Son.

Much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s unstoppable formula at the box office, the DCAU has settled in to a groove by which is releases these incredibly successful titles. Each year will feature a Justice League title and alongside it there will be a Batman or Superman title plus something which is of an Elseworlds nature.

2015’s Justice League: Gods and Monsters proved there is an appetite for these stories outside of the normal continuity, a theory backed up by the success of Batman: Gotham By Gaslight in 2018 and soon to be cemented for anyone choosing to watch Red Son.

Based on the 2003 miniseries of the same name, written by Mark Millar and pencilled by Dave Johnson, Andrew Robinson, Walden Wong and Killian Plunkett, Red Son tales the “What if?” scenario had Kal-El’s spacecraft landed in Mother Russia rather than the good old U, S of A.

Over the course of these 37 films, DC and Warner Bros. have become incredibly adept at giving their audience an original viewing experience. Plenty of the animated films have been adapted straight from the pages of DC Comics but in recent years those adapting the books have made changes to the story in-order to keep viewers on their toes.

What’s important to note is that DC doesn’t make these changes lightly and they almost always feel in keeping with the original tone of the story.

Red Son presents it’s titular Man of Steel as more of a straight up villain for much of the film. It’s more black and white than Millar’s original text but allows for director Sam Liu and writer J.M. DeMatteis to complicate matters elsewhere in the story.

Their version of the story, rightly, focusses on the title character rather than wasting unnecessary screen time on world building. We’re fed enough information to understand the context of the world around Superman, particularly in his new home country of Russia. There are glimpses of the US through the eyes of Lex Luthor and his wife Lois Lane-Luthor but only as the story requires it.

The film does presume the viewer has prior knowledge of the comic book and the wider DC Universe, though it’s fair to say that is most likely the case it will undoubtedly deter some casual viewers.

The film takes place over a number of years, beginning in 1946 as a young Kal-El discovers his powers whilst still living on the farm with his family and ending as President Luthor hands over the reigns of power in the US to the new incoming President, Jimmy Olsen. The intervening years cleverly paint a picture of how the Russian regime could impact on Superman’s ideals and pervert his journey to becoming the symbol of hope we know him as today.

The story loosely flirts with historical accuracy as Superman is taken under the wing of Joseph Stalin during his rise to dictatorship. Similarly, when we first meet Lex and Lois they are in an America which is lead by President Eisenhower. This early grounding in reality helps to set the scene and familiarise the audience with certain aspects of the society in which the characters inhabit. It’s from here that events being to unravel in a more comic book style.

“The Soviet Superman,” as he is dubbed, becomes a similar symbol of hope to the Russian populous . It feels all too familiar as a story which only adds to the emotional impact of the remainder of his journey. Eisenhower instructs Lex to creat a countermeasure should the Soviets set their Superman against America.

When a satellite is hurtling towards Metropolis, Superman steps in to save the day and catches the attention of Lois, who requests an interview. It sets the two character on a familiar course as there is still some flirtation between them and a palpable sense of connection. In a change from the comic book, Lex sets Superman on the path to destruction when he leaks information to the Man of Steel via Lois.

Red Son doesn’t shy away from asking some tough political questions and one of its most challenging is the use of Russian gulags. When Lois presents Superman with evidence of the gulags existence he, at first, refuses to believe it can be true of his leaders. His dedication to Stalin is reminiscent of how he dedicates himself to truth, justice and the American way and keeps Superman feeling like the character we’ve always known him to be… up to this point.

When he finds the gulag and his childhood friend Svetlana, replacing a Lana Lang replicant from the comic book, it pushes Superman in to new territory. He returns to the capital and promptly (and shockingly) murders Stalin before taking his place as the leader of the Soviet Union.

From here the story progresses in tragic fashion as Superman dedicates himself to the betterment of this country and the world. Unfortunately he does so by spreading the Soviet Union’s message across the globe, taking more countries as he goes. Though it may seem power mad for him to do so it’s clearly communicated through the story that Superman truly felt that he was doing right by those people he was “protecting.” His conviction becomes that he can protect anyone from a fate such as the gulags if he can keep them under his watchful eye.

His behaviour escalates and is seems a threatening to the outside world, particularly to the now President Luthor and the American people. Though it’s clearly signposted as to where the story is going it’s still an exciting journey to go on. As I said, this adaption keeps the story fresh enough that the ending is still sufficiently satisfying without verging too far from the source material, although it does jettison some time travel wonkiness from the book.

Luthor, Lane and Olsen aren’t the only holdovers from the prime DC universe either. Both Wonder Woman and Batman play pivotal roles in the story as they did in the original comic book.

Wonder Woman, originally a potential love interest for Superman, is portrayed as LGBTQ+ in this version of the story. She stands as a potential ally to Superman until she recognises that his methods are less than palatable. Their relationship is less dramatic than in the comic, apart from THAT scene with Batman which we’ll get to in a minute, but regardless their final scene together leaves the viewer with a heavy heart. Diana concedes that she must side with America, leading to inevitable fisticuffs with Superman who refuses to continue to be a pacifist. She ultimately decides that he isn’t worth it and tells him they will never speak again.

Rather than a vicious fight to the death she deals the killing blow to him emotionally and it’s a great moment to behold.

Batman, on the other hand, is painted as an even darker soul than in the comic book. After seeing his parents murdered in the gulag he takes on the Batman mantle as a terrorist who stands against Superman.

In the comic, Batman disrupts life in Russia in order to show Superman for the unfair leader (putting it mildly) that he is. Here he steps up his rhetoric by blowing up a number of high profile locations, murdering innocent women and children in the process. He also gets the better of Wonder Woman, trapping her in her own lasso an ordering her to commit suicide should Superman kill him. It’s dark stuff for The Dark Knight and really ups the political ante of the film.

When he meets his ultimate end it’s also one of the film’s bloodiest scenes and certainly shows that these DC films aren’t always for children!

The animation style certainly bares some resemblance to the Bruce Timm, Batman the Animated Series, era of the DC Animated Universe. Character designs all have a sense of familiarity about then but with harsher lines and much more muted colours. Superman remains a foreboding entity on screen, commanding his scenes as expected and often floating above others as a way of intimidation.

The film is bathed in some keep reds grey’s which really set it apart from every other animated film in the franchise. The entire aesthetic of Red Son, as an Elseworlds story should feel and it creates a great overall experience for the viewer which is enhanced by Frederick Wiedmann’s inspired score.

Verdict

Superman: Red Son is a challenging and politically charged “What If?” statement on the history of Superman. It features an engaging story, inspired visuals which will satisfy even the most sceptical viewer.

8/10

The cast of the latest direct-to-video film includes Jason Isaacs (Batman: Under the Red Hood) as Superman; Diedrich Bader (Batman: Brave and the Bold) as Lex Luthor; Amy Acker (Angel) as Lois Lane; Vanessa Marshall (Star Wars Rebels) as Wonder Woman; Phil Morris (Doom Patrol) as James Olsen; Paul Williams (Goliath) as Brainiac; Sash Roiz (Grimm) and Phil LaMarr (Supergirl) as Hal Jordan and Jon Stewart; and Roger Graig Smith (Arkham Origins) as Batman.

Red Son‘ will also introduce a number of Cold War-era figures seen in the source material. Travis Willingham (Batman: Bad Blood) will voice John F. Kennedy and Superior Man, while William Sayers (Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders) will voice Joseph Stalin, and Ave Zoli will voice Svetlana.


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By Neil Vagg

Neil is the GYCO Editorial Chief. He has a BA in Film & Tv and an MA in Scriptwriting; he currently works 9-5 as an office manager and 5-9 as a reviewer/web designer. He has been subscribing to comics for around nine years but has been reading them as long as he can remember. Favourite comics: Batman; Nightwing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and All New X-Men Favourite films: Batman (any apart from & Robin); Star Trek Generations, Underworld, Beetlejuice Favourite TV shows: Fringe; Buffy, Arrow, TBBT, Being Human UK and Star Trek TNG