Note: This article contains spoilers forBrightburn.
We’ve deconstructed Superman so many times and so thoroughly in the past couple decades that I wonder if we’ve forgotten how to properly put the guy back together. The old credo of “Truth, Justice, and the American way!” has been nowhere to be seen in the portrayals of him by the last two actors—the latter part was elided almost with a nervous cough when Frank Langella’s Perry White alluded to it in 2006’s Superman Returns. I’ve written at length about how concerning it is that the character’s roots as a populist champion have been abandoned in favor of him hitting stuff really hard and being a wrongheaded Christ allegory. In this environment, when people are rightly criticizing Superman’s recent, dour characterization by Warner Brothers and director Zack Snyder, what does a movie like Brightburn have to add with its proposition of a Superman gone bad during his smalltown adolescence?
A few interesting ideas, actually. Unfortunately, the James Gunn-produced horror movie take on Smallville is all in on the creepy alien nature of its murderous super-kid and largely uncritical of the adults around him.
One of the best things about Brightburn is the fact it wastes none of your time. In a single scene, we join a young couple from the eponymous town as their umpteenth attempt to get pregnant is interrupted by a UFO crash landing. Ten years later, their mysterious adopted child, Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), is struggling with all the normal problems of late-tween-hood: bullies, the drudgery of schoolwork, unrequited fuzzy feelings about girls, invincibility, and the mad psychic chanting coming from the secret compartment under the family’s barn that seems to be telling him to conquer the world.
His parents (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) initially chalk his difficulties up to run-of-the-mill tween worries, but it soon becomes clear that when Brandon lashes out, he causes a lot more collateral damage than a normal disaffected youth. As more and more people turn on him, Brandon becomes more and more powerful. When he dons a red cape and starts flying around, though, it’s not to save people.
Here’s what Brightburn gets right, besides solid performances and decent effects work: It depicts a believably rotten young Superman in pretty much every way you’d expect a 12-year-old with superpowers to be rotten. Brandon is self-centered, disdainful of his small town and the people in it, unwilling to check his desires or impulses at all. He can’t be dominated physically, so it follows he should dominate others. When his advances toward a girl are rejected—after he sneaks into her room in the middle of the night to creep on her—he responds to being spurned by injuring her and brutalizing her mother. If these adults and their stupid rules can’t control him or even understand him, why should he respect what they say? What 12-year-old wouldn’t just crush the adults in their life on a whim if they could get away with it?
Here’s what it gets frustratingly wrong: Everything leading up to Brandon’s violent rampage.
His parents and the other authority figures around him are depicted as mostly blameless in this whole bloody affair. Mother Tori and father Kyle show him attention and love, ensure he wants for nothing, engage with him on topics like puberty and death like you’d expect someone who has put time into reading a parenting book would engage with a kid that age. They appear, from all available evidence, to be model parents, and it’s crucial that the film seems to believe they are. When Brandon starts to break bad, it’s because his crashed spaceship starts whispering alien propaganda into his ear, fulfilling the foreshadowing in an early scene in which Brandon expounds for a bit on parasitic wasps. The demon seed inside him is something that was there all along.
Looking at the actual circumstances of the plot, though, it’s really odd this was how the filmmakers chose to characterize his slide into domineering violence. Brandon is being enabled at basically every stage. At first his mother and father pointedly seem unable to see the glaring signs of his violence, including literal pictures of viscera mixed in with his porn. When he harasses a young classmate, nobody believes the girl; he later injures her because a school gym teacher insists she make physical contact with him despite clearly expressing the fact that doing so makes her uncomfortable. In the aftermath, his mother covers for him and the school decrees that he go see a counselor who happens to be his aunt (hey, it’s a small town). Even when it becomes clear to Kyle that his son is a budding sociopath, his response isn’t to try to reason with the kid or get him psychological help, but to figure out a way to put him down like a mad dog. This happens after Brandon’s already killed a couple folks—after the point where his father’s betrayal could serve as the reason Brandon has gone off the deep end.
The question at the root of deconstructions or what-if scenarios here is “What would make the shining paragon of goodness into somebody bad?” Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan character was an argument that limitless power would breed an unbridgeable distance from the human condition—the very thing that makes Superman a selfless hero. Red Son posits that to at least some extent, Superman’s goodness was nurtured by American culture. The direct antecedent to Brightburn is really the show Smallville, which argued exhaustively that a young Clark Kent’s moral grounding was entirely based on his human foster parents, while the alien influence of his biological father Jor-El was something he needed to reject.
Brightburn is saying that, too, but it places all the blame for Brandon’s heel turn on that alien heritage and none on the people who raised him. If we understand that Superman’s “nature” makes him special but his “nurture” makes him good, then it’s really the ultimate cop-out to write an evil version of him and just say that he’s a bad egg from the start.
I’ll be blunt: Smalltown U.S.A. isn’t doing much to make me recommend them as good foster parents for any earthbound extraterrestrial refugees. My girlfriend’s kids come home upset about classmates teasing other kids that they’ll get deported. Every other week, word comes to us of entrenched systems—schools, studios, companies, Olympic athletic teams, religious institutions—fostering and protecting abusers of every stripe. The states neighboring mine are all pointedly telling women to raise their rapist’s child and like it or else go the fuck to jail for a century. That’s not coming from some malevolent spaceship.
Kenneth Lowe can’t stand to fly (he’s not that naive). You can follow him Twitter and read more of his writing at his blog.