What We Talk About When We Talk About Evil Superman

Photo: Sony Pictures

Superman did not begin as a good guy. In 1933, a little over five years before his proper debut in Action Comics No. 1, the character’s creators, young Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, self-published a story called “The Reign of the Superman,” in which a man is given superhuman abilities and, rather than devoting himself to the commission of noble deeds, he attempts to take over the world. A remnant of this sinister energy even appears in the first image readers ever saw of the real Superman in 1938: As comics writer Grant Morrison points out in his book Supergods, the world-famous cover of that first issue of Action Comics just shows us an inhumanly strong man wrecking a car while horrified onlookers run away. Why should readers, who didn’t yet have the context of his interior contents, assume this individual was someone who wanted to save us? Wasn’t it just as likely that he would spell our doom?

This is, more or less, the idea that animates David Yarovesky’s Brightburn. The film riffs on Superman’s iconic origin story, in which a kindly farmer couple come upon a crashed spaceship containing a human-looking baby boy and decide to raise him as their own. The baby grows up and eventually discovers that he possesses the powers of flight, heat vision, and nigh-invulnerability. The only catch in Brightburn is that the lad is something of a sociopath. When he realizes he’s different from the rest of us, he doesn’t attempt to save the world but rather to rule it. Chaos and ultraviolence ensue. It’s a reasonably effective horror movie, filled with jump scares and the viscera of innocent people, and on its own, it’s a somewhat interesting twist on the ubiquitous superhero film genre. However, it’s largely a boilerplate Evil Superman story plucked from the annals of comics history. In its one scrap of genius, it tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the character’s archetype.

Ever since that 1933 proto-Superman tale, there has been a venerable lineage of Evil Superman stories. They have primarily existed, unsurprisingly, in the world of comic books, where creators ponder what might happen if Supes lacked conscience or remorse. Sometimes these takes have been fluffy. Indeed, an entire website was dedicated to the somewhat goofy Evil Superman stories, which proliferated in comics’ so-called Silver and Bronze Ages of the late 1950s through the mid-1980s. Launched in 2005, the website was called Superdickery (it technically still exists, though its objective has changed). Back in the day, it featured covers that, in an effort to baffle credulous children into buying copies, pictured the Man of Steel as a total jerk. A regal Superman demanding better gifts from the world’s leaders after he has conquered the planet. A greedy Superman telling a crime victim he’ll help him out but only in exchange for cash. A gleeful Superman cutting Lois Lane’s air supply in space. A disappointed Superman destroying a present from Jimmy Olsen with his eye lasers. But open up such comics, and you’ll see that Supes is under the influence of mind control or a rare type of Kryptonite or some such. By story’s end, it was always back to truth, justice, and the proverbial American Way.

However, there’s a bevy of Evil Superman stories that don’t wrap up so easily. More often than not, they don’t star Superman per se; instead, the sinister superheroes are obvious analogues with slightly altered names and backstories. Most famous are the stories about Bizarro, a failed clone and enemy of Superman who does the opposite of whatever Supes does. Superman has also tussled with various iterations of Ultraman, a bastard from the parallel world of Earth-2, where good hardly ever triumphs. Beyond the confines of DC Comics are characters like Marvel’s Hyperion, a caped, superpowered individual who conquers Earth. Image Comics gave us Supreme, a vicious, self-centered Superman pastiche. More recently, writer Mark Waid and artists Peter Krause and Diego Barreto composed an epic saga about an Evil Superman known as the Plutonian, entitled Irredeemable. In all cases, the reader is supposed to feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of the beloved, paternal Superman archetype being perverted and twisted into a creature that could kill or dominate any one of us, should he so choose.

So why do Evil Superman stories like Brightburn and its ilk alarm us so much, and why do we keep coming back to them? What makes them so delicious, even when, as in the case of Yarovesky’s film or the contents of Superdickery, they aren’t particularly well-written? The short answer is that we don’t trust ourselves.

Comics critic Tegan O’Neill once wrote a fascinating essay (which she later told me was intended to be a satire of Derrida, but still) called “Everything’s Gone Blue,” in which she contends that Superman’s greatest superpower is his ability to always do good. As she put it, the superhero concept that Superman launched can be boiled down to one core notion: “The premises we must accept are simple. In fact, they number only one: that a man can be right.” In real life, humans spend their days destroying and exploiting one another. Even the most virtuous among us has cut corners and knowingly chosen to do what satisfies our urges at the expense of other people’s happiness. (How many Congolese miners died obtaining the metal in even the most selfless firefighter’s iPhone?) But Superman, in his purest form? He only does good. He only helps. He is right. We cannot imagine ourselves being so superhuman as to be right. Therefore, experiencing Evil Superman stories, we shudder because Superman has started acting like us.

There is nothing more dangerous than a superhuman extrapolation of the worst human impulses, which is to say the impulses we all feel and, to one degree or another, indulge every day. We are, luckily, bound by our general impotence. If we commit a crime, it is easy for someone to capture and/or kill us in retribution. If we want to destroy something, we are bound by our physical weakness and the difficulty of obtaining weapons of mass destruction. What’s more, nature and nurture have instilled in us the notion that other humans are our moral peers and thus worthy of protection. But if we were Superman, none of these principles would apply. What authority could detain a flying man with bulletproof skin? What chaos (or totalitarianism, for that matter) would be beyond our reach if we could shoot power beams from our eyes? What mental backstops would exist if we learned that we were superior beings, that humans were to us as ants are to humans? We see Evil Supermen and we see ourselves with our abilities multiplied and our restraints dissolved. We don’t like what we see.

Which brings us to Brightburn’s sole bit of genius. It would be a far more generic Evil Superman story if we were merely seeing an adult metahuman razing the world. Instead, we see the pivot point that defines the goodness of the mainstream Superman: the time in which Kal-El of Krypton becomes Clark Kent of Kansas. In the world of Brightburn, the boy learns he’s more than mortal and it overrides the teachings of the benevolent couple who raised him. They make two key mistakes that lead to cataclysm. First, the father tells the boy it’s okay to indulge his urges every once in a while. He means that in the context of masturbation, but the lad takes it in a more general sense and starts committing superhuman acts that impinge on the rights and safety of others. Then the mother tells him he’s special. She means it the way any mother means it when she talks to her child, but he understands it to mean that there are no others like him and that he is thus superior to us all. The parents mean well, but these are supreme tactical mistakes. They give us our Evil Superman.

By contrast, what makes Superman good is his restraint and humility; Superman works as a character only if the Kents tell him that he must hold himself back from destroying the world and that he must never think of himself as better than anyone else. These are, of course, total fictions: There’s no objective reason for Superman to be ashamed or modest. But they are supremely useful fictions, ones that keep the world in balance and make us believe in a god who came from the sky to save humanity from itself. In other words, the Kents stand at the fork in the road where Superboy can become either the Jesus of the Gospels or the Übermensch of Nietzsche.

In this way, Brightburn is a story about the responsibility we all bear when we raise children, be it at a parental or societal level. We may not trust ourselves to do the right thing, but we have to pretend we can trust our young ones to be better than we are, if we work hard enough to raise them right. We will never do away with tales of Evil Superman because we will never stop being at least a little bit evil ourselves. It’s our responsibility to strive to make our young ones relate ever so slightly less to the stories of sinister superheroes.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Evil Superman