A common Superman Elseworld story premise asks: “What if Superman turned evil?” Typically, he would be a devastating threat that obliterates his surroundings; he’d crown himself overseer, and decimate anyone who opposes him. This is one reason Lex Luthor condemns the alien, and in Zack Snyder’s DC universe, it became Batman’s reason to fear him. Snyder’s Superman not only destroyed a major city in Man of Steel, but also murdered one of his greatest nemeses. Unfortunately, Superman’s morality wasn’t very well explored in the recent live-action movies. Supposedly, Snyder wanted to put Superman in a situation where he would need to kill, while the production and writing team wanted to deconstruct superheroes (something Mark Waid already did when he wrote Irredeemable, a superhero book published by BOOM! Studios). Still, though the idea of Superman turning to the dark side is not a bad idea, it’s not what Superman is all about. But what would he do, and what would be the cause for his face-heel turn? David Yarovesky and the Gunn Siblings explore this question in the superhero horror film Brightburn.
Brightburn is an unsubtle homage to Superman. Two small town Kansas farmers find a spaceship crash on their farm; when they approach it, they find a baby. The couple considers him a gift given to them, since they have thus far failed to conceive. So, Tori and Kyle Bryer adopt the child, giving him an alliterative name: Brandon. They hide his origin from him by locking his spaceship in their barn, and just like with Superman, Brandon is raised with typical, wholesome family values: work hard, and be kind. However, unlike Clark Kent, who is an extroverted and compassionate kid, Brandon is a little introverted, doesn’t socialize much, and also gets bullied a bit for typical kid behavior. Through it all, his parents still love him.
The moment he hits puberty his powers start to manifest. One night, Tori discovers Brandon in some kind of trance, trying to pry open the barn door protecting his ship. The ship emits an eerie red glow, and projects an alien message into his brain. Once he realizes his strength, he begins to fight back, and his ideals change. His stint into puberty comes with opposition to authority, such as his family and teachers. Similarly to young Superman, Brandon will cordially ask the person to back off; the only difference is that one is using the words as a warning that he will protect his surroundings, while the other implies a threat for selfish gains. As the movie progresses, Brandon goes on a rampage, taking measures into his own hands.
So, despite both aliens having a similar upbringing, what makes Brandon more villainous than Superman? Brightburn proposes that it’s simply his nature, and his upbringing only stifled those innate cruel intentions.
The most popular instance when Superman turned evil was the video game adaptation of the Injustice comic series. Superman, abused by the Joker and other villains, accidentally killed Lois Lane under the influence of Scarecrow’s fear toxin. Frustrated with the politics of the world, he decided to no longer support truth and justice, but become judge, jury, and executioner.
Another instance when Superman chose a less than heroic ideology was with Mark Millar’s popular story Red Son. This story asked what would happen if Superman landed in Russia instead of America. Though he was more power-hungry than evil, it successfully explored what Superman could be like if he took a step away from the good alignment. Both these instances have Superman change based on an outside force, pushing him to break his moral code; he needs to be broken before he will actually reconsider his moral quandary.
Even Batman, who’s vigilantism is more morally grey than his famous counterpart, hasn’t turned into a full-time villain until he’s broken. The exceptions happen when his thirst for revenge takes over. Both these characters are not inherently evil — they are pushed into adaptation a new state of mind.
That may not be the case with Brandon Bryer. His parents aren’t perfect; they bicker about his upbringing, as well how to handle his troubles in school, and they aren’t violent or abusive — they are simply afraid that maybe their son is actually very different. They love him, and only realize what he is when it’s too late. He isn’t bullied to the extent where he snaps, like in typical Robert Cormier novels, and he’s generally a sweet boy. He smiles, shows curiosity, and likes his family. The biggest outlier is his calling. The nightmarish messages he gets implies that his arrival may be more than coincidence. If Superman was programmed at an impressionable age to take control, then perhaps he too he would end up differently.
Another factor is personality. Both Clark Kent and Brandon Bryer were taught small-town values and etiquette. They weren’t brought up with any hate in their mind, and besides a tongue-in-cheek reference in an essay called “The Fall of Truth and Justice in Modern Society,” there are no real societal problems permeating Brandon’s life. But Brandon isn’t as sociable as Clark. They both feel that they’re different, but while the latter could stand up for his principles, the former is still unsure what to do with this new knowledge. So, he does what he thinks is right — and that is to get what he wants, as well as stop the people who are after him.
The superhero genre tells tales of morality. Just like the myths of old, they are templates for heroes and their adventures. Family is important, love can conquer all, and being good will triumph, while revenge will slowly poison. They delve into melodrama, and can be outright soap operas. Zack Snyder attempted to bring in morality by attacking the paragon of good’s moral essence; Brightburn takes a different route, looking at morality less as an outward force while asking if people are born outright evil, subverting the story of power and responsibility. Being different doesn’t mean you will always find a community, and a person’s growth may not prioritize nurture over nature.