Brightburn proves the enduring influence of Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, and demonstrates the true heroism of Henry Cavill's Superman. Probably the most famous superhero of them all, the Man of Steel's origin story is as widely known as folklore. While it's usually played out in Messianic terms, the truth is that Superman's creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were the sons of Jewish immigrants, and they were more influenced by the story of Moses than that of Jesus. The parallels are pretty clear; a baby saved from death in a small pod, brought up among a strange people. Superman's Kryptonian name, "Kal-El," literally translates into "Voice of God" in Hebrew, a term usually used to refer to the Jewish prophets such as Moses.
Zack Snyder's Man of Steel spent an unusual amount of time on Superman's origin, with a lengthy opening sequence actually set on his homeworld of Krypton, and a number of flashbacks showing how the young Clark Kent developed his super-powers. David Yarovesky's Brightburn, which is produced by James Gunn and Kenneth Huang, is a twisted version of Superman's iconic origin, and it plays heavily upon Man of Steel. There's a strange sense in which Brightburn concept is nearer to Siegel and Shuster's inspiration than any Superman film to date; after all, to the Egyptians, the Exodus narrative was most certainly a horror story.
It's fascinating to put Brightburn and Man of Steel side-by-side and ask how each interprets the other. Because the way in which Brightburn references Man of Steel has significant implications for the Superman mythology - and indicates just how important Snyder's take on Superman really is, despite its divisive reception.
How Brightburn Riffs on Man of Steel
Zack Snyder's Man of Steel was intended as a fresh, updated take on Superman, following the pattern of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. It attempted to imagine just how the modern world would react to the presence of a strange alien visitor from another planet, a mysterious being with a costume, a cape, and incredible super-powers. Aspects of Superman's backstory were established through excellent flashback scenes to Clark's childhood in Kansas, and Snyder occasionally played them almost as horror. One tremendously effective scene showed Clark's x-ray vision triggering at school; he was understandably freaked out, and hid in a closet. When Clark's mom was called in, he told her through the door that the world was too big. To casual onlookers, it would have seemed as though the child was autistic (indeed, some therapists have used that scene to help parents understand how autistic children experience the world more intensely, and thus are tempted to retreat from it).
Another important flashback showed the young Clark huddled up, physically attacked by school bullies. The expression on Clark's face was chilling, and it was easy to see just how tempted he was to lash out in response. This was a crucial scene in that it reminded viewers just how unique a person Clark Kent really is. If Clark fought back, the odds are that his super-strength would have killed his tormentors. He would have been committed to a very different path in life, and would never have become a symbol of truth, justice, and the American Way. Perhaps the most fascinating part of this scene, though, is that it implies this kind of bullying was a normal part of Clark's life. If Clark weren't pure of heart and didn't have caring parents in the Kents and his self-control had flagged for just a second, even as a hormonal teenager, he would have become a monster.
Brightburn takes these ideas to their next logical step; what would have happened if the teenage Clark Kent had not had the same remarkable restraint? Like Clark in Man of Steel, Brightburn's Brandon has superhuman abilities that cause him to retreat from the world, and he too would have probably been diagnosed as autistic by the education system. But for Brandon, the ever-increasing gulf between himself and human society ultimately kills off his empathy, and he begins to strike back at the world he feels has rejected him. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this story is the fact that this is frankly a far more realistic portrayal of what would happen to a child like this; Brandon/Clark would be far more likely to become a monster than a superhero.
Brightburn Holds Up A Mirror To Man of Steel
The comparison between Brightburn and Man of Steel has profound implications for how Snyder's film should be viewed. It's perhaps most interesting in that it suggests viewers are often far too hard on Snyder's interpretation of Jonathan Kent, Clark's adopted father, who taught him not to reveal his powers to the world. In fact, Jonathan was so convinced society wasn't ready for Clark that he was willing to die rather than have his son expose himself before he was ready. This attitude is one of the most enduring criticisms of the movie, and indeed it seemed to drive an unhealthy degree of introversion within Clark.
But Brightburn implicitly suggests that Jonathan's advice was right. Because it was Jonathan who taught Clark self-restraint, meaning he chose not to use his powers selfishly before he truly understood who he was and what his place in the world should be. Indeed, Jonathan Kent's advice may have been essential for a time; not only because the world was not ready for Superman but maybe also because Superman was not ready for the world. Notice that, in Man of Steel, Clark only begins to truly embrace his full powers after he has discovered his Kryptonian heritage, resolving the thorny questions of identity that every person must struggle with. He had to find his own moral center, to understand his own place in the universe, before he could truly be ready to reveal himself to the people of Earth.
In Brightburn, Brandon doesn't grow up with the same sense of restraint. His adoptive mom, Tori, has the same faith in Brandon that Martha has in Clark; "Whatever you've done," she tells him, "I know there is good inside you." But his dad, Kyle, has a very different reaction. Kyle views Brandon's powers with outright fear, desperately attempting to pretend that his son doesn't possess powers at all. While this encourages Brandon to keep his abilities a secret, the reason is very different, and as a result there's a radically different effect. Brandon experiences this as further isolation, and is turned against the world even more.
What Brightburn Means for Man of Steel
Finally, one of the most fascinating aspects of this is that Brightburn embraces Man of Steel in shorthand. Not only referencing Hans Zimmer's music, but also giving homage to Amir Mokri's more contemplative documentary style cinematography. It assumes that every viewer will get its allusion to the Snyder version of Superman's origin story; as such, it implies that - at least in the minds of Yarovesky, Gunn, and Huang - Zack Snyder's interpretation is just as iconic as Richard Donner's. Where previous filmmakers constantly riffed on Christopher Reeve's Superman, Brightburn treats Man of Steel as an equivalent, embracing it as the true modern-day version of the character. There's no higher compliment.
The first phase of the DCEU, which ran from 2013's Man of Steel through to 2017's Justice League, is much-maligned because of behind-the-scenes conflict that often led to poor editing and a disjointed narrative. But it's all too easy to forget that Man of Steel appeared, to all intents and purposes, to be a solid foundation for DC's shared cinematic universe. It was a financial success, grossing just shy of $700 million worldwide, and earned an A- Cinemascore, while Screen Rant scored it as "excellent" with four out of five stars. What's more, it did indeed introduce viewers to a new incarnation of Superman, a modern version whose popularity is indicated by the sheer degree of interest in whether or not Cavill is still playing the part. By riffing on Man of Steel in this way, Brightburn recognizes the film's important place in popular culture, and reminds audiences that the Snyder version of Superman should be seen as just as definitive as Donner's.
- Brightburn (2019) release date: May 24, 2019