I’ve never been overly enamoured with superhero films. It’s not the case that I take umbrage with any technical or aesthetic aspects either, it’s essentially because they tend to follow a recycled narrative of one or more extraordinarily gifted warriors-of-justice locking horns with a dastardly and powerful villain(s) and, a few nuances and tweaks notwithstanding, the former always manages to end up saving the day and winning the hearts of the people in the same way, over and over again. The only remarkable exception for me until now would be Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight from 2008, as it’s more or less a Michael Mann-style crime thriller with people in Halloween costumes, and has noticeably grittier, downbeat and more nihilistic elements than your average DC/Marvel-inspired blockbuster. The trouble is, a great deal of iconic comic books and graphic novels are actually resplendent with interesting and challenging high concepts, there just seems to be a deficiency in the ratio of filmmakers with the guts to take them on. It would also be unfair of me to omit the contention that certain things only truly work when commuted to hand-drawn/completely CGI animation, so any hesitation to cinematically fuck with things on that front is understandable. Bearing all of this in mind, it was a pleasant and welcome surprise to be presented with Red Son, Sam Liu’s smart, thoughtful and mad new animated adaptation of Mark Millar’s somewhat controversial alternate history comic series.
What if baby Kal-El’s spaceship didn’t land in the Kansas town of Smallville, but instead touched down on a farm in the Soviet Union? What if he didn’t grow up to become an iconic American defender of the Western ideals of freedom and justice, but was instead nursed by Josef Stalin to become the invincible symbol of communist collectivism, who saw freedom of expression, individualism and other traditional U.S. values as poisonous and decadent concepts that corroded the fabric of society? There are no Ma & Pa Kent, Lois Lane is still an award-winning journalist Stateside, (and has gone on to marry Lex Luthor, of all people) and the American government is shit-scared that their foremost national rivals are in possession of a superpowered alien who could wipe out their standing military as easily as he takes a piss. Quite the overhaul, eh?
In his zealous commitment to Soviet ideology and blind faith in Stalin as a champion of the common man, Superman proceeds to wage an aggressive campaign to implement pro-socialist, pro-proletariat restructuring at the global level. This move inspires the United States to up the arms race ante from weapons technology to the development of ‘Superior Man’ (a riff on the DC character Bizarro), a monstrous Man Of Steel clone conceived by Lex Luthor. Though he still retains the megalomania and narcissism of previous incarnations, Luthor is somewhat more morally ambiguous here, seeking to use his talents as a mad scientist to protect the U.S. and its interests as opposed to mere self-success. In an early sequence, Superman flies to the States on a well-meaning albeit intimidating peace mission, and becomes acquainted with Lois, who relishes the thought of an article covering this mysterious and widely feared embodiment of Russia’s Cold War-era iron will. She suspects that while he may be of pure intentions, those who have raised and indoctrinated him could not be accused of the same, and she endeavours to convince him to attempt to reach a more peaceable and diplomatic approach to the USSR’s international enemies, whilst also trying to prevent her loony inventor husband from stooping to levels of barbarism that the U.S. government claim to be culturally beneath them.
The hand-drawn animation is a wonderfully nostalgic touch, evocative of many 90s Saturday morning cartoons, and the film respects its high concept with a punchy and intelligent script that dissects international relations, the moral complexities of the United States and Russia as global superpowers, public perception of superheroes and the subjectivity inherent in the question of who is truly a force for good or evil. It makes wonderful use of several iconic DC characters including The Green Lantern and Brainiac (without giving anything away, I’ll also say that animated Russian Batman is one of the scarier elements). There are also renditions of real-life historical figures, JFK making a particularly well-crafted and amusing appearance. The movie does have a degree of schmaltz, but it was ultimately befitting in context, as it could have easily been jarring and cringe-inducing. The one criticism I have to make is Wonder Woman’s appearance as Superman’s primary admirer and protege who quickly develops into an extremely misandrist personality. I’m not accusing the creators of trying to use her as a mouthpiece for hardcore feminist mentality, as it didn’t strike me as such, but after her fourth or fifth #YesAllMen diatribe, it starts to get pretty damn tiresome, even if the intention was to depict her as somebody who thinks in black-and-white terms. I hope it’s the latter, because it would be a shame for a film that is written so smartly and substantively to sincerely propagate such sweeping generalisations.
In summary, what my arguably snobbish cognitive bias anticipated to be, at best, a serviceable time-killer is actually a highly entertaining, mature, suspenseful, funny and poignant spin on a classic comic book narrative, reinterpreting famous characters in an out-of-the-box manner and taking an almost metafictional approach to how the general public feel about Superman, in America and elsewhere (Also, extra props for having Superman voiced by Jason Isaacs, a personal favourite who carries off a nice Russian accent). I now feel it is remiss of me not to have checked out other much-lauded animated features, Red Son being a necessary eye-opener to the brilliant potential of DC adaptations, provided the story is meaty and in capable hands. Think I might check out Under The Red Hood next.
Superman: Red Son was released digitally on February 25th and will be available on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray from March 17th.