For 79 years Superman has been a pop culture icon and the standard-bearer for what it means to be a superhero. And through those years there have been countless classic stories that have been penned about the Man of Steel. These are naturally ripe for adaptation for the burgeoning DC Cinematic Universe, but among these there is one which stands out as a classic Superman tale that most likely won’t appear on the big screen any time soon. Superman: Red Son. Penned by Mark Millar, Red Son is one of the most renowned Superman stories, but one that is vastly different from any Superman you’ve seen put to film. But if it ever found a home beyond the comic pages, it would change what can be done with the superhero movie.
Red Son is a 2003 mini-series which asks the simple question: What if Superman’s ship had crash landed in the Soviet Union instead of the U.S.A? It’s a simple concept, but the exploration of how a communist upbringing would influence his character – and how his position in Russia would affect other heroes – makes for one of the best comic stories out there. We see how Lex Luthor is portrayed when his opposition of Superman is seen as a necessity to the American way of life, or how a burgeoning relationship with Wonder Woman becomes a political movie to align Themyscira with the U.S.S.R. It takes characters we’re familiar with, but flips the script on what we can expect from them.
And comic fans know that it’s often the non-canon stories that produce long lasting gold. Two of the most iconic Batman stories: The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke, were written as non-canon stories (Killing Joke was later ret-conned into canon to bring Barbara Gordon back in as Oracle). All Star Superman, one of the most beloved and faithful representations of the Man of Steel, was written separate from the primary comic arc – in fact the All Star branding was initially used as a way for A-list writers to produce a story free from the mainline canon.
When you design a shared universe like what DC and Marvel are doing in cinemas, you make a trade-off. Everything becomes valuable, but everything becomes constrained. There is a need for the audience to go and see the Ant-Man movie because then when he pops up in Civil War, you’re not playing catch up – which subsequently boosts the value of that Ant-Man film. But whatever you do with that movie then has to fit in like a puzzle piece. You can’t kill off certain characters because they might need to appear elsewhere, and the actions of characters have to line up with what we have already seen, even if it was in another series.
DC love their non-canon comic stories because they’re allowed to go wild with the concepts: What if Bruce died instead of his parents? What if the Justice League were evil? What if Wonder Women and Themyscira went to war against Aquaman and Atlantis? Without the constraints of maintaining a status quo, the stakes can be higher. The same applies to the cinematic universe as well. We live in a time when sequels and casts are announced before the first film is released, so you know nobody important is going to end up dying (sorry Quicksilver). But if we’re trending towards giant shared universes, we’re going to be limited to what stories can actually be told.
A movie separate from the main cinematic narrative allows you the freedom to tell the story you want to tell. And the beauty of an iconic character like Superman is it becomes fairly easy to do a single movie without having to establish the ‘real’ Man of Steel first. Many of us know the core concept of Superman, even if we aren’t hardcore comic fans. So a movie like Red Son can play off of these known qualities, almost like how Spaceballs parodied the iconic motifs of Star Wars. We get why a communist Superman is so intriguing because of how the original Superman was portrayed as the American poster-boy.
Technically DC could still ‘connect’ Red Son Superman to their cinematic universe. The Multiverse concept allows for there to be variations of the same hero to coexist through different dimensions (so Grant Gustin’s TV Flash and Ezra Miller’s movie Flash can both be a part of the Multiverse). But until Justice League 7 in 2035 tackles the Crisis on Infinite Earth’s story, it won’t really matter. There’ll just be two versions of The Flash in mainstream media, which if we’re being honest is perfectly fine.
Now is it way too early in the DC Expanded Universe to worry about building up the multiverse in any meaningful way, let alone dedicating an entire movie to a different Superman when we’ve only had one solo Superman movie? Probably. But while the Expanded Universe is most likely a way for DC to make the various Television shows slightly connected to the cinematic universe with none of the restrictions the MCU forces, another possibility is the freedom it offers to try something different. Give some one-off stories that utilise these iconic characters in unique ways and add a breath of fresh air into the genre. And Red Son would provide the perfect concept to show off the spin-off potential. The idea is distinct enough that it’s logical to separate it from the main universe, but interesting enough to draw in potential viewers without making it essential viewing to part of a larger universe.
A simple ‘what if’ is a powerful selling point. When I first stumbled upon Superman: Red Son in a comic book store, I had never heard of it before. I had never even bought a Superman comic before. But it was that ‘what if’: What if Superman was a Soviet hero instead of an American one, that made me buy and read the comic. It didn’t need a series of previous movies to build up to it, all it took was a question that I never knew I needed an answer to until that very moment.
While interconnected shared universes are all the rage right now going down such a drastically different route will never happen. But if there was ever a movie concept out there to justify stepping away from the status quo, it’s Superman: Red Son. One of the greatest comic book stories ever, about one of the greatest superheroes of all time. And if you need convincing about whether the idea couldn’t carry a high budget movie, just imagine what it’d be like to see Henry Cavil standing tall, wearing his costume with one key difference – instead of the powerful ‘S’ symbol, he has a hammer and sickle emblazoned on his chest.
Does that not make you want to see more?