What if Superman had landed in Soviet Russia instead of Smallville, USA? That’s the question posed in Superman: Red Son, by Mark Millar and Dave Johnson. What follows is a creative exploration of a Superman who’s in many ways recognizable, but the ideals he upholds are, you know, Soviet, and he and the world evolve a bit differently as a result. Superman has always been best as an archetype, a God among us. An alien imposing his will is an effective metaphor for this “Superpower”, and I highly recommend the book if the premise event remotely interests you.
But I want to talk about the ending, so spoilers from here on out.
I believe a good ending gives you a better look, or even a “clearer” look, at what the point of a story is. It’s why I am constantly revisiting the ending of Unlife, hoping to divine more meaning in where James’ journey is going. But Red Son’s ending does something very peculiar. Lex Luthor is ultimately victorious over Superman, and becomes responsible for the growth and evolution of the human species… but the story doesn’t end there. The comic goes on for three extra pages, in which Superman, not really dead, watches from the background. He first confesses that, as an alien from another place (metaphor!), it was not his place to determine the fate of these people. But as we peel back the iron curtain, Luthor’s leadership puts humanity on course for a future in which, lo and behold, Superman DID NOT come from the distant planet Krypton. Instead, Superman is a visitor from the last days of humanity, hyper-evolved but threatened by a red sun (theming!) that’s about to destroy the planet. He’s been sent back to change the past and save Earth. And he’s been chosen for a reason: Kal-L, as he’s called in Red Son, is a Luthor.
There is a lot to unpack here for just three pages, but I’m gonna try and keep this to 3 paragraphs. Starting…
… Now. Okay. Every artist makes choices as they work, but this one really struck me. There’s a sacredness to Superman’s back story, which is not to say that the change rankled. But because that story is so central to what makes Superman “Superman”, this change in perspective alters the very fabric of the story in a meaningful way. The ending, when I first read it, caught me off guard. It’s a major paradigm shift to drop just as your story is ending. In fact, a whole other story can be built on the actual heritage of Kal-L (including, perhaps, how and why Luthor became simply L). But in support of the themes present in Red Son, does it really matter if the superpower was from the future or from another planet? Well, yeah, actually. It does.
When you look at the “big bad” in a superhero movie, it’s typically a fictional terrorist group made of mixed races, a robot army, or aliens (or Nazis because, you know, tried and true movie bad guys). These are all safe choices, because who could they be offending? And I’ve always enjoyed that nod to inclusiveness, even though we still have a ways to go on things like racial and gender equality. But still, all of those concepts of an enemy create a separation, an us versus them. So to reveal that Lex’s greatest enemy was not only his kin, but his kin from a world that was beyond the needs of one superpower versus another, that was the product of everything they could be…
It turns Red Son into a tragedy, really. The idea of Kal-L as one of us all along, a version of us freed from labels, with only one enemy: death. To go from that united world to one consumed by the Cold War, the nuclear threat, this end all be all battle between good and evil, defined in stark terms regardless of the actual complexity of both sides. It’s easy to label an “other” as an intruder. As someone who doesn’t belong. To bar them from entry, perhaps. But, the thing is… everyone is the other to someone, and it doesn’t make any of us less deserving or less human. We all belong on this planet. Because it’s not our world alone; we’re sharing, at different times and different places. We are none of us aliens. Only humans trying to survive.
So, yeah. Red Son. Check it out.