It may come to the attention of some that I have not written anything for this blog in a long time. I can only apologise for that and thank you for actually reading and engaging with stuff. I’ve had a lot of changes in my life recently (all for the good, luckily) and it’s hard getting used to a new schedule. Sadly, this new schedule does mean that I can’t write entire page-spreads regarding Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, but hopefully I’ll be able to work something out of irregular posts because I do enjoy having a place to vent and explore my own thoughts as much as I hope you all enjoy having something to read.
With this in mind, though, I really wanted to at least write about something. As the weeks slipped by and morphed impossibly quickly into months, I realised it was becoming increasingly more difficult to jump in and actually write something. The Dungeons and Dragons campaigns I’ve been reciting in extreme detail had all advanced far past their last recorded positions and breaking down each session and catching up would now come to rob precious time for spending time with friends, enjoying my life and writing my own stuff (yes, strange as it is to say, I do have a life outside of tabletop RPGs). On top of all that, I just didn’t feel like writing about D&D. Obsession with a hobby is never great but I hadn’t realised how much of my effort I was pouring into it until I took a step back and realised I hadn’t written anything that wasn’t campaign related in months. So, I decided, whatever it was I was next going to write about here, it had to be something I was passionate about, something that was important to me and something that would be striking and thought provoking in a way beyond campaign diaries.
And then I watched Brightburn.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead.
This is not a full review of Brightburn, mainly because I don’t think I’m the right person for this movie. To pass a quick verdict, Brightburn is perfectly serviceable for what it is and as a person who does not like horror films, I enjoyed it but will probably never watch it again. The practical effects are good, the gore intense and the story and characters basic enough to suit the needs of the story they are trying to tell.
And that is what I want to talk about today, because when I came out of Brightburn, I emerged with two solid conclusions I had known about for a while.
Brightburn was a pretty decent movie with a lot of potential and an attempt at an interesting alternate retelling of a crucial pop culture icon.
Brightburn was also something I never wanted to exist and considering that such a thing did made me despair about a terrible trend occurring in certain areas of the writing world.
For those who don’t know, the story of Brightburn is simple. A farm couple, unable to conceive a child of their own, discover a crashed alien spaceship with a baby inside. They raise the child as their own until the day that the child’s alien heritage is revealed and the child steps forwards to achieve the destiny that has been laid out for it. From these facts, it doesn’t take a lot to read between the lines and see that Brightburn is just a horror spin on the tale of Superman.
Brightburn revels in its original comic book heritage: the insignia of Brightburn, the colour scheme of blue and red and the costume which somehow makes a discount cosplay of a Mindflayer actually look pretty intimidating. The differences it takes are as clear as day though: Brandon Breyer gives into his alien heritage, becoming the monster he is destined to be and through a mix of parenting mistakes and just general bad will comes to destroy the lives of all those around him who he should trust and call family. All in all, if one looks at the story as a bunch of cliff-notes, Brightburn looks really interesting: a revolution of an age-old tale given new life and re-imagined for a new generation.
The issue with this I am building towards and the main reason why no matter how good the effects were and how decent an attempt was made towards the cinematography of the movie, Brightburn isn’t as new or as clever as it thinks it is. In actual fact, it’s just another step along to prove a simple truth that everyone related to the superhero industry either doesn’t think about or doesn’t care about.
No-one understands Superman.
And why would you? Superman is an alien child from another world with god-like powers we would never understand. As a character concept, he’s the immediate embodiment of wish fulfilment, except he’s too moral and upstanding for us to consider him a true escape. He’s a man of duty so devoted that his character gives Captain America a run for his money, easily toppling the Captain in anything that could feature as an element of competition. Superman is, for the lack of a better term, perfect. Only a lot of people don’t like perfect. I showed my Mother the first phase of the Marvel movies recently and though she loved Thor, she viewed Captain America as ‘too squeaky’. I can’t count the number of friends who absolutely adore the Dark Knight, Batman himself, and yet will easily deflate when the Man of Steel is brought up in conversation. Too easily, people come to the conclusion that Superman is just ‘boring’.
This upsets me but its clearly a sentiment that has been felt by all creators working with the character. Superman, for all his iconography, isn’t popular because of this moral virtue and seemingly straw-man character. It’s because people think of Superman like this that we have received so many different iterations of the character within recent years: a way of re-imagining and reinventing the hero to keep him relevant. Relevancy, apparently, meaning to be darker and more mature. The DCEU brought us Man of Steel and Henry Cavill in the role of the Last Son of Krypton to mixed results and now, though not an official DC property, we have Brightburn, telling the story of a Superboy gone rogue and giving into his desire for Godhood.
Only these aren’t interesting stories to me, and it seems like most other people agree. The DCEU has lacked a grasp on the character of Superman and Brightburn has done a full 180 but never manages to say anything of real value, other than absolute power can corrupt absolutely. To be entirely honest, as much as I love a good story about corruption and flawed well-developed heroes, I ultimately hate the DCEU Superman and even the tangential Brightburn for one simple reason: the conclusion reached and the story being told just isn’t interesting.
Brightburn turns from an attempt at the breakdown of a Superman allegory to a brainless gore-fest when one takes a step back and realises there is no material worth to the story, nothing considered or explored with the character because he is just an evil monster, basically, because he is. He’s a character, if one can call him such, with no conflict. The DCEU Superman fares better because he actually has conflict. It’s just a conflict that is handled terribly. For those who have watched the DC movies, can anyone explain to me why Superman saves people? It’s not because he’s a good person, because he has repeatedly shown he’s the same type of person as Brandon in Brightburn, excessive with his power, destructive and reckless. He also doesn’t do it because he enjoys it, whenever we see Cavill’s Superman he always comes equipped with a frown or a grimace and sad puppy dog eyes. He’s a character with no motivation except that there has to be a Superman and it has to be him. Now, that, is boring.
I can already see some people lobbying a decent argument in my direction. “But Shadowonthewall, you mysterious geek with the weird obsessions relating to fictional characters, you can’t criticise Superman’s motivations in the movies and not talk about him in the original comics. Superman is the most basic superhero, a one-note good guy. How can you criticise these movies for being dull when you are literally arguing in favour for one of the most simplistic and straight-forward characters in all of fiction?”
Articulate point, reader. However, my argument here is actually a bit deeper than a blatant criticism of Superman in most idea. I would like to argue, and I know this might sound like too much assumption, that people do not actually find Superman to be boring. They only think Superman is boring because they’ve never actually watched or read anything good with Superman in.
I know that sounds supremely arrogant, so I will concede on a few points.
Yes, Superman is a very flat character on first inspection. He’s just a good person who likes being good.
Yes, because of his stoicism and friendly demeanour, he can seem to lack the depth that one might attribute to Batman (despite the fact that Batman is a whole other brand of one-note character, but I’ll save that for another time).
And yes, Superman being the most powerful thing in existence does tend to make his stories seem to lack tension because there is no possible way he can lose.
I do accept all of this and will even say that because of these parameters, it is very hard to tell a good Superman story and can be very hard to get Superman right. But it has been done and done well and every true fan of Superman has probably seen one of those stories and allowed it to get to the core of Superman’s character to understand the way he is.
To understand Superman, we need to take a look at his origins because it’s something that everyone seems to get wrong about Superman. Let’s start with the basic facts: Superman, born Kal-El of Krypton, was jettisoned to earth by his father, Jor-El and his mother, Lara Lor-Van. I’m going to stop there for a moment because I feel that is all most people ever really think of when they hear about Superman. The first thing to come into focus for most people with Superman is his alien heritage, including the galactic mythos of his world and the power set that being the outsider gives him. For a lot of people, this is the first stop for Superman as a character. Brightburn shines a spotlight on this. Brandon is supposed to be like every other little kid, and yet the movie takes every chance to show us how different he is from the people around him and its his alien heritage that ultimately decides his entire character. Or, rather, strips him of any. A huge problem with Brightburn is that Brightburn is actually a solid concept with not the greatest execution. An evil or horror-based Superman could have been utterly terrifying, but in the end, Brandon just comes off as bland and annoying, because, like many people think for Superman, his powers are all that define him. He is essentially a God but as a person, there’s no deeper motivation present.
A big line for the trailer of Brightburn was Brandon telling his mother that he ‘wanted to be the good guy’. This is actual character and makes Brandon interesting, maybe even sympathetic: a boy struggling with his own morality and making bad choices because of immaturity and weakness of character. In the actual movie, however, Brandon is just evil because his spaceship tells him to be and he decides ‘sure, why not?’. It’s a level of caricature that most people accuse of Superman: a flat character with nothing going on beside the iconic power set.
Even Superman movies do the same thing. In Man of Steel and Batman VS. Superman, Superman is characterised by his role as the outsider solely because of his alien heritage. He fails to connect to normal humans because of it, he’s broody and mournful and the entire plot of both movies centres around his home-world of Krypton impressing its will upon him through Zod, Doomsday and, of course, Kryptonite. Only Superman never feels a part of humanity and the writers never fully commit to him having a character beyond classic stoicism. Even his urge to be a hero makes no sense in the context of those movies. For the few staunch defenders of the DCEU, my main question for the treatment of Superman is simply why does he pretend to be a hero?
‘Because he’s a good person,’ I hear you answer. That answer, however, is distinctly against Superman’s actions in those movies. He brings down entire buildings on top of people, punches normal humans through walls without a second thought and doesn’t seem to care much for the effect of his own actions, so he can’t be that good or noble a person. I also personally can’t remember a single time we actually saw him saving anyone. There are scenes where he saves things, but no active people, no singular displays of being a hero. He saves Lois, I suppose, but she is his partner, so there’s a personal interest in there, something that his hero life seems to lack. Superman in the DCEU has no logical reason to be a hero. Even when he is trying to be a hero, he never looks particularly happy about what he’s doing. The only reason why Superman is a hero in those movies is because it is what Superman is supposed to be and there’s no real explanation given beyond that. The reason for that, in my opinion, is because people see Kal El and stop looking into Superman, they see nothing deeper.
The truth is, though, that Superman is not just the alien Kal-El. Kal El, for all the extraterrestrial mystique and powerful connotations, is exactly what people complain that Superman is: boring, one-dimensional and too powerful to make compelling against usually credible threats. If Kal-El was all that Superman was, he would not be so beloved or iconic and I would not be writing this post to insist on his greater sense of relevance and depth of character.
If one truly wants to understand the heart of Superman, they need to realise that Superman’s birth family are not the most important thing in his life. Because, by sheer fluke of chance, Kal-El’s ship crashed in Smallville, Kansas, and was found by the a pair of good people who desperately wanted to be parents: Johnathon and Martha Kent. This is the moment Superman is born, the moment two good ordinary people find a baby who had fallen from the sky and decide to raise him as their son. This is why Superman helps people and why he becomes such a noble paragon of justice: because of his adopted parents and their input into his character. Superman literally stands as the argument for nurture vs. nature.
The Superman of the DCEU lacks this strength of character because Johnathon and Martha Kent are, honestly, terrible people. Johnathon Kent, the moral heart of Superman, tells his son that he should have left kids to drown rather than use his power, whilst Martha in the sequel tells her son that he doesn’t owe the world a damn thing. Martha can at least be spared criticism due to the events of that film and how the world treats Superman but her words still ring hollow, coming from a character who taught Clark that he was special and had a duty to help others, without even realising she was raising the greatest hero who ever lived.
Even Brightburn understands how crucial parentage is to Superman as a character. Brandon’s parents, Tori and Kyle, can be seen as having had an impact on Brandon’s personality. When Brandon’s powers begin emerging, Kyle is the first to abandon Brandon and cast doubt upon him, showing that he has always doubts and on some level has never really considered Brandon his son. The fact the two are never engaged in displays of affection even when the two are happy at the start of the film shows the distance between them. Kyle is a bad parent for his lack of understanding and care for his son, but Tori is the opposite, smothering her boy and putting him on a pedestal where he can do no wrong. Perhaps, most importantly, neither of the pair trust Brandon enough to let him learn the secret of his heritage, something Johnathon and Martha reveal to Clark as soon as it becomes an issue for him. It’s a nice parallel to the Superman story, especially when you forget that the main conflict isn’t built on Tori and Kyle failing Brandon as parents, but Brandon being evil because the plot demands such. Because evil aliens.
This alien feature always overshadows the core of Superman and the most important factor of him as a character. Yes, Superman has god-like abilities and could do the impossible, but despite that, he is still a human. He was raised by two humans in a small town in Kansas and even when he grew up, he never lost his good heart because he never lost his humanity. The main problem with people writing Superman is that they put Kal-El and Superman before Clark Kent, despite the fact that Clark Kent was there before either of them.
One Superman series that gets this is the early 2000’s TV show, Smallville, based on Superman’s early years. As a TV show, Smallville is painfully full of filler, heavy on villain-of-the-week storytelling and it’s only grabbed my attention properly now I’ve gotten to the fifth series. The reason I forced my way through the blander parts of the series though is because Smallville is not only respectful of the source material and tries new things, but because it understands the heart of Superman. Johnathon and Martha Kent are perfect in the series, with John Schneider and Annette O’Toole providing brilliant performances for the lights of Clark’s life and the writers understanding that even though Clark is an alien and his alien heritage and the machinations of Krypton do play a key role within the series, it is Clark’s human heart that wins out on every occasion, even coming into frequent conflict with the alien ambitions of his birth father, Jor-El.
In this, we finally see the core of Superman’s character and what makes him interesting: the inner conflict of his nature expressed through the dichotomy between his alien heritage and his human upbringing. For lack of a better term, what makes Superman compelling is exploring the difference between the Super and the Man. Superman is overly powerful and can do impossible things, but he is restrained his human sense of morals and good heart, the main conflict of the best Superman stories being how close to either side Clark can get before he gets burned. It’s a fascinating core conflict for a character and gives Superman a much needed sense of weight to his actions.
My favourite Superman story, All-Star Superman, explores this dynamic in amazing depth. After an attack by Lex Luthor goes horribly right, Superman is left more powerful than he has ever been in his life but with mere weeks left to live. For the next twelve issues, we follow Clark as he wrestles with his heightened abilities, achieving the heights of divinity, and yet seeing him succumb to the shadow of death death and confront the concept of our own mortality in a sprawling cosmic epic. Another great example of a Superman story done right is Whatever Happened to Truth, Justice and the American Way? or Superman and The Elite. The pitch is classic but brilliant: a new group of heroes enters the picture called The Elite and they soon gather more popularity than Superman, despite the fact their tactics are more brutal and often rely on lethal force. In the story, Superman faces a terrible choice and a great struggle before him as the world sways from supporting him to rally around the effective but morally depraved elite. Superman’s God-like powers mean he could achieve the same results as this new group but his humanity holds him back from their depraved actions and so Superman must consider if he is even relevant to the world anymore, whether he needs to evolve to meet new challenges or whether his old fashioned virtues still hold a place in our society today.
Each of these stories are good because writers didn’t ask ‘how hard can Superman hit something’ or ‘what looks cool’. They asked what stories could they tell with the character and really allowed us into the way Superman thinks and the way he acts, making him a more fully dimensional character than most of his other incarnations. This is the main reason why I hate darker retellings of superhero stories. Usually, they’re all the same shade of grey where superheroes are concerned and lack anything with greater depth or meaning, other than heroes can be kind of assholes. (If people are looking for a good ‘darker’ superhero stories though, Justice League: Gods and Monsters is the best dark Superman movie and for comics, there is obviously the critically acclaimed Superman Red Son, which I myself still need to actually read). These two stories I have mentioned are full of heart and are great narratives. Both can be found in comic form and both were also animated in specials and I recommend them to anyone who read this post and decided to give good old Sups another try.
For those of you who still aren’t fond of Superman as a character and still don’t like goody two shoes heroes, then I can only hope you’ve learned something from the blog and at the very least understand that there is more to the Man of Tomorrow than most modern day writers give him credit for. Superman is still iconic and I don’t think that will ever change, but I do think we need to see a version of the character that understands this core dynamic and allows us to explore the deeper nuances of Clark’s character more than recent movies have. I don’t think this blog will change the world or even effect any future big blockbuster movies starring our favourite Kryptonian but I hope it has least proved entertaining. Plus, if a movie producer or writer does read this and it really connects with them, maybe then we’ll start developing a proper solution to the Superman Situation.