Review: Superman: Red Son starring Jason Isaacs and Vanessa Marshall

I must admit that I’m not a “comic book” sort of person. I never collected them. I watched some superhero cartoons on Saturday mornings when I was a boy. I don’t recall specific plots, but I do remember that the Green Lantern’s powers were useless against items coloured yellow. Also, there was a “Bizarro” version of Superman who couldn’t use pronouns correctly and had a face that looked like it was chiselled out of chalk. Apart from a few films I’ve seen over the years, the whole comic book and superhero universe has passed me by.

However, I am very interested in the history of Russia and particularly that of the Soviet period. When I was looking through Apple TV, I noticed on one of the new release icons that Superman was sporting a new logo on his chest: a hammer and sickle. This immediately sparked my interest. I clicked through and found the film was asking a fascinating question: what if Baby Superman had crash landed in the Soviet Union rather than the heartland of the United States? Raised by Soviet parents and educated in Soviet traditions, he would have had the same powers but would he have had the same values? Would he have been just as virtuous and heroic? Would Soviet socialism been more decent, more fair, and less brutal with an incorruptible hero guarding the land?

“Superman: Red Son” poses these questions and makes an attempt to resolve them. It also asks questions of Americans and others in the West: are we any better than the defunct USSR, or our flaws merely different in kind rather than degree?

We are introduced to the Soviet Superman as a child. He is referred to as “Misha”; he is a decent boy. Though tormented by bullies, he refuses to use his superior strength and powers to fight back. Only his best friend Svetlana knows the full extent of his abilites, and it is she who tells him that he must use his talents in the service of the state.

I’m used to seeing images of Stalin in drawings and prints; in my study I have a poster that shows Stalin as the “great leader of the Soviet people”. He resembles a superhero, standing large and and looking imposing set against the Kremlin and a red banner bearing Lenin’s visage behind him. I wonder how the physically diminutive Stalin (the adopted name of Iosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili – “Stalin”, interestingly, literally means “Man of Steel”), who spoke with a strong Georgian accent, would have felt with a 6 foot 4 inch Superman (coupled with the voice of Jason Isaacs) in his presence. He was notoriously paranoid and had any potential rival eliminated.

In this universe, however, Stalin refers to Superman as his son; I find this somewhat plausible as Stalin was dissapponted by his son Yakov (who died in a German concentration camp in World War 2) and his other son Vassily (who was a disssolute alcoholic). Superman, for his part, begins as an obedient Stakhanovite (shock worker); he helps put together and switch on a hydroelectric dam and refuses to give the credit to anyone other than the Soviet people. He is truly selfless and committed to the welfare of the people, as a good Soviet worker should be. Whoever put this film together does have awareness of the period’s imagery and propaganda, and it shows. I also noticed how Russian-sounding musical motifs made themselves heard on the soundtrack.

Superman takes control of the USSR when he discovers the gap between rhetoric and reality. He intends to eliminate this void. I was reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of Stalin in “The First Circle”; in that characterisation, Stalin regards it as his mission to force his people down the path of progress. With the help of Brainiac, a sentient supercomputer, everything in the USSR is computed and measured to the tiniest degree, and Soviet Superman has every statistic about his people to hand, from industrial production, to the rate of reproduction, to suicide rates. He is not above putting chemicals in the water supply to stimulate or control behaviours detrimental to society. The Gulag (forced labour camp) is gone; lobotomies, however, are common.

Other characters from the Superman comic book universe appear. Wonder Woman (voiced by Vanessa Marshall) returns as an ambassador to the Soviet Union from her people, the Amazons. The film is unapologetically progressive in matters of gender and sexuality: in this universe, she is an openly LGBT character. Soviet Superman does not find this at all shocking. Additionally, Lex Luthor is an American industrialist, scientist, and politician instead of a master criminal. Lois Lane is Luthor’s devoted wife. This dramatic shift of characters in place and role is somehow natural and right.

Perhaps the most interesting change is in Batman’s character; in “Red Son”, he is an anarchist leader who doesn’t care who he kills so long as he brings down the “perfect system” that Soviet Superman has created. The writers may or may not be aware of this, but this Batman and his followers bear strong similarities to real groups like the Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) who killed Tsar Alexander II in 1881 by throwing bombs at his carriage. The “Batmen” were perfectly positioned as their successors.

I have two criticisms of the film. First is its length. 1 hour and 24 minutes doesn’t allow for enough exposition in my view. I would have liked to see how Soviet Superman resolved the central paradox of the USSR: how could he balance control with the freedom necessary to be creative? Without creativity, no society can progress. I also would have liked to know more about the Soviet conquest of the globe with the exception of the United States; I was tickled by the scene in which the West was building the Berlin Wall and Soviet Superman told the Americans to “tear down this wall”, a well-executed inversion of Reagan’s words to Gorbachev. So: what happened to Europe afterwards?

The problem of length, however, is minor and it comes from someone who is viewing it through the lens of counterfactual history rather than that of the genre of fantasy. I am conscious of the fact that my tastes are niche.

My other, more serious point about this film has to do with its ending. It’s not my intention to give away too much; suffice it to say that not even Soviet Superman can overcome the United States. This suggests a rather clipped resolution to the question if it’s the systems that make people virtuous or if it’s the other way around. The film at first had not shied away from talking about the problems of inequality and racism in America; Lex Luthor is shown to have a dark, egotistical side and a fundamental disregard for life. Nevertheless, the system appears, eventually, to make him better than Soviet Superman. Really? Would it not have been possible for Soviet Superman to show the intelligence and sensitivity to plot a new course for his country? It is like the film was asking deep questions and then finished with an “Only kidding”.

Having said all this, I enjoyed the film tremendously. Indeed, I have changed the wallpaper on my laptop to show a propaganda poster featuring Soviet Superman fighting for truth, justice, and the Socialist way. This film will likely be among my favourites for years to come, not just because for what it is, but also because unlike those Saturday cartoons of yesteryear, it made me think.

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