Brightburn billed itself as the first “superhero horror,” and it is the most popular example of a film that has blended two such distinct genres. The story basically retells Superman’s origin story, a story as familiar to pop culture fans as what happened to Batman’s parents or Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, but flips it on its head. Growing up on a farm in Brightburn, Kansas (not Smallville), Brandon Breyer soon discovers that he has amazing superhuman abilities, but unlike Clark Kent, Brandon uses his powers to terrorize the residents of his small town, forcing his loving adoptive parents to accept that they and the world are in terrible danger. 

The concept has its charms, but the overall movie does not fully explore it. Brandon’s parents are, for the most part, loving and supportive. They show a genuine love for their son, particularly the mother who thinks of Brandon as a gift from above. Brandon’s darker urges seem to stem from a mysterious message coming from the ship that brought him to Earth, which basically makes Brandon not responsible for his actions. Brandon does some brutally horrific acts that show just how fragile a human body can be, but by taking away Brandon’s personal responsibility, making his evil impulses merely a message from his birth planet, viewers are left to wonder how a lifetime of parental love and guidance can be wiped away by a message from space. Stories like DC’s Superman: Red Son, which shows what would happen if Superman’s rocket crashed in Soviet Russia, get more mileage out of the exploration of nature vs nurture, particularly when the subject whose development we’re witnessing can flatten major cities without breaking a sweat. There are also some more modern works that explore this idea, and how horrifying the concept is, in more detail (Also, there will be some spoilers).

Take The Boys. This comic features a group of men assigned to keep watch over superheroes who are unrepentant sociopaths when the cameras aren’t rolling. The Amazon-produced streaming series also serves as a parody on how the superhero blockbuster has permeated the mainstream, but the show, and the comic on which it’s based, is full of over-the-top violence one would expect from morally reprehensible people strong enough to twist bones and explode flesh. The biggest offender of all is Homelander, who leads the world’s greatest superteam The Seven. His power set is pretty much Superman’s. He’s bulletproof, can fry enemies with his laser vision, or can tear you in two with his bare hands before you can ask for an autograph. Homelander is also a hero in his fictional universe because he has an army of PR people and handlers who hide the fact he’s a superpowered sociopath. Yes, appeasing Homelander with adoration from the public guarantees that he won’t simply decide to flatten a few major cities, but it has also enabled other instances of Homelander’s vile actions and narcissistic worldview simply because he cannot, thanks to his superpowers and his corporate handlers, suffer any accountability for his actions.

What if, however, the superhero cares less about social media likes and simply wants to enslave humanity? Then you get Omni-Man, the Vitrumite hero/warlord from Invincible. He came to his universe’s Earth as a protector. Omni-Man even married a human woman and sired a kid, the titular hero Invincible. However, Omni-Man was also a sleeper agent, gathering intelligence and prepping us for an invasion by the Vitrumite Empire. Eventually, his ruse is discovered by his own son, whose loyalties lie with Earth, and what ensues is one of the bloodiest and most brutal battles ever fought by two nigh-invulnerable beings who also happen to be father and son. Omni-Man, with his superior strength and centuries of experience, beats his own son to a bloody pulp, creating miles and miles of collateral damage and lost life along the way. The character of Omni-Man is one of the most fearsome depictions of ultimate power-driven by ill intent.

But perhaps the purest depiction of the horror involving power with no moral boundaries is the Plutonian from Mark Waid’s Irredeemable. The entire series, in fact, focuses on this Superman-like being who was once Earth’s greatest hero and now it’s greatest supervillain who has already murdered millions of people, lobotomized his sidekick, and sunk the entire nation of Singapore (not destroying its economy but physically sinking the entire island of Singapore into the sea). The story begins with the aftermath of Plutonian killing several heroes in the fictional superteam the Paradigm and destroying that world’s version of Metropolis, but future volumes reveal why Plutonian is the way he is, showing him in different foster homes, each one fearing the little boy with the powers of Superman. The one parent who does show him love, who basically designs the Plutonian’s heroic persona dies with his wife in a car accident, leaving Dan Hartigan, the human identity of Plutonian, emotionally adrift and the all-powerful Plutonian more likely to snap when he realizes that all-powerful doesn’t mean infallible.

Perhaps the most succinct way to explain how superheroes are adjacent to horror lies in the critique of Uncle Ben’s famous line “With great power comes great responsibility” line given by Gertie Stein, a young heroine in the Runaways series. She basically says that those who have power typically don’t use it responsibly, a sentiment that seems to reflect our current political climate. The more we see those in power misuse that power, the more likely we are to see this kind of horror born of immoral authority that enforces compliance through strength. Brightburn might be the first superhero horror film, but it and other superhero works being created today shows the mashup of genres reflects a current, genuine fear.

James Gardner

James Gardner

I'm a librarian who reads scary things, watches scary things, writes scary things, and generally lives with scary things. I also do reviews and critical commentary. Come to the darkest part of the stacks and leave some of the happiness you bring. VISIT THE FOREBODING HOME OF THE SCARY LIBRARIAN

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