Give the current political state of America, it’s an interesting time for the animated film Superman: Red Son to land on DC Universe. Taking the most popular American Boy Scout and turning him into a superbeing for the Soviet Union is, arguably, more controversial now than it was in 2003 when Mark Millar wrote the original comic series. An examination of history, the Cold War, and the ideological positions of the Soviet Union and US through the lens of comic book mythology seems like an apt place for a political statement of some kind. However, Superman: Red Son doesn’t really seem interested in taking a position, any position, in what is ostensibly a very political movie.
Superman: Red Son originally debuted in February as a direct-to-video/digital title, but it only just hit DC Universe. The original release didn’t make much noise, but the film is quite good. The DC Animated movies over the past seven or eight years have been quite good. They put out at least two per year, and even the bonkers ones (like Batman: Ninja) are at least visually stimulating. They also just ended, rather triumphantly, their own connected animated universe, based on the New 52, with Justice League Dark: Apokolips War. So, it’s strange that a DC animated movie adaptation of a beloved Elseworlds series flew by unnoticed.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that while the adaptation is faithful, things were only taken out rather than added. (This is not always a bad thing, as Batman: The Killing Joke proved.) Yet, the changes in the film only made things more ambiguous and muddled what, if any, political message there was. Superman: Red Son is 90-minutes well-spent (and even earns you DC Universe “rewards”), but it fails to actually say something.
Superman: Red Son on DC Universe Is Totally a Political Film
Image via screengrab
Of course, you may be more than a little sick of politics. If you are watching a Superman cartoon, you probably just want some simple escapism. If so, that’s what you get. However, when I say this is a “political” film, I mean that in the most abstract sense possible. The entire premise is political. Superman surrenders himself to the state, specifically Stalin’s government in the Soviet Union. The political debate between capitalism and communism, democracy and totalitarianism are crucial parts of this story. Yet, the storytellers, don’t seem to really want to take a position on either of them.
Forgive the light spoilers, but in the comics Lex Luthor is clearly the villain. In Superman: Red Son on DC Universe however, he’s actually kind of a good guy? He’s a bit of a jagoff in the beginning, endangering the city and doing human experimentation. Yet by the end, he doesn’t appear to the be the dictator that Millar envisioned. (One who was apparently very good in the comics, the politics of this story are all messed up.)
The only political statement to be found in the film is that people should have free will. Let’s put aside that this is literally the most basic sort of morally political message one can make. The first act of this film presents a really interesting political question. When Superman first meets Lois, he says that the press is “the enemy of the people,” a phrase that unbelievably worked its way into real-world US politics today. Yet, what Superman says about capitalism on their second meeting could have been cribbed from modern-day progressives’ stump speeches. Yet, when the time comes to take a stance, politically-speaking, the movie avoids it entirely.
“Authoritarians Are Bad” Is, Sadly, Still a Relevant Message
Image via DC Universe
Unfortunately, despite near countless works of fiction tackling the topic, people apparently still need to figure out that totalitarians are very un-good. So, perhaps we can’t even fault the Superman: Red Son storytellers for sticking to just that as a grand statement. And they lean into it, at least. The ending of the comic book and the film differ in a very significant way regarding Lex Luthor, with the film ending arguably being the better one.
The animation style is interesting, stylistically similar to the heyday of DC Animation during the Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League years. Yet, this film (like most of DC’s direct-to-video films) is aimed at adults. There is a smoking scene reminiscent of the 1978 Superman movie. There are deaths and war and scenes probably too intense for young kids. The cast features a lot of familiar voices, including Amy Acker as Lois Lane and Mr. Malfoy Jason Isaacs as the Man of Steel.
If you have DC Universe, Superman: Red Son is worth a watch. And you can also watch the episode of the 1988-1992 series The Adventures of Superboy called “Roads Not Taken Part 2,” which kind of tells the same story but pre-dates the Red Son comic by more than a decade.
What do you think? Do you think the political message in the film was too softened or do you like that they kept it very simple for the film. Share your thoughts in the comments below or the enemies of liberty win!
Featured image via DC Universe
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.