Superman: Red Son

Of all the recent cancellations due to social distancing, I was most looking forward to “Ithacon” last weekend. Consider this week’s column a print version of one of those cool panel summit meetings, but it’s just me talking about superheroes.

DC Comics has a brand called the “Elseworld” series, which allows writers and artists to tell interesting off-brand superhero stories. They’ve now just gotten around to a notion I first saw in the “What If?” sketches in the first years of SNL, a talk show that dramatized questions like “What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?” or “What if Superman was born in Nazi Germany?”

“Superman: Red Son” (Warner Bros. Animation, 2020, 84 min.), now on home video and iTunes, does a riff based on a three-issue comic book run that posits an alternate history worthy of Tarantino where Superman landed not in Smallville but in the Soviet Union. In the same way that “X-Men: First Class” connected Marvel mutants to the Cuban missile crisis, “Red Son” concocts an action-packed thriller that incorporates the Man of Steel, Batman, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern, but also real historical figures like Eisenhower and Stalin.

Jason Isaacs, perhaps best known as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter film series, does a credible Russian accent in the title role. Amy Acker (Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing”) and Diedrich Bader (“Bojack Horseman”) have a lot of fun playing with surprising doppelganger versions of Lois and Lex, and actor-songwriter Paul Williams (“Phantom of the Paradise”) is inspired casting as Brainiac.

Meanwhile, over in DC’s home video animated universe, the legend of Batman takes a rare and surprisingly bloody detour into the horror genre with “Batman: Gotham by Gaslight”(Warner Bros. Animation, 2018, 76 min.). An R-rated animated feature inspired by the “Elseworld” series, the film takes the Dark Knight (voiced by Bruce Greenwood) back in time to a Gotham City at the end of the 19th century, where he attempts to take down Jack the Ripper.

The tone and the casting really worked here for me, but the R-rating is no joke, so families might want to proceed with caution. I find it fascinating how malleable the Batman legend has proven to be; it can encompass the campy, colorful Adam West TV series, Frank Miller’s ugly American ’80s vision, the “realism” of the Christopher Nolan films, and this Victorian version of the Caped Crusader. Bruce Greenwood is always effective and makes for a good Batman/Bruce Wayne, even if Kevin Conroy is my all-time favorite Batman. Also, I really liked the Bat’s look here, a rough-hewn bat mask and a swirling, cape-like duster coat.

I haven’t read the comic in question, but I have learned that those little devils at DC changed the identity of “Saucy Jack” (apologies to Spinal Tap), so even if you’ve read the comic, you’ll be as surprised as I was at the final reveal.

“Robot Chicken” did lots of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” gags that I never really got, because the whole phenomenon happened just when I was getting out of toy-collecting.I was in college when the TV cartoons started airing. I was basically tabula rasa when I sat down to watch “The Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”(FauxPop-Definitive Film, 2017, 95 min.) on Netflix.

Most intellectual property comes from a single author or writing team, four people claim credit for Superman and Batman, but the whole He-Man mythology was pieced together from the contributions of many artists, Mattel copy writers, toy designers, animators and voice artists. (Reagan also passed legislation allowing toy companies to produce shows like “He-Man.”)

This comprehensive documentary takes in all the highs and lows of a huge American merchandise franchise; perhaps the lowest low was “Masters of the Universe,” the misbegotten 1987 Cannon live-action film that starred Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella. And now Netflix has greenlit a new anime-inspired animated series with serious writing talent like Kevin Smith working on scripts, and some cool new voice actors, coming next year.

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