Warning: This story contains major spoilers for Brightburn. Do not read unless you’ve already seen the movie or don’t care about being spoiled.
Humans have gotten pretty lucky in most superhero stories, all told. Kal-El’s alien spaceship lands in a field in Kansas, and rather than use his tremendous powers for selfish reasons, he directs them in service of American ideals. Even in Mark Millar’s what-if comic Superman: Red Son, when the last son of Krypton lands in the Soviet Union instead of the United States, he still ends up working on behalf of all humanity.
Not so in Brightburn, the new superhero movie out this weekend whose extraordinarily gifted protagonist Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) has no interest in truth, justice, or the American way. He doesn’t want to save the planet, he wants to conquer it, and he has no problem killing any of the puny humans who get in his way. But while that take on the concept is pretty new for superhero films, it has a storied lineage in the comic books that are the foundation of the genre. In fact, Brightburn has several explicit connections to one of the best superhero comics ever made: Alan Moore’s Miracleman.
Moore was at the forefront of the ‘80s comics vanguard that reimagined superheroes with darker, more grounded stories. Aside from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Moore’s Watchmen with Dave Gibbons is probably the most famous product of this era (and it’s soon due for a new adaptation on HBO). But Moore wrote Miracleman around the same time, and though it’s less overtly famous than something like Watchmen (due to being out of print for years because of byzantine legal problems that would take the rest of this piece to properly summarize) Miracleman had fascinating ideas about what it might be like to live in a world with inhumanly powerful super people. Brightburn takes those ideas and runs with them.
Thankfully, it’s easier to describe Miracleman now that Shazam! is a multi-million-dollar movie. While Brightburn is a riff on Superman, Miracleman is a twist on the “Shazam” concept where young boys could transform themselves into adult superbeings with a single magic word (“kimota,” in this case). When Miracleman begins, former wunderkind Michael Moran has aged into bitter middle age, only to suddenly rediscover the magic of “kimota” and his beautiful super-self, Miracleman. Mike soon discovers that one of his formerly cheerful young sidekicks, Kid Miracleman, is also alive and well. But while Mike lived in obscurity for years while his alter ego languished forgotten and asleep, Kid Miracleman never changed back into human Johnny Bates after the group’s separation. He’s lived for years as an immortal superhero, and used his unchallenged might to become a fabulously wealthy titan of industry.
That mild-mannered facade comes crumbling down, though, once Miracleman returns to challenge him. Kid Miracleman soon shows exactly what he thinks of normal humans. When an intern arrives in the middle of their superpowered confrontation, choosing precisely the wrong time to deliver coffee, Kid Miracleman leans in close and incinerates her face with a blast of heat vision — much like Brandon does to his father during their camping trip in Brightburn. Superman and Shazam have plenty of human friends and allies, but the truth is it’s hard to imagine such powerful beings adhering to concepts like “family” when they can incinerate anyone who annoys them at a whim. Superhero fantasies like Superman and Shazam are based on the idea that if kids were given superpowers, they would surely use them in defense of innocence or idealism; surely, such power would only serve to help them realize their best selves. Brightburn and Kid Miracleman make the opposite claim: Putting godlike power in the hands of adolescent boys would just amplify their hormonal rage and alienation until they laid waste to the world around them. Miracleman culminates with Kid Miracleman destroying London and twisting its residents into a grotesque rendition of a Hieronymous Bosch painting. As Brightburn ends, Brandon is well on his way to doing his own version of that.
Superman always listens to Pa and Ma Kent, but let’s be honest: Anyone who helped nurture such superbeings would soon see them grow way beyond themselves. During the climax of Brightburn, Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks) tries a last-ditch effort to stop her super-son from hurting anyone else. Remembering that Brendan had cut his usually-invulnerable hand on his spaceship earlier, she breaks off a piece of the craft in an attempt to kill him. What happens next is basically an inverted Chekov’s gun; instead of going off, the metaphorical gun backfires and blows her hand off. Brendan easily stops the attack, grabs hold of his mother, and flies her up, up, and away into the stratosphere. Then he lets her go, watching from above as her all-too-human body plummets fatally to the Earth. This scene is very close to being a straight adaptation of the Miracleman scene where the title character confronts Dr. Emil Gargunza, the mad scientist who created him and his super friends. Gargunza did so in the hopes that the Miracle Family would show him how to achieve immortality for himself. Little did he know just how much his children had outpaced him. Despite all of Gargunza’s tricks, he ultimately finds himself defenseless before Miracleman. The hero takes Gargunza and flies him up into the sky. With the Earth spread out below them, Miracleman gives his creator a kiss and then hurls him at the planet.
A symbolic-minded person might take these two parallel visuals as a stand-in for how superheroes have grown far beyond the real-life humans who dreamed them up. It took Joe Siegel and Joe Shuster, the men who created Superman, decades to get even a slice of the massive profits generated by their character’s popularity. Avengers: Endgame broke one box office record after another, but it was only in 2014 that the family of Jack Kirby (the artist who co-created most of the superheroes in Endgame) saw any money from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and only because they were about to take their copyright case to the Supreme Court. Moore, for his part, willfully gave up any profits from Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen movie, and has asked DC not to make any sequels or spin-offs to the original comic. They haven’t listened.
The lesson of Miracleman and Brightburn is the same one borne out in real life: You have to be careful when creating superheroes. After a while, you won’t be able to control them.