Film review: Superman: Red Son

What if baby Kal-El’s ( the future Superman) rocket landed, not in Kansas, but in the Soviet Union? That is the premise of this Elseworld’s tale from DC Comics. Review by Antony C. Green.

I watched this the other night, having picked up a copy in CEX for £6. I hadn’t actually realised there was a film version, though it’s been several years since I read the graphic novel.

I love the basic premise that baby Superman crash-lands into a small town in the USSR rather than in Smallville, USA, and thus ends up fighting for the cause of International Communism rather than for ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way.’ However, in the book, as with the film, the idea is much better than its execution.

Inevitably, this still being a part of the DC Universe, albeit an alternative version, Superman, in both the film and the book, ends up renouncing communism and embracing American ‘freedom.’

In some respects, the film is better than the book, although my memories of the graphic novel are admittedly hazy. We do see the terrible poverty of the United States, and the inequality, which led so many to embrace socialism, though in much greater numbers in the movie than in reality. And, through the use of ‘Brainiac, a form of artificial intelligence which allows for the central planning of the economy free from human error and the difficulty of micro-managing the complexities of a modern economy given the limitations of the human mind, we do see the Soviet Union make giant strides forwards, quickly surpassing the leading capitalist economies once Superman, disgusted by his discovery of the existence of the Gulags, eliminates Stalin and takes over the leadership of the Soviet Super-power himself. The creation of Brainiac, which I don’t remember from the book, is I think a particularly good innovation, with some basis in reality. In the 1960’s, during the Brezhnev years, the CPSU did look at the idea of using modern computing power to assist in the planning of the economy. Allende in Chie is also said to have looked into the feasibility of this, before his Popular Unity government was overthrown and replaced by the brutal proto-Thatcherite Pinochet government in the early-’70’s. In both these cases, computing was still at stage that was too primitive to be useful, but Brainiac does make one think what might be possible today, given the exponential growth in the scope and power of information technology…

There are some glaring weaknesses in the movie, however. Batman makes a rather pointless appearance as a sort of Soviet vigilante counter-revolutionary, and Wonder Woman is there only to mouth the words of uber-utopian-feminism, expressing profundities like: ‘Even a Superman is still just a man, and as long as men are in charge, there will always be violence and war.’ Haven’t we had enough equally war-like female world leaders by now to make such comments sound ridiculous: Thatcher, Golda Meir, Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Su Ki, Hilary Clinton, the super-hawk who fortunately never quite made it to the very top job?

Superman shows human morality in closing down the Gulags, but is also shown as possessing human frailties which illustrate the old truism that ‘…absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Given this, it’s never quite clear why he doesn’t simply use his superpowers to decimate the United States and with it international capitalism. Nor is it clear why, other than that it is led by a genius of a President in traditional Superman adversary Lex Luther, the United States not only recovers from its dire economic woes, but does so to such an extent that it begins to outstrip communism, leading to the type of demonstrations that result, as in the real world, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the People’s Democracies of Eastern Europe. Superman accepts this and, like Gorbachev, is himself finally complicit in the dismantling of the USSR.

Thus, by the early ’90’s, we are back in a Universe that is recognisably our own (apart from the existence of Superman of course. Wonder Woman, giving up on men completely, has long since returned to her hidden women-only island).

Towards the very end though, we get a real laugh out loud moment when President Luther says words to the effect that ‘We will not act as victors in the Cold War, we will extend the hand of friendship to the Russian people, and assist them in building a land of freedom and prosperity.’ Yeah, right. In the real world, the ‘West’ imposed ‘Big Bang’ shock-tactics on the former people’s of the USSR, selling off their industries and public services for peanuts to multi-national, mainly American led corporations, assisted a few ex Soviet bureaucrats to become billionaire oligarchs, decimated living standards and caused a massive decline in life-expectancy. Within a decade, the Russian people had had quite enough of western-style ‘liberal democracy’ and turned to strong man Putin to set things right and restore a little national pride. We are still living with the consequences of western capitalism’s rape of the former Soviet economy, and it’s telling that the only serious internal opposition to Putin today comes from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation…

But I digress. Red Son is full of holes and weaknesses, but for anyone who combines some knowledge of modern history with an interest in the super-hero genre, it’s well worth watching, and might even make you think about how, in the real world, the geopolitical and economic order could have been, and could still be, so very different.

Reviewed by Anthony C Green

Picture credit: Fair use,


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