‘Superman: Red Son’ squanders solid source materia

March 6, 2020

The latest addition to DC Comics’ roster of animated features, “Superman: Red Son,” had the potential to be one of the best. But the film failed to live up to expectations. Despite having some of the best source material in the DC multiverse, the film is held back by severe flaws. Wooden voice acting, boring animation and several key changes to the original story robs much of the film’s emotional depth and complexity, leaving a movie that has some good ideas but fails to deliver on them.

For context, the comic book version of “Superman: Red Son” written by Mark Millar was a miniseries released in 2003 under the Elseworlds imprint of DC Comics. It’s a classic “what if”-style story, a sub-genre of superhero stories that takes an established character and alters their history. “Superman: Red Son” posed the question, “what if Superman did not land in Smallville, KS, but rather deep in the Soviet Union?” While not the first comic to propose this idea, this mini series took a unique spin on the scenario by removing the “American” ideals from his character.

Instead of becoming an enduring symbol of truth, justice and the American Way, Superman is raised to be the pride of the Soviet Union. Over time, Superman eventually replaced Stalin and became the leader of this alternate Soviet Union. Under his rule, communism spread across the world, only kept in check by his rival the capitalist Lex Luthor, who eventually became the president of the United States. The miniseries also contains many alternate versions of other famous DC characters like Batman and Wonder Woman. 

This unique premise allows the mini series to cover various deep philosophical questions such as the nature versus nurture debate. Can Superman still be a hero even when raised to believe in the ideals of Stalin? If presented with a Superman who poses a threat to the American way of life, can Lex Luthor be considered a hero? The comic covers these issues with excellent writing and careful consideration. Both Superman and Lex are presented as flawed characters, as Superman tries to do good, until he eventually becomes too overbearing and controlling in his bid to create a perfect world. On the other hand, Lex Luthor is still presented as an overconfident narcissist, obsessed with beating Superman, yet he often does so for sympathetic reasons.

While the comic book version is often hailed as one of the greatest Superman comics of all time, the film fails to live up to its source material. Normally, I prefer to review a film based solely on its own merit regardless of source material, however, in this case the deviations from the source material lessen the themes of the story. 

The first two major problems with the film are its less-than-stellar animation and subpar voice acting.  The original comic’s art by Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett was captivating and awe-inspiring. Several panels have gone on to become iconic, like the image of Superman’s first appearance in Metropolis with the Soviet hammer and sickle etched on his chest. The artwork expressed the deep emotion and inner thoughts of the characters. Johnson visually depicts the moral decay of Superman, initially showing him as bright and hopeful. Gradually his demeanor and costume reflect his more jaded and overbearing personality. The film version fails to replicate this effect. A limited budget may have hampered certain aspects of animation, but regardless, the wooden and frankly boring animation does a disservice to the original artwork.

The voice acting is also a major problem. The two main characters, Superman and Lex Luthor, are voiced by Jason Issacs and Diedrick Bader, respectively. Despite being two of the film’s central characters, their voices are monotone and again, very boring. Epic scenes like the climactic fight with Brainiac on the steps of the White House are rendered laughable as soon as Lex or Superman speaks. Voice acting is much more difficult than people give it credit for, and I don’t normally like to call out voice actors. But in this case the work is lacking.

But the film’s biggest flaws are its deviations from the original story. Typically with any adaptation some cuts and alterations have to be made. However, in this case, the original story wasn’t that long. While the film is just around 70 minutes, it still made some major cuts, cuts that hurt the story. For example, the removal of a major character Pyotr Roslov, the Soviet version of Superman’s childhood friend Pete Ross. In the comic, Pytor is the illegitimate son of Stalin and plays a key role in the events of the story. It is implied that he arranges Stalin’s death and eventually betrays Superman out of jealousy. This betrayal is an essential part of Superman’s character arc in the story, marking his transformation into an overbearing tyrant. 

Pyotr is not present in the film, however, and instead Superman murders Stalin with heat-vision in the first act. While Superman does so for good reasons, it’s a huge leap to violence rather than the gradual and nuanced decay of his moral values found in the comic.

Perhaps the most egregious change in the film is its conclusion. In the comic, Superman is ultimately defeated not by force or by superpowers but by a letter from Lois Lane, a letter containing one sentence that broke the Soviet Superman, bringing him to tears. The sentence illustrates how Superman is becoming more like Brainiac, trying to bottle and control the world. This clever and utterly unique defeat of Superman is altered slightly: instead of a letter, Lois carries an actual bottled city. While the content of the argument that defeats Superman remains the same, the powerful scene where Superman is defeated by a piece of paper is lost. This minor detail seems trivial, but it actually devalues the story the film is trying to tell.

Indeed, this last change is indicative of the film as a whole, a series of changes, cut scenes, cut characters, poor voice acting and boring animation. This great source material and could have been the basis for a great film, but ultimately does a disservice to one of the greatest Superman stories of all time. 

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