Superman Red Son: A Review

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“Superman Red Son” by Josey_Wales is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Jose Carlos Serrano

An Overview

       Released in 2003 under DC’s Elseworlds    imprint with writer Mark Millar and lead artist Dave Johnson, Superman: Red Son gives  readers an interesting “what-if” story:  as an infant from Krypton, the future Man of Steel lands in 1946 Ukraine under Soviet Russian rule. Instead of standing for peace, justice,and the American way, this alternate  Superman stands for the ideologies of Communism and supports the rule of Joseph Stalin. DC recently came out with an animated film adaptation of the book in February 2020. As we approach the anniversary of the release of the animated feature, this review reflects on the insights we learn from reimagining one of our country’s most important fictional characters, considering how the narrative would change if Superman had never landed in Kansas to become the iconic American figure he’s known as. 

Writer Mark Millar Creates An Interesting and Thought-Provoking Story

Superman is cast as both protagonist and villain in the story as he helps the Soviet government to impose the utopian vision of Communism on the world. He doesn’t understand that mankind cannot be fit  into this perfect bubble he envisions the world to be. In pursuit of his goals, he wants everyone to follow orders and think the same. Any violation of Soviet authority results in death or, more commonly, a brain implant to force their thinking to align with government views. The ideal of conformity is prominent in the story. Still, the Soviet Superman is not without admirable values. He believes himself to be advocating for the rights of the common worker — for equal pay, housing, and much more; all of which Superman believes in and wants to transform the world into. For our current generation, the book is particularly important because Millar introduces readers to Soviet ideologies and how they resulted in so much oppression, cruelty, and death under the rule of Stalin. 

Characters Are Introduced in Creative and Intuitive Ways

         What is so interesting about Millar’s Red Son is how other characters in the DC canon are introduced and incorporated into the story. For example, Batman is no longer the protector of Gotham city, driven by the haunting memory of the murder of his parents. Instead, Millar presents Batmankoff, a Russian whose parents were killed for making Anti-Superman posters. As with the Batman we know from Gotham City, the grief and anger from losing his parents spurs his alter ego, Batmankoff. He becomes the terrorist, as he’s labeled as by the Soviet government. Batmankoff seeks to destroy Soviet establishments in the name of stopping Superman and the government it stands for. He even has a cult following of “Batmen” who fight and act in his name, giving the Dark Knight an important role in this “what-if” scenario. 

Characters such as Hal Jordan and Diana Prince are also in the story, each very different than they are usually represented in the DC comics canon. Interestingly, Diana ends up joining Superman for a while to help him create this Soviet utopia. She fights alongside him for a while in the story to help enforce his rule. Hal Jordan, never becomes Green Lantern in this story because the U.S. government finds the crashed Green Lantern ship and the power ring. The United States uses this ring to make an entire army of Green Lantern pilots. In the canon, the rings were never used really for government usage only as one would need to be chosen to wield Green Lantern’s light. Throughout the story, characters are presented in intuitive, yet refreshing ways bringing a new light to the superheroes we all know.

Historical Relevance

Superman Red Son gives readers an insight to what was happening during the time period when the book takes place: the growing conflict between the United States and Russia during the days of the Cold War and the ideologies of both countries.  This conflict is perhaps best represented by the Superman clone that’s created for the United States by genius scientist Lex Luthor. The American Superman clone has the powers of the Kryptonian and is outfitted with a red cape and an insignia on his chest reading “U.S.”. He’s a genetically created clone and all the American ideologies are engraved in him. The clone mentions several times how he stands for the “American Way.” This is reminiscent of how during the Cold War and the Red Scare, the government promoted the idea of being American as an alternative to prevent communism from entering into our country. In terms of the USSR, the Soviet ideologies of the country are perfectly represented in the book: a strict government that is oppressive, restricts the voice of the people, defending their actions by saying how they’re acting out to stand for the common worker and equal pay and housing for all; for widespread conformity.

Important Contrasts Between the Book and Film Adaptation

Even though my review is talking specifically about the book of Superman: Red Son, the film that came out offers different and new events that didn’t happen in the book. While the plot itself remains the same,  there are a few differences that should be noted. For one, the book offers some more character development for Superman and the characters around him. The fight scenes are more spread out and there are many instances in the book where Superman questions his actions and himself. Interestingly, the movie shows that the Soviet Union hasn’t been telling the truth to Superman about what really was going on. He had no idea of the lead-lined underground gulags that Stalin implemented. When Superman found them, one of the prisoners was the girl he liked as a child, Lana. She died there in front of him and Superman returned back to Stalin to kill him, making him the new leader of Russia. In the book however, no such thing happens. The gulags are never seen to appear and Stalin is killed by someone other than Superman that poisoned him. Lana doesn’t die and instead becomes a high ranking Soviet official. 

Closing Remarks

Superman: Red Son a new and thought-out story to the DC franchise. The book, now being 17 years of age now, still feels like a new story today as Millar features intuitive thinking and storytelling in his writing. The story balances morality with reality and a great deal of action. The animated feature is now streaming on HBO MAX, which has seen a surge in popularity this month due to critical theatrical releases coming to the platform and the COVID pandemic. If you enjoy the book, you would definitely be interested in the animated film. With memorable moments and a captivating cast of characters, Superman Red Son offers an unforgettable story and is a big winner for the DC franchise.