Superheroes hold a unique position in national and world culture. They are characters that are constantly employed by different writers. A 20th-century invention, unlike other iconic stories and characters such as fairy tales, superheroes have no one fixed narrative. It is their character that is comparatively fixed. The stories they are a part of, however, change regularly.
Despite this, each superhero represents a powerful idea. Superman represents the American way; he is the ultimate boy scout who fights for what’s right, similar to Marvel’s Captain America. Then, there is Batman, who stands for fear and justice. Even chaotic characters like Deadpool represent something, such as the silliness of the many tropes comic books employ.
Against this backdrop, stories like Superman: Red Son stand out because they challenge the core idea of the character more than anything. In this case, the film, and the graphic novel it is based on, consider what would happen if Superman were to land in Soviet Russia instead of the USA. The film investigates whether Superman is a good and just man by nature or a result of his upbringing.
This exciting and unique premise definitely grips you in; it is executed with enough nuance that it does not feel like simple, anti-Russian propaganda. It in no way sympathises with Stalin’s Russia (that would be insane, Gulags are no laughing matter) but does point out the few strengths of communism, posing the question, would Soviet Russia have been better if led by the unstoppable superman. Or would the situation with USA play out in more or less the same way as if history was correcting itself.
These are interesting questions. However, while the premise and its many possible side-effects are exciting and interesting they fail to keep the story gripping. This is because the other characters around Superman lack the charm that he brings to the table. Their motivations and stories are not nearly as exciting and even though it was cool to see Russian Batman. Him and the rest seemed set up to supplement Superman’s character arc.
Thus, it does feel like a squandered opportunity, but one with a very interesting premise that raises many questions about nature vs. nurture, the dangers of absolutism (whether left or right-wing), and the intertwined nature of control and fear.