Superman: Red Son #3 of 3 “Red Son Setting”

Remember how last time I praised that opening for issue #2?

As a Dark Lord of the Sith once said: Impressive. Most impressive. It’s the 21st century and Superman has celebrated his 63rd birthday. Brainiac has told him almost six billion people were livin’ life Red, and Supes double-checked those figures and he agrees. Every adult has a job, everyone gets eight hours of sleep, every good li’l Commie on Earth has little reason to complain—even in private—as they live in cities that look like sci-fi utopias. He flies North to his Fortress of Solitude, and a call-out to the Silver Age as Supes uses a giant key to unlock the front door. Inside, Brainiac is doing the day to day work while zombified Batmen (who tried to take up the cause of Soviet Batman after he blew himself up in the last issue, but appparently didn’t last long against Supes) act as janitors. For a Fortess of Solitude there ain’t a lot of, well, solitude.

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Brainiac reports that human life expectancy has been extended to 112 years. Birth rates and productivity are up… and hmm, you’d think if people are spending more time reproducing, that would impair productivity, but whatever. Lex Luthor’s been quiet and the Dis-United States are a warzone, with people on the verge of starvation. Brainiac wonders why Supes doesn’t just invade and put an end to it, but Superman wants a bloodless coup. As he settles in for a chess game against a robotic opponent, he can’t help but wonder what Luthor is plotting in his lead-lined lab. And we soon find out.

Why, he’s working on becoming President, of course. Once elected, Luthor cuts off international trade and creates an internalized economy, which immediately doubles the standard of living, and then doubles it again. Well, zero times two is still zero. I’m not sure how all of this would work; I’m no expert in finance, but I think international trade is critical for a healthy economy, as you want people buying your goods. But I’m not the super-genius businessman, so whatever.

Luthor then eliminates unemployment and homelessness, and… I’m reading a comic about an alien from another planet with a pet artificial intelligence, owning a super fortress full of zombified Batmen, and this is the most unbelievable part of the story. In six months, Luthor has completely fixed America and reunified the United States. Luthor has an approval rating of 100%. I’ve seen more realistic stats on Rotten Tomatoes. But Luthor doesn’t care about approval ratings; he’s doing it all as part of his Master Plan to finally get rid of Superman.

At the Daily Planet, we see the old, rundown skyscraper eclipsed by the buildings around it. Luthor has financially bailed out other newspapers, but he’s letting the Planet go under, despite his wife being editor-in-chief. Lois figures it’s because Lex knows how much she loves the paper, and can’t stand the thought of her loving anything or anyone else but him. Um, remind me again, why are you still married to this a-hole, Lois? Her sister Lucy Lane defends Luthor, pointing out how the country comes first, and Lois worries that they’ll be replacing one demagogue with another. Lucy’s response? “At least Lex Luthor is a demagogue who speaks English.” Oh, Lucy, you were doing so well up until that point. It’s like almost every person in this comic is a total bastard. Oh, wait, with all compelling storytelling, I forgot I was reading a Mark Millar comic.

On Air Force One, Luthor explains to his Vice President Jimmy Olsen that Superman is going to invade the United States; he thinks Supes’ plan for world domination peace was to let America collapse, but Luthor’s pulled a fast one on him. As a quick aside, looking at Lex’s hands; his right hand has two rings, while his left is not adorned with a wedding band. It’s a nice little insight into Luthor’s character, how while legally he’s married, he doesn’t feel beholden by that little fact. VP Olsen wonders what’ll happen the next time he has to go up against Superman, since none of Lex’s previous Super-deterrents have worked.

Lex’s response is to open up a portal to another dimension that he likes to call the “Phantom Zone”. Jimmy hasn’t even recovered from that shock when he’s given another: Luthor has unlocked the power of the green ring, and he found someone to wear it.

It’s Colonel Hal Jordan, and instead of being that pacifist wimp from The New Frontier, he’s a former POW who endured horrific hardship that’s given him an indomitable will. Combined with his unflinching character, he’s the ideal person to use the ring, which requires someone of unbeatable resolve. We find out that after Jordan came home, he spent his time building a full scale replica of his concentration camp so he could pretend to execute his captors. So… Lex gave an alien WMD to a madman? Yeah, sounds like Luthor.

Over on Themyscira, Lois has come to talk to Diana. Mrs. Luthor expresses admiration for Paradise Island, saying that if things are so perfect here then maybe they should ban men from Metropolis, too. Look, Lois. You married the guy, and yeah, maybe it was a mistake. But you’ve had decades to divorce him. Instead, you stuck with a soulless monster who cares nothing for you. Perry gave you good advice years ago, and you ignored it. Men aren’t the problem, Lois: you are.

Diana talks too about how bad Superman really is, and it comes down to bitterness that she made a terrible sacrifice on his behalf, and in this case I can sympathize. Thanks to breaking her lasso, she’s lost her youth and immortality, and all that affection she felt for Superman has turned to a deep animosity. The two talk a bit, but Diana is tired of the dance and wants to know why Lois is really here. Lois responds that it’s to make sure Paradise Island lends their support when Lex launches his attack on Superman in the next 24 hours. Damn, I hope Lois said this in a soundproof room.

Cut to Stalingrad. Remember Stalingrad, the city Brainiac had shrunk? Well, it’s still shrunken down, meaning even microscopic organisms can be a huge threat.

Superman shuts off the holo-communicator he’s using to place himself inside the shrunken city of Stalingrad, and turns to Brainiac. Pissed off, he asked what the hell was the computer thinking when he shrank down these cities. Brainiac points out that hey, he’s just a victim of his programming, which is all about storing info. Supes moves on to other things, namely the United States. Unfortunately for him, Lex is the greatest politician alive, and has turned the US of A into a thriving country that Brainiac calls a “cancer” that has to be dealt with now, before things get worse. Brainiac estimates 6.5 million deaths in an invasion, but victory in eight hours, and the death toll will rise the longer Superman waits. Superman is tremendously reluctant to start hostilities; his whole plan was to let the United States crumble and join the rest of communist countries of the world voluntarily. Hmm, interesting. It feels like Superman doesn’t want to go to war at all. Did Luthor miscalculate? Or did he lie to Olsen? It’s likely the latter, but if so, why did Luthor deceive his own veep? Perhaps we’ll find out soon, because suddenly Lex makes a dramatic entrance into Superman’s Fortress from seemingly nowhere, wearing what looks like some sort of flight suit, with his helmet in his hands.

Elsewhere, Hal Jordan, standing on the wing of a fighter jet, power battery in hand, begins his chant. Soon, hundreds of other pilots standing in orderly rows take up the chant: it turns out Lex Luthor has created his own Green Lantern Corps. Oh, and to show Kilian Plunkett’s crazy attention to detail, and how he likes to throw in little Easter eggs, the names shown on three of the pilots’ flight jackets are Stewart, Gardner, and Scott.

Back at Superman’s Fortress, Supes asks Luthor how he got past the defenses. But Luthor blows off the question and gives himself a tour of the place. The Titanic is on display, as well as what looks like a Darkseid statue, and once more I’m wishing this had been a twelve-issue series to see how some classic storylines would have played out in this Elseworld. Supes asks what Luthor’s game is, and Lex says the Amazons and the Green Marine Corps might be good, but he’s going to rely on his mind to beat Superman. But before Superman can take Lex up on his offer, Brainiac intervenes, using techno-tentacles to suck Lex into his brain ship. Brainiac warns Supes that Lex is a “level nine intellect” and could have talked Superman into suicide in fourteen minutes.

Superman looks uncertain as Brainiac goads him into fighting Lex’s forces, and it turns out the Man of Steel has no choice; he’s got the Corps flying in at him at mach 6. Superman orders Brainiac to power up his ship and head for the United States’ west coast while he takes the east, and they’ll meet up at the White House at 16:00 hours. In a bunker somewhere, VP Olsen girds his ginger loins for war, just as Superman makes contact with the Green Lantern Corps.

It does not go well. Superman out-wills the Corps, and snatches up their rings and makes a tasty snack of them, then leaves them grounded and waiting for the ultimate fate of being turned into techno-zombies.

In the next wave, Diana and her Amazons are flying in. Superman heat-visions Diana but she puts up a brave fight. Olsen watches the carnage and notes Brainiac has wiped out most of the Pacific fleet. At this point, he figures what the hell, they’ve got nothing to lose, so he unleashes Luthor’s super-freaks: We see Doomsday, Parasite, Metallo, Livewire, and… Lord Satanus. Although if that last dude is magical, I have no clue how Luthor made him.

Outside the White House, Lucy begs Lois to bug out of there because it’s all over. But despite their marital differences, Lois believes in Lex Luthor. Brainiac’s brain-ship shows up and its tentacles are fondling the Washington Monument in a very inappropriate way. Meanwhile, Superman is trashing Lex’s super-freaks. Supes, triumphant, stands before Lois and respectfully asks her to vacate the premises as he intends to wipe out everything within a five mile radius of the Pentagon and doesn’t want any casualties. And why, yes, the Pentagon is some two miles away from the White House. It’s nice when a writer actually does their homework.

Lois politely declines and says the White House is her home. Superman politely points out the US Air Force is gone and he’s defeated all the other super-people, so what else have they got? Lois’ response is for Superman to check out what’s in her pocket. Supes uses his x-ray vision and smiles. He can’t imagine a brown envelope is going to stop him, even with a Presidential seal. We then flash back to a time when Luthor penned the letter in the envelope, distilling everything Superman fears and hates about himself into one sentence. Then we get a more recent flashback of Brainiac warning Supes about how dangerous an intellect like Luthor is. Supes reads the letter, and it says…

Uh, what? That’s it? That’s what causes Superman to fall to his knees and start crying? He’s been oppressing people for decades, turning dissidents into techno-zombies, and using Stalingrad as some sort of analogy is what it takes to break him? It’s almost as bad as the “Save Martha” thing from Batman v. Superman. It feels like Millar was clicking along and then realized he had angry Superman too powerful and competent, and no way to defeat him. So apparently, Luthor suggesting that Superman had been doing bad things all these years was it. God, it’s so…dissatisfying.

Brainiac, fighting off scores of missiles, asks Superman what’s wrong, and Supes says what he’s done to Earth is no better than what our computerized friend has done to countless cities. Superman says they have to stand down and go home, but Brainiac disagrees.

As Brainiac assails Supes with (presumably) Kryptonite radiation, he explains that all this while he’s been manipulating Superman, and that over the decades, Superman has grown to be more like Brainiac. Before Brainiac kills Superman, he tries to get him to see that they’re just alike. And then… Brainiac shuts down. But how? Why, it’s Lex Luthor. Left alone in Brainiac’s guts, Lex cut off his power with a blowtorch. Checkmate, Brainiac!

Supes flies in and crushes the CPU and swears to bury the ship on the moon, then they can talk about what happens tomorrow. But oh noes, a countdown has started. It seems Brainiac has arranged for one final middle finger to the people of Earth, and the “six mini black holes” that power his ship are about to go off and kill everything in a 15 million-mile radius. Lex freaks out, but Superman knows what needs to be done. He carries Brainiac’s ship out into deep space to save the Earth, and as he does so, he transmits one last message to Lex: “Well played, old friend.”

Back in the Fortress, Luthor notes how Superman and Brainiac are both gone. He stands before Supes’ chess board and notes how readily the world will embrace “Luthorism” in the vacuum of Supeman’s absence. He moves a chess piece and it’s implied he and Supes have been playing this game for some forty years. Check and mate, Superman.

In the aftermath, Luthor and Olsen win a landslide victory, and the Soviet machine collapses but (non-zombified) Batmen are here to assure law and order. Luthor begins crafting a new world order, wherein he conquers cancer, diabetes, and extends people’s lifespans to hundreds of years. Conventional politicians are done away with, and replaced by artists, writers, scholars, and scientists. Hundreds of years later, as Luthor lays dying, he notes his greatest accomplishment was defeating “the alien”. Cut to Luthor’s funeral in what was formerly known as Metropolis, now known as “Lexor”. His casket is laid to rest in a mausoleum of his own design, while a stranger looks on.

Superman survived, and realizing the world could get along just fine without him, he’s become a mere observer in the rise of the greatest civilization in the galaxy. Generations pass as Luthor’s descendants become artists, imagineers. Jordan Luthor is the first “necronaut” and explores the afterlife. But as the millennia pass, Earth’s sun grows large and red and no one heeds the warnings of Luthor’s descendant, a man named Jor-L.

Knowing his world is doomed, Jor-L sends his son into the past to prevent humanity from becoming a cold, complacent lot. And in Ukraine, Russia, 1938, a rocket ship bearing a most remarkable child crashes.

So, let me say right off the bat that this is one of the greatest Superman stories I’ve ever read. Mark Millar, as well as artists Kilian Plunkett and Walden Wong, along with letterer Ken Lopez and colorist Paul Mounts collaborate on a tremendous tale. For a guy who I pegged as a cynical, comic-hating bastard, Mark Millar crafts a huge epic that twists our hero and villains in interesting ways. In this story, Luthor is the hero, but he’s still a total bastard. And Superman is well-meaning, but he’s conquered Earth. And Brainaic? Still a jerk no matter what universe he finds itself in. I do find something else interesting, in that Millar kills off Nixon early, and replaces him with Kennedy, who proves to be a weak leader and not up to the challenge of facing off against an implacable communist tyrant. It’s almost as if Millar suggests that it takes a ruthless a-hole to save the day, or a balding red-headed capitalist demagogue is what’s needed to go up against and ultimately succeed against Russian oppression. Did… Mark Millar somehow predict Donald Trump? I may pay for that joke later. I guess I’ll see when I post my next article.

But the story is still flawed; I’m not happy with the letter that crushes Superman’s spirit, and like I said before, part of me wishes the story had been longer. But in retrospect, maybe it’s best that Millar used the format the series was delivered in, with three issues of 45 or so chapters. Less can be more, and if the story had been prolonged, maybe Mark would have found a way to inadvertently wreck his masterpiece. While I’ve given you a recap of the story, I highly suggest you check it out for yourself; I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Tag: Superman: Red Son

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