Editor’s Note: Warner Bros Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this entry. The opinions I share are my own.

The Background:

Published in 2003 as part of DC Comics’ Elseworlds imprint, Superman: Red Son was a three-part prestige mini-series written by Mark Millar, with art by Dave Johnson, Andrew Robinson, Walden Wong, and Killian Plunkett, and colors by Paul Mounts.  The concept was one that Millar had been toying with since he was six-years-old (and initially pitched to DC when he was thirteen – it was rejected), where the rocket carrying the baby Superman landed in the Soviet Union instead of Kansas and grew up to become the President of the Soviet Union, leading most of the planet to a Utopia – really a “benevolent” dictatorship – while the United States descends into chaos until the election of President Lex Luthor. It’s a solid story, especially coming from a writer as controversial and inconsistent as Millar, and was nominated for the 2004 Eisner Award for best limited series (it lost to Marvel’s Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules by James Sturm and Guy Davis).

Now, Superman: Red Son stands as the 37th installment in the DC Universe Animated Original Movie series with a screenplay adapted by acclaimed veteran writer J.M. DeMatteis and directed by DC Animation go-to, Sam Liu. Jason Isaacs voices Superman, Amy Acker is Lois Lane-Luthor, Diedrich Bader plays Lex Luthor, Vanessa Marshall is Wonder Woman, Phil Morris voices James Olsen, and Paul Williams is Brainiac. Along the way, we also meet Elseworld versions of Batman (Roger Craig Smith), Hal Jordan (Sasha Roiz), John Stewart (Phil LaMarr), and Guy Gardner (Travis Willingham, who also voices the Bizarro Superior Man)

The Movie:

It was always going to be difficult to translate a three-issue series that covered decades to be adapted to an 84-minute standalone feature, but Superman: Red Son does an admirable job fitting in most of the series’ high points, while making a few changes to the plot that helped to streamline the overall story, and in some places improve on the original. It lacks the narrative complexity of Millar’s comic, which may be a sticking point to some fans, and this interpretation of Superman makes a few (sometimes very violent) choices that change some of his motivations, but not so much that the outcome is changed.

As with the original work, the main focus in on the conflict between Superman’s moral core and the demands of the State, especially once he becomes the State. Lex Luthor also gets a more nuanced interpretation here, essentially skipping the comics “evil genius” phase for a more coldly calculating “villain” who still holds himself above normal morality, but never veers into the mustache-twirling stereotype that shows up through most of Millar’s original. Likewise, Wonder Woman no longer longs silently for Superman’s heart until he breaks hers for good. She is given much more autonomy and makes less stereotypical choices as the story, and the years, pass. Batman, on the other hand, is mostly the same character, although here we are shown more of the bloody results of his anarchistic rampage while losing a bit of his original motivations.

Maybe the most potentially controversial change is the absence of the comic’s “closed loop” time travel ending, instead, choosing to end before following the future history of planet Earth as Luthor’s ancestors lead society until the sun finally faded to red (and eventually went nova). I kind of preferred it this way, keeping the focus on the actual finales of our main characters without adding a tacked-on denouement that was an interesting and ambitious gimmick.  

The Extras:

DC Showcase Short: Phantom Stranger (15:07) – This began with the tease of a Scooby Doo-style story that immediately shifted to a potential Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe, but ended up being an unsatisfying Twilight Zone riff where the titular Phantom Stranger (Peter Serafinowicz) saves a young hippie from a life-sucking demon (Michael Rosenbaum). Or something like that. It’s effectively directed by the one and only Bruce Timm, but the story is sorely lacking. This is easily the weakest of the recent DC Showcase shorts.

Cold Red War (16:57) – This behind-the-scenes featurette details the original release of Superman: Red Son and its subsequent adaptation, talking to artist Dave Johnson, director Sam Liu, DC Animation creative director Mike Carlin, and history professors Miriam Neirick, Ph.D. and Michaela Crawford Reaves, Ph.D. Oddly missing are any conversations with the original writer Mark Millar or the screenwriter J.M. DeMatteis. While the observations of the historians are interesting, I’d have been much more interested in hearing about the creative origins of the comic and the creative decisions made in the adaptation.

2 Episodes of Superman: Red Son: The Motion Comics (6:03) – If you like motion comics, this is a decent introduction, but with only the first two chapters of a twelve-part series, it kind of misses the mark. Although it is a nice way to see some of the immediate differences between the source material and the film.

From the DC Comics Vault – Sometimes it’s hard to tell why certain old episodes of DC animated series get included on these collections. Other times, it’s a pretty spot-on companion piece, as with the inclusion of the two-part “A Better World” story from Justice League’s second season. It’s a very strong story that begins with a timeline divergence when Lex Luthor is elected president, kills the Flash, and then brings the world to the brink of planetary war before Superman kills him. Two years later, the Justice Lords have taken control of Earth, outlawed elections, suppressed free speech, lobotomized villains, and brought a dark form of peace to the world. Then Batman discovers a parallel universe – the Justice League’s universe – and the Lords decide to cross over and help out by spreading their form of “justice” to our world. Ultimately, it takes an unorthodox team-up with our version of Lex Luthor, and a presidential pardon to take down the Justice Lords.

The finale is a bit quick but ends with Luthor pondering a career in politics and the episodes introduced a nice bit of complexity and moral ambiguity to Justice League that reverberated through the season and carried over into Justice League Unlimited. This is mainly because the Justice Lords weren’t straight up villains, like the Crime Syndicate of America, but instead were heroes who grew disillusioned with the revolving door of criminal justice and openly chose to cross the line from law enforcement to tyranny. These Justice League (and Justice League Unlimited) cartoons were some of the strongest DC Animated series, which is saying a lot, given the standard quality of their animated shows.

Sneak Peek at the upcoming Justice League Dark: Apokolips War (10:23) – A very intriguing preview of what appears to be the final installment of the current DC Animated Movie Universe continuity that launched with Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox in 2013 and storylines begun in Justice League: War in 2014. This features very interesting discussions with the creative teams behind the film, particularly writer Mairghread Scott, who brings a lot of good ideas to the table as The Justice League, Teen Titans, Suicide Squad, and DC’s magic users (highlighting Matt Ryan’s Constantine in a starring role). Not only is it a huge collection of characters, virtually all of the current voice actors are returning for the grand finale.

It looks pretty damn good, too.

Preview of The Death of Superman (7:05) – Behind the scenes look at a movie that’s been out since 2018.

Preview of Gotham By Gaslight (8:09) – Behind the scenes look at a movie that’s been out since 2018.

Final Word:

Superman: Red Son is a nice addition to the DC Universe Animated Original Movie series that updates and sometimes improves on the original comic. It could have benefited from an extra twenty minutes of storytelling breathing room, but stands as one of the strongest entries in recent years.

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