Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Superman: Red Son

Lord Acton’s famous dictum has been confirmed over and over throughout history: “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Yet, it has never been applied to Superman—until now. Fortunately, the baby Kal-El landed in Middle America, a devout land governed by Constitutional principles. Suppose he landed in Soviet Russia instead. That is the what-if alternate timeline scenario explored in Sam Liu’s animated feature Superman: Red Son, which releases today on DVD/BluRay.

Svetlana is amazed by young Mishka’s powers, so she convinces the naïve boy to put himself at the service of the Soviet state. Alas, no good deed goes unpunished in Stalin’s regime, because the innocent woman will be condemned to a gulag for knowing Superman before he was a symbol of Communist power. Initially, the costumed hero follows Stalin loyally, but a challenging interview with tough-talking American journalist Lois Lane prompts him to discover the truth—including poor emaciated Svetlana’s fate.

Unfortunately, Superman is not ready to embrace freedom. Instead, he stages a coup d’état, replacing Stalin as General Secretary. With Superman literally leading the Red Army, America is suddenly at a distinct disadvantage in the (not-so) Cold War. However, Eisenhower has a key ally: Lane’s husband, the genius inventor and industrialist Alexander “Lex” Luthor.

There is a lot in J.M. DeMatteis’s adaptation of the Red Son graphic novel that is smart and insightful. Stalin is definitely depicted as the monster that he was, but Superman’s supposedly benign dictatorship is not much different. Lord Acton’s warning regarding absolute power is absolutely spot-on here. The roles played by Brainiac and Wonder Woman are also quite clever, with the former becoming the allegedly perfect Socialist administrator and the former representing the Amazons, who like the so-called “Non-Aligned” nations of the Cold War era, protest their neutrality while favoring Superman’s USSR, until they can no longer ignore the truth of the despotic regime.

This is a Superman movie, but Luthor and Lane are the heroes. They are also the most interesting characters—by far. The snappy voice-over performances of Diedrich Bader and Amy Acker reinforce that brassy, Thin Man-His Girl Friday dynamic. Red Son also offers an interesting way to observe the 80th anniversary celebration of Batman, since he appears as a Dostoyevskian terrorist who launches defiant assault on Superman’s police state.

Much of the alternate Cold War timeline makes sense, but the notion of the U.S, building the Berlin Wall to protect against Superman, probably intended as some kind of commentary on Trump’s border wall, in fact borders on the offensive for those us who lived through Reagan’s “Tear Down this Wall” speech. Still, the rest of the film makes up for it—notably with positive portrayals of Ike, JFK, Luthor and Lane, and the American military (including the Green Lantern Corps). Recommended for fans of DC’s animation and Harry Turtledove’s alternate history novels, Superman: Red Son releases today on DVD/BluRay.