When comic book companies run out of creative juices for their most iconic characters, they restart a character’s life by introducing a ‘new world’. Marvel has ‘What If?’ and DC has the ‘Elseworlds’.
The animated film adaptation of one of Elseworlds’ best comic book miniseries, Superman: Red Son, answers a question few fans must have ever thought of: What if Superman had been raised in the Soviet Union?
Instead of crashlanding at the quiet heartland of Smallville, Kansas, Kal-El’s spaceship instead lands at the Soviet Union; and instead of growing up to be a man who fights for ‘truth and justice the American way’, we get a ‘champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact’.
The ‘S’ on his chest, the Superman symbol of hope, gets replaced with hammer and sickle. When the Communist state gets pitted against the Capitalist Americans, it’s up to the Man of Steel to make sure the common man, on both sides, isn’t bogged down by the Cold War. And if that weren’t enough, it’s up to Lex Luthor to now stop Superman. Lois Lane is now Mrs Luthor and Batman is a terrorist who wants to stop Superman’s reign.
Once the initial fascination towards this new world—created by comic writer Mark Millar and directed by Sam Liu—subdues, the taut story that brings in a barrage of our favourite characters from the DC Universe keeps you going. Keeping in tune with DC’s collection of animated films, Red Son’s Superman is a trigger-happy character who doesn’t hesitate about taking the ultimate step for the greater good. The film uses this to its advantage and as our hero goes on a rampage, almost resembling The Boys’ Homelander at places, it raises the question of how much is too much. This sense of moral ambiguity, even in the lead characters, is the best part of the film. Superman is far from the hero we know him to be, and Luthor not quite the villain we expect him to be. The film is Hollywood’s familiar idea of showing how the Eastern world’s agencies worked against its own people… Superman, in fact, turns into a dictator. However, there is no great commentary on this matter, and the film shirks away from taking a political stance.
Though the action is great, the animation feels generic. The film also struggles to do justice to its many characters. The Batman episode starts with a bang and ends up as a bloody mess, even literally. I also wish the film focussed more on Wonder Woman. The climax is a big downer. Superman: Red Son has everything to have become one of the best DC films ever, but the kryptonite of its bumpy screenplay and an underwhelming climax put paid to that.