Brightburn (R)

Screen Gems / Sony Pictures Releasing

The text of Psalm 130:3 is familiar to Christians everywhere, even if the reference isn’t. In this verse the Psalmist, anonymous but speculated by generations of commentators to be David, asks a timeless question:

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    O Lord, who could stand?

Commenting on this verse, Matthew Poole writes, “This Psalm was composed by the prophet when he was conflicting with horrors of his conscience for the guilt of his sins, and imploring God’s mercy and pardon.”

The key to understanding the horrors tormenting the conscience of Psalm 130’s sinful author is perhaps best explicated by another psalmist, Asaph, in Psalm 76. Asaph understands that the God of Judah is a God powerful in judgment against sin – so powerful the earth itself falls silent before His wrath.

In Judah God is known;
    his name is great in Israel.
His abode has been established in Salem,
    his dwelling place in Zion.
There he broke the flashing arrows,
    the shield, the sword, and the weapons of war. Selah
Glorious are you, more majestic
    than the mountains full of prey.
The stouthearted were stripped of their spoil;
    they sank into sleep;
all the men of war
    were unable to use their hands.
At your rebuke, O God of Jacob,
    both rider and horse lay stunned.
But you, you are to be feared!
    Who can stand before you
    when once your anger is roused?
From the heavens you uttered judgment;
    the earth feared and was still,
when God arose to establish judgment…

What sinner can hope to survive even for a moment in the face of the wrath of a God this powerful? Surely, none. And thus the author of Psalm 130 quakes in fear.

It is commonly accepted that superheroes are the mythology of our advanced modern age (see, for instance, this newspaper piece or this more academic work). Our highest ideals are embodied in these, quite literally, larger-than-life characters who embody our most noble ideals and highest aspirations. If it is true that we no longer believe in the gods, then we will at least tell their stories and wear their faux-retro t-shirts.

No single superhero more fully captures the mythological nature of superheroes than the granddaddy of them all, Superman. Superman is the creation of two Jewish kids from Cleveland – one of whom lost his father to a robber’s gun – to be a messianic figure.  The motif is obvious to anyone who reads (or watches) a Superman story from any decade – the Last Son of Krypton is a deliverer descended from the clouds to shield innocents from a hail of bullets or prevent the bad guys from making their escape.

This DNA-level messianic motif is arguably the precise point of undoing for Zack Snyder’s DC Extended Universe version of the character. Snyder rightly understood that Superman is a mythological savior; what he failed to grasp is that such a figure is terrifying if he cannot decide whether or not he likes humanity. Snyder ended up delivering an uncertain and morbidly introspective Superman that the movie-going publicly instinctively rejected. However, like the worst gift in a White Elephant game, Snyder’s influence continues to be passed around. In fact, Snyder’s permutation of the Superman mythology was the first big-screen step toward the world of Brightburn.

Of course, the comic book world Superman originates in contains a number of Superman alternate reality stories and analogues that explore the idea of an evil Superman. Superman: Red Son is one, Superman: Speeding Bullets is another, Ultraman of the Crime Syndicate is yet another; none, though, have been more commercially successful than the Superman of the Injustice video games and subsequent comic books.

Yet, despite the way Superman continues to show up in generation after generation of feature film, no one had taken the left-hand path of an evil cinematic Superman. That is, until Brightburn. What the comics carefully explored and Snyder clumsily suggested, Brightburn delivers.

The viewer of Brightburn familiar with the established Superman mythology is struck immediately by how carefully the creators of Brightburn follow the well-worn markers of Superman lore. Ma and Pa Kent are faithfully incarnated here in Kyle and Tori Breyer, played by David Denman and Elizabeth Banks: a married couple more cool and coarse than the Kents are generally portrayed, but likable, community-oriented, Midwestern farmers nonetheless. And their adopted child, arriving on their childless farm in the same spaceship-birthing pod, is named Brandon (rather than Clark). Brandon Breyer (note the alliteration; Brightburn’s creators really did know their source material) is a young man approaching puberty and, we soon find out, the onset of extraordinary powers born of his beyond-the-stars origins.

Brightburn

What follows is a legitimate, honest to goodness, scary movie where Superman is the thing to be feared. We see Brandon adopt the fearsome Brightburn persona to deal with inconvenient mortals, first stalking the insulting mother of a classmate in her workplace and then creeping, well, creepily into the bedroom of a first crush. Later an aunt and uncle become bothersome and face Brandon’s wrath – a section of the movie delivering a surprisingly gory and uncomfortable country road encounter – before Ma and Pa put the pieces together and try to intervene.

We see the super boy gleefully flying through his childhood home, leaving holes in the walls and heart of his mother. A sheriff arrives, only to be wiped off the screen. In this way Brightburn leaves its audience feeling nothing so much as merely human, in all the frailty and vulnerability that designator captures. What happens when Superman hates us? Brightburn answers simply: we die – however he chooses for us to.

There is a momentary hope as the film draws to conclusion where Ma Breyer appears to have made the obvious choice in light of her adopted son’s wickedness. She represents, in her singular ability to steal past Brandon’s fearsome powers, the last opportunity for humanity to be delivered from this vengeful god. In perhaps the cruelest scene in the film, she ultimately fails and suffers the wrath of the juvenile god she has angered. Brightburn is a deeply nihilistic film and allows its viewer no respite, even at the very end.

If Superman is a god, then he is a god of grace – choosing to use his superior power in benevolence to save, deliver, and benefit the fragile humans of his adopted planet. Brightburn, too, is a god – a god of wrath and wrath alone, bent on subjecting (at best) or sadistically eradicating (at worst) the tiresome insects infesting his throne room.

In this way, Brightburn gives us pause to consider again how wonderful it is that the actual God governing the reality we all live in has chosen to show grace to the children of men. In comparison to The Living God, Brightburn is as powerless as the victims in his film are, and the terrors of the wrath of The Holy One of Israel are categorically more horrifying than what we see in Brightburn. The holiness of The Living God gives even greater reason to expect a reign of terror to fall on people like us than the mere annoyance with humanity Brightburn feels. And yet, when the Son of God descended from the cloud in history He was pleased to bestow grace on humanity, to save the sinners, and exhaust the wrath of God’s judgment by enduring its full brunt.

Brightburn delivers a story long in the making, back to 1938 when Superman first appeared in the pages of Action Comics #1.  The film may lead to an entire universe of movies (as suggested by the mid-credits scene) focused on angry superbeings. Still, it does not immediately seem that Brightburn will go down in the annals of historically significant films. Even so, Brightburn validates its existence by giving us a vision of the god sinners deserve and, in doing so, helping us appreciate afresh the God who is.

Jeff Wright is a husband, father, pastor, educator, and podcaster. He lives in very rural Middle Tennessee and watches a lot of movies. You can hear more from him on The Pop Culture Coram Deo Podcast.

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