The film Superman: Red Son is a fascinating Elseworlds premise. Instead of growing up on a Kansas farm, Kal-El grows up on a farm in the Soviet Union. When he reveals his powers to his childhood friend Svetlana, she tells him he must use them for “the state” and to help the people. And so, Superman flies with not a red S on his chest, but the sickle and hammer.
Based on, but not entirely faithful to, the Red Son comic miniseries, Superman: Red Son depicts a conflicted Superman who tries to rule over his people the best he can. Throughout his reign, he joins forces with a sympathetic Wonder Woman and battles a terrorist Batman whose parents didn’t die wealthy in the streets, but impoverished in a gulag. His key antagonist remains Lex Luthor, who in this timeline is married to intrepid reporter Lois Lane.
Superman: Red Son is never boring, offering plenty of challenges as it races across the decades. Though its socio-political commentary may not always be perfect, it does a reasonable job of showing the weakness of both American capitalism and Soviet communism. Both countries have large gaps between their richest and poorest. Superman sneers at capitalism when speaking with Lane. She’s a successful reporter dating an Elon Musk-type billionaire. When she espouses on American freedom, she does so from a place of extreme privilege that Superman’s quick to point out. How “free” do you feel when you don’t live in a big house and ride in fancy cars? And while America’s most poor may live on the open streets, Superman is shocked to learn that his own country has been hiding and exploiting its destitute. His reality is shattered, so he takes it upon himself to create a utopia where no one suffers.
In this quest, Superman is eternally torn. He’s not just performing generic hero tasks. He is helming a nation, constantly trying to do the right thing on such a large scale that bloodshed seems impossible. It’s perhaps impossible for him to be a true hero, and in Red Son, he isn’t.
If there’s a moral compass here, it’s the film’s three core women: Lois Lane, Svetlana and Wonder Woman.
Svetlana is the first person to whom Superman reveals his powers. A person as powerful as Kal-El doesn’t have to become a hero. They could become a super-villain, sure, but it’d be easier to be neither—to only use your powers when they suited you. But Svetlana never imagines an alternative. She doesn’t even think about the things she might be able to achieve or acquire with a powerful best friend. Instead, she immediately tells him he must go and use his powers to help others.
Lois Lane, though not perfect, is there to check both Superman and Luthor when their egos get the best of them. She won’t stand for either man’s the-ends-justify-the-means bullshit.
And Diana/Wonder Woman may be the only hero in Red Son whose alignment is always on the “good” side of the chart. Initially enamored with Superman’s vision, she repeatedly muses if it’s not the style of government, but men who are the real problems. (She does live on utopian island of women, after all.) She refuses to compromise her own values—namely, peace and equity—to preserve her friendship with Superman or even her ambassadorship with “the world of men.” She never lets power, super or otherwise, sway her. She always sees Superman for who he is or for whom, at times, he fails to be.
The idea of a less-than-perfect Superman is what makes Red Son so interesting to me. I was never a huge Superman fan growing up because he seemed so wholesome and apple pie. I much preferred the darker adventures of Batman and Gotham City to “truth, justice, and the American Way.” But in Red Son, the American Way is flawed. And, it’s easy to see how a different life makes Superman a more nuanced character.
He makes moral choices the Superman we know never would. He does things you can’t stand behind, claiming they’re for a greater good. And when you don’t have a perfect hero, your villains become shades of gray, too.
Though the ending ultimately plays it safe and sweet, it’s Red Son’s captivating premise and imperfect characters that make it really worth the watch—especially in today’s divisive political environment. I’m just glad our world leaders don’t have laser eyes and super strength.
Superman: Red Son is now available on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Combo Pack, Blu-ray Combo Pack and Digital HD.
Juliet Bennett Rylah writes about horror comics and the dark side of superheroes for DCComics.com. Check out more of her writing on WeLikeLA, No Proscenium and IGN, and be sure to follow her on Twitter at @JBRylah.