'Brightburn' and Superman: Obsession With a Distortion

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Reality, Distortion

One is not like the other.

After recently seeing the movie Brightburn — about how an alien child with incredible powers becomes a cold-blooded and sadistic murderer — I can stand by my review in calling it a generally good movie, especially in terms of how often bad horror movies get sent off to our movie theaters.

Walking out of the theater afterward, though, it was also an experience that was profoundly depressing, because it continues to show the disconnect between the general public and the character that clearly inspired Brightburn’s twisted focus character: the Man of Steel and the original superhero, Superman.

I’ve written and spoken ad nauseum about how and why Superman is one of my all-time favorite characters in fiction. He continuously speaks to me about the inherent greatness that we all have if we decide to nurture and encourage the best parts of ourselves. Still, as the movie makes very clear pretty early on, Brightburn is not Superman. Brandon Breyer and Clark Kent have — outside of the very broad strokes of both their origin stories — very little in common.

So...why do I feel so depressed after seeing it?

While it got some things right about Superman, 2013’s Man of Steel also tried to “fix” things about the character that led to some questionable choices seemingly made in the spirit of “edginess.” Those choices persisted and were exacerbated in its 2016 sequel.

While it got some things right about Superman, 2013’s Man of Steel also tried to “fix” things about the character that led to some questionable choices seemingly made in the spirit of “edginess.” Those choices persisted and were exacerbated in its 2016 sequel.

I think it’s because that the very existence of this movie proves that, at best, the public and some in Hollywood continue to view Superman as a character that is only interesting through a very particular, distorted prism. At worst, they continue to view Superman as a character that needs to be fixed.

For all it got right about Superman in 2013, Man of Steel seemed to view the character it was charged to represent as one that needed to be updated in some very odd ways, a philosophy that problematically continued (and was arguably expanded upon) into its 2016 sequel. Still, on the other hand, many of the stories even in the source material that seem to break through into the wider conversation surrounding Superman are also tales that twist the character into something other than what he is at a pretty basic level.

People love Red Son, where Superman grows into a hero for the Soviet Union, who regularly uses lobotomies to enforce the will of the state (which eventually becomes solely his). People love the Injustice games and comics, where a distraught Superman becomes a tyrannical overlord and forces the world under the thumb of his rule in response to being manipulated into murdering his pregnant wife.

People remember Superman’s role in The Dark Knight Returns, even though he was twisted by writer/artist Frank Miller into an extension of illegitimate authority that an aging Batman refused to recognize, culminating in a fight between the two heroes and former friends. And, of course, people talk a lot about The Death of Superman, where he...just died. It was everything that came after that fight and death that proved the most interesting, but you don’t often hear people talking about that.

You’ve likely heard from some of your comics-reading friends that “Red Son” is one of the best Superman stories they’ve ever read. The trouble is that it’s not a Superman story. Art by Dave Johnson.

You’ve likely heard from some of your comics-reading friends that “Red Son” is one of the best Superman stories they’ve ever read. The trouble is that it’s not a Superman story. Art by Dave Johnson.

As someone who worked behind the counter of a comic book store for six-and-a-half years, I spoke until I was blue in the face to a lot of people who had written Superman off as inherently passe, who couldn’t possibly have any pathos, and who believed his immense level of power just made him unrelatable. Eight times out of ten, I likely failed to convince someone to even consider picking up a Superman book, let alone reading one.

Two of those times, though, I’d succeed. I’d recommend stories that feature the one, true Superman in his element, fighting to protect and defend people as a beacon of hope who lifted up all those around him. A hero who uses his raw power in the skies of Metropolis when he needs to, and who fights institutional injustice in its streets as an investigative reporter.

A hero who tries to help us all learn a lesson that he did as a child growing up around the amber waves of grain in Smallville, when a lawnmower may have split his eardrums or when he was confronted with the ability to knock a house down if he sneezed too hard. The crucible of Clark Kent’s adolescence had a lot of advantages compared to the story of Brandon Breyer/Brightburn. Brandon was likely a sociopath who came from an apparent race of conquerors, while his adoptive parents were overcome by the fear of what they didn’t understand.

Were Jonathan and Martha Kent scared by the things their adoptive son could do? Of course they were! Who wouldn’t be? Still, they were also patient and good-natured, and they were given a son that multiple stories have shown us has, perhaps, a greater capacity to feel and empathize with others than most human beings do. His place as an alien, instead of making him cold and distant, makes Superman warm and empathetic.

The big guy himself, in his element and true to form, is left out of his own conversations a little too much for my liking. Art from Superman (vol. 5) #1 by Ivan Reis.

The big guy himself, in his element and true to form, is left out of his own conversations a little too much for my liking. Art from Superman (vol. 5) #1 by Ivan Reis.

I guess I’m just depressed because we as a culture seem to be more interested in the contortion of an icon than the icon himself. Superman has been around for over 80 years now, and that’s not by accident. He endures at his best because those who are charged with telling new stories with him find a way to use him to tell us stories about ourselves, while also using the guiding light of his classic brand of heroism to confront a world that seemingly grows harsher by the day.

There are decades worth of action-packed Superman stories that give those hungry for epic clashes all they could want, pitting him against foes that equal or exceed his power. There are stories of intrigue, where a brilliant business mogul uses our own institutions and prejudices against the “otherworldly, inhuman alien.”

There are contemplative character studies, where Superman has to wrestle with the very idea of what it means to be a hero in the face of an apparently-growing bloodlust among some. And, there are stories where a much more popular heroic counterpart relates his respect and awe by saying that he’s amazed that someone that powerful chooses every day to save us from ourselves and others, as opposed to giving in to an exercise of power.

It’s too bad hope is out of style. People might find something they can really get behind. Art from Action Comics #1001 by Patrick Gleason.

It’s too bad hope is out of style. People might find something they can really get behind. Art from Action Comics #1001 by Patrick Gleason.

Again, Brightburn is not a bad movie. I guess I’m just dismayed at the philosophy that led to its creation, and the fact that its studio rightfully knew that there is a hell of a market for it. It continues to show that people underestimate Superman and sell him short, which also illustrates that those with access to tell stories with the asset that is the Superman character clearly haven’t done their job in showing the modern world why he’s a character worth celebrating, instead of one simply worth imitating and contorting to the shocked glee of horror audiences and bro culture.

The World’s Greatest Hero deserves more, and I wish that those with the capacity to do something about that, would. Until then, though, brand new stories featuring the one, true Man of Steel can only really be found in your local comic shop.

At least, for now.