Warning – spoilers for Super, Chronicle, The Incredibles and Watchmen.
Brightburn is the story of an alien child who comes to Earth and is adopted by human parents but as he grows he develops incredible powers. Sound familiar? Well, it should as it’s basically the plot for Superman but the difference in new film Brightburn is that while Clark Kent grows up to be the ultimate hero things go a bit sideways with this child. Not surprisingly giving a teenage boy superpowers quickly leads to him abusing those powers and hurting people. Obviously, this is a far more realistic outcome than the saintly Superman and we must, therefore, consider Martha and Jonathan Kent the greatest parents of all time. If we ask ourselves what would we do if we woke up tomorrow with Superman’s powers I think most honest people would come back with an unpleasant answer – so the question must, therefore, be asked, do we actually want superheroes?
Before James Gunn made the upbeat and joyous Guardians of the Galaxy he made Super – a film in which a character in a badly made costume beats people with a wrench and has the catchphrase “Shut up, crime!” This indie gem features a stellar cast from Rainn Wilson to Ellen Page including the amazing Nathan Fillion as a TV Christian superhero called the Holy Avenger who inspires Wilson’s character to become the Crimson Bolt. Not only does it deal with the problems when a vigilante goes after people committing very serious crimes, but also how the line can get a little blurred from serious crime to a misdemeanour to just being rude, and all of these people being hit very hard on the head with a wrench. The behaviour of Wilson’s character is so questionable that at times you find yourself agreeing with Kevin Bacon’s drug dealer villain, who often seems far more reasonable.
Brightburn focuses on a young teen while found-footage superhero film Chronicle is about teenagers a few years older. This time three teenagers fall into a mysterious cavern and develop incredible powers, at first the three teenagers bond over their powers and largely do no harm aside from minor mischief. But it is not long before the loner of the group starts getting carried away with his powers. This teenager, who had few friends and had a history of being bullied before he got his powers, is easily corrupted by his new capabilities and his chance to be a star and maybe get even with a few people. While Chronicle deals with superhuman abilities and over the top fight scenes the fact that only one of three teenagers became a power-crazed killing machine always struck me as the implausible bit. Certainly my memories of other teenagers – and being one myself – would suggest adding superpowers to an already irrational and emotional group would make a bad situation far worse.
Do you know what you get when you use superpowers? Collateral damage. Man of Steel showed Metropolis being levelled by Superman and Zod battling it out but a much better film also addresses this issue – The Incredibles. The film is centred on Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl not only two superpowered crimefighters but also a married couple. The pair and all other superheroes are forced into retirement when the government decides that the collateral damage they do simply outweighs the good. Naturally enough, some of them have trouble adjusting to living a normal life and not using their powers. This is especially true of Mr. Incredible who is looking for any opportunity to escape his boring office job and go back to being a hero. A dark issue in the world of superheroes is explored in The Incredibles – why do they become heroes? Is it for justice and to save people or for attention and fame? Does Mr. Incredible just love being a hero? Ultimately I think the film comes down on that yes, he does miss the attention but deep down he wants to help people and finds it impossible to just sit back while people suffer.
When it comes to the downsides of superheroes the ultimate film is Watchmen. Based on what many consider the best graphic novel of all-time Watchmen is essentially the story of what happens to superheroes when they are forced to retire but is also about far more. It examines why someone would choose to risk their life to fight criminals, why some people would cheer them and others be disgusted? Are people with superpowers fundamentally different from “normal” people? Why does putting on a mask make beating people up okay?
If we look at the lineup of Watchmen we have a wide variety of superheroes:
Rorschach – a man who regularly brutally murder criminals and one of the few superheroes who did not retire, only believing in his personal code and not the law.
The Comedian – Superhero with no powers who fought crime for decades but also an attempted rapist and government assassin (it is suggested that it is the Comedian who killed JFK and, in this world, Woodward & Bernstein, the journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal).
Nite-Owl II – restrained and relatively respectable when compared to some of the other Watchmen.
Silk Spectre II – helpful if inappropriately dressed for fighting crime who seemingly only became involved because of pressure from her mother, the original Silk Spectre.
Ozymandias – not only the smartest man in the world but a formidable fighter capable of catching bullets. He might sound like a nice guy but MAJOR SPOILER ALERT Ozymandias kills millions of people in order to save the world.
Dr Manhattan – one-time physicist Jon Osterman became Dr Manhattan, seemingly indestructible and unstoppable and is often said to be a god.
On close inspection, they don’t seem to be a good bunch of people, certainly not heroes. Ozymandias takes the superhero idea of breaking some rules for the greater good to its logical extent while Rorschach is simply appalling. The most interesting case is Dr Manhattan who serves as the film’s Superman, a man so powerful he is no longer human.
So looking through some of the darker superhero films we have a collection of violent, dangerous and sometimes insane individuals who all – at least at some point- thought themselves to be good people. Watchmen takes its title from the expression “What watches the watchmen?”, originally from ancient Roman poetry but applied throughout history to abuses of power by those who are meant to be guardians. Perhaps Lisa Simpson when confronting her own vigilante father put it best “if you’re the police, who will police the police?”