The Great Man Problem: A review of Brightburn
The Great Man Problem: A review of Brightburn
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
I’ve been waiting for this movie for a long time. Decades.
Superheroes never appealed to me. As a child, I was too literalist to suspend disbelief and, as an adult, watched superheroes’ powers escalate to levels beyond ridiculous. In Superman Returns, the filmmakers acknowledge Kal-El is a sort of god: In one scene, he hovers high above the world, his super-hearing detecting every word said on the planet far below like God above listening to prayers.
I just can’t.
But there’s a deeper problem, too: the ongoing assertion that one great man can make things better. This is a philosophic problem that troubled political scientists and moral philosophers greatly during the rise of nation-states and the eventually drafting of the U.S. Constitution. How do we form a government that does the most good for the most people? One proposition is to trust a single great man – an American President with supreme authority. We could have had King George the First in George Washington.
But we decided to do something else: to decentralize power, to impose checks and balances, to give power to the people. This is the birth of liberal democracy: an educated voting class with competing interests making collective decisions.
It’s true that a few great men seem to have shaped history for the better. Generals, kings, scientists (often cribbing from their female research assistants). Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
But think about The Reverend Doctor King a moment. He was the face of a movement, of thousands of people working in concert towards a common end. We rightly revere him. At the same time, the movement might have succeeded without him. For every leader we know about, there were more people ready to step up and take the reins. John Lewis took a skull fracture for Dr. King. He could easily have become the face of the movement.
Moreover, look at the history of great men turning out not to be so great. Charismatic leaders given power and authority whose actions result in the most terrible consequences. Everyone knows Hitler, the Great War and the Holocaust. The West, though, is forgetting about Joseph Stalin who killed between six and nine million deliberately and a many as fourteen million by sheer incompetence. We forget about King Leopold the Second who colonized the Congo. His genocidal mania resulted in between eight and ten million deaths of Africans by modern estimates.
We’re all so familiar with the Superman origin story by now that the film was able to touch on the tropes and skip quickly into the story. We all remember baby Clark Kent lifting the truck so his new father could change the tire. We remember his parents loading him into the spaceship, and him growing up with traditional small-town values.
Brandon Breyer is this orphaned baby sent to Earth in his own private rocket, but it’s clear from the outset he hasn’t managed to learn the small-town, American bread-and-butter values of Smallville (the town of Brightburn, in this instance). Now an awkwardly pubescent boy of 12, complete with bullies and a pretty crush, he accidentally discovers he has super-strength trying to start a cranky gas mower.
I remember that mower. Dad could start it in one or two pulls and had no patience for the fact that I couldn’t. Ten or twelve pulls into frustration, he’d come and take over. But Brandon pulls on it so hard he launches the thing. It lands, running and upside down, the blades whirling like a fan.
The very first thing Brandon does on discovering he has super-strength is find out if it’s accompanied by invulnerability.
Seems like a strange choice. But it’s also somewhat clear that Brandon is a psychopath. He doesn’t experience fear. Not much by way of joy, or shame, or guilt. Absent the normal range of human emotions, the choice to jam his fingers into the spinning blades seems the slightest bit more logical.
Things escalate when the gym teacher has the kids doing trust falls the next day. His crush, now creeped out by him, precipitates the crisis by stepping to the side. The kids let him fall.
Brandon crushes her hand when the teacher forces her to help him up.
So here’s a lesson in forcing forgiveness, buried in the deeper narrative. When men harass women, bosses are tempted to preserve order by telling the victim how to feel and how to act. But if a man has harassed you in the past, the chances his future behavior will be proper are slim. Trust the women.
Anyway. This incident leads to an escalating spiral of violence and general mayhem. A twelve-year-old boy, given tremendous power and no responsibility, becomes a vicious predator literally overnight.
It’s written into the movie that he was always destined, even programmed, to be a monster. It’s foreshadowed (with such lack of subtlety that we might as well say explicated) in science class when the teacher asks Brandon the difference between wasps and bees. He answers, more deeply than needed and in a way that makes everyone uncomfortable, that wasps are predators but bees are pollinators. In fact, there’s a kind of wasp that has lost the ability to procreate on its own; it lays its eggs in bees’ nests and forces the bees to raise it.
Yeah, not subtle.
So, power and responsibility. Values training didn’t stick because Brandon has no empathy. He’s at least a psychopath and maybe a narcissist. In a counseling session, he tells the counselor he’s discovered he’s special, “something superior.” A catastrophic lack of empathy makes American values impossible.
This is a horror film. The combination of power without feelings is driven home in brilliantly gory scenes that will stick with you later. Try not to be slurping your smoothie while you watch this one.
So is it all just entertainment, or is this social commentary? Superman’s opponents have alleged from time to time that a godlike alien has no moral authority here and is not to be trusted; he could change allegiances at any moment and go from being a great savior to a living cataclysm at any moment and we’d be totally powerless. Becoming powerless is a total trope in horror fiction. Coincidence?
There’s one thing that makes me say this is about politics, a cautionary tale about trusting billionaires and centralizing power with the president. Brandon is obsessed with human reproduction, particularly women.
His parents find some pictures under his mattress. The first couple are women in bathing suits, cropped from magazines. But then they get more and more anatomical. Biology textbook renderings of the uterus and fallopian tubes. And at the end, we see his first victim splayed out in front of the cradle-ship, her reproductive organs dissected and on display.
If that’s not commentary on our American political system, then I don’t know what is. Who remains in power by focusing on the control of female sexual activity? And if that’s too blunt, you’re not going to like this part: can you think of someone extremely powerful who shows no empathy, signs of narcissism, and is obsessed with female body-parts, even to the point of describing his own daughter in terms of her breasts and backside? Anyone? Bueller?
If there’s a point here, it isn’t that one single person is bad; it’s that we should be wary of powerful people. They have their own goals and motivations. They can play-act for us to get their way, to get us to raise them as it were. But when they come into their power, very powerful people are dangerous in proportion to their power.
Hitler. Stalin. Leopold. Mussolini. Saddam Hussein.