Superman: Red Son
"Superman: Red Son" is an animated reinterpretation of the famous Elseworlds comic book story by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Punkett that retells the story of Superman if Kal-El's space ship landed in the Soviet Union instead of Smallville, Kansas and raised with the ideology of communism. Spanning the decades of the Cold War era, Superman takes power for himself and becomes proactive in instituting his vision for peace and harmony but opposition from the United States of America led by Lex Luthor and from within by Batman leaves the world in a fragile balance as a bigger threat bids its time. Kicking the festivities off with DC Universe's first release of the new decade, Warner Bros. Animation presents yet another compelling, thrilling, and thought provoking examination on the themes of nature vs. nurture, humanity, morality, ideology, power, and redemption.
"Superman: Red Son" is a much lauded Elseworld's title much like "Batman: Gotham by Gaslight" which was loosely adapted back in 2018 had its title characters from DC's universe taken to a different era from the present and placed in an alternate reality where the ripple effects are far reaching yet still familiar in a sense. Some things stayed the same, some didn't, and there were some drastic turns. It isn't just Superman, who becomes a symbol of then leader of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Lois Lane marries Lex Luthor. Luthor isn't a super villain and even becomes President and saves the U.S. from economic hardship. James Olsen is a federal agent and eventually succeeds Luthor as President. Batman is instead a nameless Russian anarchist and terrorist rather than an American turned vigilante. Lana, still Superman's childhood friend, is Svetlana but suffers a cruel fate. Wonder Woman tries to promote peace and diplomacy to Man's World but watches as violence and brutality takes the forefront of global conflict. But ultimately, at its core, the story is a study of what happens if Superman is stripped of his classic Clark Kent persona and gets just too proactive even with the best intentions, forcing his vision on Russia and reprogramming those who won't agree to it.
The movie is a loose adaptation of the original comic, much like the "Batman: Gotham by Gaslight" movie. I knew of the Superman: Red Son comic over the years, knew the basic premise and story, but I never got around to reading it from the first to last issue. At the time of writing this review, I chose not to read it and decided to rate the movie as just a movie itself rather than overly compare comic and movie. I saw a lot of similarities with one of the first releases of the movie line, "Justice League: The New Frontier" where it wasn't just DC characters dumped in a retro timeline but interwoven with real world history and creating a new complex and detailed world. Eisenhower leaned on Lex Luthor for dealing with the Russians. In way, the arms race was no longer about nuclear warfare because the Soviets had Superman. Luthor tries to retaliate by creating a clone but gets called out on his moral failings by his wife with even a tinge of commentary on the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq. Superman killed Stalin and took power then squashed the Korean conflict. Brainiac attacks Stalingrad instead of Metropolis. Batman is a Russian terrorist leading the opposition against Superman's regime. Kennedy was involved in the formation of Earth's Green Lanterns. Lex Luthor and James Olsen serve as Presidents of the United States. There are even some neat landmarks peppered in like the opening of the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam which occurred a few years early in the Red Son timeline. Or the People's Museum is based on the State Historical Museum located at the Red Square. And perhaps a hat tip to Mehcad Brooks' casting on the Supergirl live action series, Olsen is portrayed as an African American.
Screenwriter J.M. DeMatteis is no stranger to adapting classic stories into animation but masterfully adding his own twist into changing some scenes and outcomes, perhaps for better, so they land on screen just as powerfully as they did on page. He, Bruce Timm, director/producer Sam Liu, casting and voice director Wes Gleason and the rest of the crew made for a great combination. While it's true there's only so many ways to stage Superman in action... I mean, have we seen Superman tearing up a Brainiac skull ship a healthy amount of times in animation but team ups like DeMatteis and Liu always bring something new like the swift yet brutal and tragic death of Stalin, the battle with Superior Man and his grotesque transformations, Batman choosing an explosive suicide over capture and reprogramming, or Superman overcoming Brainiac's personal force field and ripping his head and spinal cord out. But what I think, more importantly, there's a lot of emotion and drama storyboarded and animated, teamed with superb acting and music, that completely uplifts the movie to a higher level. There's a child-like optimism and idealism driving Superman yet his acts are contrasted with brutality. Superman tearfully wiping out Stalin for the greater good of the nation, Luthor's changed posture and tone when he utters that quiet "I'm sorry" when Lois storms out of the lab, Batman's tone changing when he realizes Superman doesn't get it's not a game, Wonder Woman's speech, the disappointment and disgust in the violence she sees, or the sheer weight of the moment when she easily catches Superman's punch has much more power in storytelling than her punching him back. And the true anchor of the movie was the work of Frederik Wiedmann. For the Russian scenes, he was clearly inspired by Soviet propaganda and Russian music.
Upon first viewing, it was a bit jarring to hear Jason Issacs as Superman and Diedrich Bader as Lex Luthor but after multiple viewings, my brain finally let go of the trappings of their past roles and what I'm used to both characters sounding like. They were really, really done. But I admit, I am no expert on Russians speaking English other than what I've seen in movies, TV shows, and the news. It wasn't over the top or ham fisted to me. I also started to notice a lot nuance in the acting of the cast, including Isaacs, Bader, Roger Craig Smith, and Vanessa Marshall. It wasn't just one tone throughout the whole movie, especially in the dramatic moments of the movie. Paul Williams is always a great addition to any cast and it was an interesting take on Brainiac with the digitizing added. Almost a bit like Arnim Zola in Captain America: Winter Soldier. I was left wanting more Phil Morris and Phil LaMarr, they could have used more screen time in my opinion. Or when a real world person is part of the story, always fun to hear an actor's take and this this case Jim Meskimen's take on Kennedy, William Salyers' Stalin and whoever did Eisenhower were all quite palatable. And I believe George Taylor was a pastiche of Edward Murrow, done here by Jim Ward. Winter Ave Zoli really stole the show with both of her big scenes as Svetlana. But unfortunately, something about this take on Lois didn't click with me. Sorry, Amy Acker.
I had no issue with the structure and pacing but it's clear that Red Son, like New Frontier or All-Star Superman, is more episodic than a straight narrative. While in all 3 cases, a great deal of lifting was made to make it more akin to the latter. Still, I could see some viewers not messing with the time skips or the anthology/collection of stories feel to it. Same as reading, not everyone reads the same kinds of books. Looking at animation quality, I'm not the biggest fan of Digital eMation but in general they handled this movie quite well but if you start holding out a magnifying glass to certain scenes... you do seem some imperfections or question if Superman is on-model or his chin is off. Or Batman's suicide seemed to have been edited oddly or chopped too much. The FX of Superman bouncing off Brainiac's force field seemed kind of unpolished or something. Whereas, the non-action scenes for the most part were very well done. I've also seen Wonder Woman is a frequent gripe brought up.Wonder Woman being the voice of reason and no one listening was pretty damn tragic. I liked that they honed in on her classic role as a peacemaker but as the movie progressed, her hope (and patience) in mankind deteriorated because as predicted by Hippolyta the justification of force and brutality repeated itself in the post-World War II Cold War era. And that hope to her was Superman but in the end was no better than Stalin. Or some take issue with Superman and Wonder Woman being platonic friends and the latter's sexuality. I think most of missed that in this story, both are depicted to lack their classic alter-egos and thus, miss out on the theme of identity vs. being the symbol. Superman is utterly relieved at not having to try and romance Wonder Woman because he's intent on 100% focusing on his mission in life. Same with Wonder Woman, she's just a diplomat really in this story. And sure her "Men" line could be misinterpreted for a crude conclusion she's a man hating lesbian but the true take on that line and scene was that she was disgusted with her naivete, for believing too much that one person was going to change things. If she hated Superman, she wouldn't have saved him from Batman nor would she have stopped at blocking his punch then departing the battle. She would have obliterated everyone there if she was a man hater for no reason. In a tragic way, she's the angel on Superman's shoulder who he listening to but not really listening to. I would guess if you're not a fan of politics or political statements in animation, you'll have issues with this one or only see politics and fail to see the real themes and message of the story. My only real gripe was Superior Man. Really meh take on Bizarro, but using him as a one dimensional 9/11 metaphor with the liberator line made me cringe.
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment offers "Superman: Red Son" as a 4K Blu-ray combo and Blu-ray/DVD combo. Target will have the exclusive Steelbook edition and Best Buy has an exclusive combo set with a Superman figure. It will be on the DC Universe streaming service in 90 or 91 days, so mid-June. The featurette "Cold Red War," is 16:57 in length and explores the origins of the Elseworlds comic line and its Cold War influence. There are two episodes of the Motion Comics version of Red Son for the initiated to get a sampling of then perhaps lean into purchasing the whole thing and/or the comic. The sneak peek for the next movie, "Justice League Dark: Apokolips War" is 10 minutes, 23 seconds and hypes it up as the finale of the movie line's ongoing canon story. The DC Vault appropriately presents Justice League's "A Better World" Part 1 and Part 2 which shares similar story cues with Red Son. No "Brave New Metropolis" from Superman: The Animated Series nor "Keeping Up With The Kryptonians" from Justice League Action that literally had a Red Son Superman in the episode. Th Sneak Peak Revisited section features The Death of Superman and Batman: Gotham By Gaslight. The trailers are of Batman: Hush and The Death and Return of Superman. But sadly, no commentary track.
The DC Showcase paired with Red Son is Phantom Stranger. Set in the 1970s, the short follows young adult Jess as she joins a group of new friends at a party in a dilapidated mansion hosted by the mysterious Seth only for the enigmatic Phantom Stranger to intervene. Even if I wasn't a fan of the classic Phantom Stranger comics, I thought it was a really good short that leaves you wanting more. Like a limited series on the DC Universe streaming service. The short excels with a less-is-more approach that doesn't need to overly explain who Phantom Stranger is. You get it from just watching the short. He's a mysterious supernatural character that saves humanity from supernatural threats. The main aspect that I really enjoyed was that it was evocative of the era in a similar way DC Showcase Sceptre short from years back was. You can definitely feel it - the teens in the van, talking about their parents, terms and slang used like the Joneses and the Man, the zeitgeist of the time and theme of being lost and finding truth, the music, the dance sequence, the period clothing and hairstyle the characters were dressed in. The crew really did their homework and executed Bruce Timm's vision.
I loved the little details and juxtapositions that correlate with what's really going on as Stranger tries to intimate. Like when they look at the statue outside -- it's of Pan, you can tell by the design and pan flute. He's supposed to be a god of fertility in some interpretations but he's above a pond that's stagnant and a dead fish appears. Couple that with some associations Pan has had with Satan... And in a way, the flute and later the music/dance sequence vaguely reminded me of the Pied Piper luring children away. And the tribal masks and Egyptian gods inside also suggest Seth is also a small "g" god. And of course going back to the Egyptian statues, Seth himself uses that pendant to stay alive and it's name is taken from the ouroboros from... Egyptian myth that symbolizes eternity and fertility which both come into play here with Seth staying immortal by stealing life through the act of kissing. And naturally, the statue and mainly Seth's name connotes the Egyptian god Seth and one of his attributes is trickery which comes into play here. Shane Glines and Bruce Timm were two of three character designers in this one. While there's definitely the 'Timm style' - there were times when I definitely thought I saw some leaning into the Carmine Infantino influence, which would be appropriate since he was the co-creator of Phantom Stranger, in those how would I describe it, like the 'chiseled cheeks' and the shape of the characters' heads. And lastly, loved the DC nod to the Silverblade comic's Jonathan Lord having been the previous owner of the estate and likely a past victim of Seth. The Silverblade comics came out around the same time Phantom Stranger debuted in the mid-late 80s so that could be the connection there. All in all, excellent. Here's to more. Please!
"Superman: Red Son" is a timely and thought provoking tale of ascension and redemption and solid addition to the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line to date. Red Son asks what if the one with the greatest power to change the world for the better takes that step with the best intentions but falters? Can he come back from being his worst own enemy and make the right call to let humanity steer its own destiny before its too late? Will he ultimately be the Superman we know and love? Heralded by the best of the best cast and crew, "Superman: Red Son" is a highly recommended purchase.
Main Feature: 4 out of 5
Special Features: 3 out of 5
Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5