By Alexander Wallace
When I was a neophyte to online alternate history, Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son was one of the most commonly recommended alternate history comic books, along with Watchmen and a few others. It took me some time and also getting into superhero media more generally, but I did eventually read the comic.
What stood out to me, then as now, was how little the book engaged with Soviet history. I agree with TvTropes: the comic had seemingly little interest in the reality of the Soviet Union, preferring to depict it as how Americans and Britons (Millar is Scottish) had fearmongered about it from the country’s inception. There are plenty of reasons to dislike what the Soviet Union became, but it is dishonest to not even try to get it right.
There was also the character of Pyotr Roslov, this world's version of one of Superman’s childhood friends, who is cast as a fictional son of Stalin. The idea of a fictional child of such an important historical figure was jarring to me, reinforcing the notion that Millar only cared so much about the history he was playing with. At its core, the original comic is a Superman story with an allohistorical garnish, rather than an alternate history story in the way SLP, for example, writes them.
So it was with some trepidation, but also abundant curiosity, that I watched the 2020 animated film version of the comic. It follows the same basic plot of the comic: instead of landing in Kansas after being shot away from a doomed Krypton, Superman (voiced by Jason Isaacs) lands in Ukraine and is raised on a kolkhoz. As he grows up, he is found by the Soviet authorities and pressed into service to Joseph Stalin himself (voiced by William Salyers).
The relationship between Superman and Stalin is much improved from the comic; there is an actual reckoning between the superhero and the cruel reality of the regime that Stalin had built. There is a good interplay between the two Men of Steel, one who saves the innocent, the other who starves Ukraine. There is an absolutely fantastic scene where Superman visits a certain location after being tipped off as per its existence, and he realizes what the regime he serves truly is. The way this ends up affecting Stalin alters the plot in the way that I think was quite the improvement from the comic’s way of handling it.
Likewise, the film changes the ending from the comic while maintaining its core idea. Given that a good chunk of the ending of the comic depended on a trope that I find to be deeply depressing in its implications, I supported the change.
The gut wrenching moments of the comic are properly recognized as such and are brought to the film in vivid detail. We get the shrinking of Stalingrad and we get what is easily the best line in the comic preserved in all their glory here. Lex Luthor remains the conniving schemer, and he is voiced quite well by Diedrich Bacher. Wonder Woman (voiced by Vannessa Marshall) gets an expanded role, and her interactions with Superman are likewise improved; there’s a scene set at a diplomatic ball that shows their dynamic very well. We also get an expanded role for Brainiac, and a very good performance as Batman by Roger Craig Smith.
The film version of Superman: Red Son turns what was originally simply a superhero story with a red coat of paint into a proper alternate history story. In doing so, it becomes a much more poignant story about who Superman is, and about what is innate in a person versus what is environmental. By embracing the actual reality of the Soviet Union, the makers of this film have taken what was a decent superhero story and made it soar like Superman himself.