The James Gunn-produced Brightburn opened in theaters last weekend. The premise is simple: what if, instead of being a boy scout, Superboy was a sociopath? This isn’t the first time that ‘Superman, but bad’ has been used to tell a disturbing story. Some of these stories use the same trick as Brightburn, whose tiny terror Brandon is a Superman analogue. Some use Mr. Kent himself, but set the tale in an alternate universe so as to not be bound by comic continuity. So, what is the appeal of flipping “truth, justice and the American way” into something twisted? It’s all about power. What it means to have it and what it means to abuse it. Let’s take a look at some of the iterations of bad Supes.
Nature or Nurture
Brightburn’s Brandon (don’t worry, these spoilers are minor) had the same idyllic farm and family experience as Clark Kent’s. Like Clark, his rocket crashed and he was found by a couple looking to have a baby. Like Clark, they raised him with love. But, despite being shown love and compassion by many of the people in his like, his alien nature took over, turning him violent.
Conversely, Red Son, written by Mark Millar and published under the DC Elseworld’s imprint, used a version of the actual Clark Kent. But, in this version of Superman, his rocket crashed in the Ukraine sometime during the 1920s, where he was raised on a collective farm. He was revealed to the world as Superman during the Eisenhower administration.
With his help, the USSR easily won the Cold War. But, Superman cared for everyone, including those around the world and in the United States. Which winds up being his downfall. In an effort to save the world from itself, he became (as the book called him) President Superman. Under his leadership, he solved every problem the Soviet Union had, which led to the socialist state controlling every government, with the exception of the United States. In turn, Superman’s reign grew increasingly authoritarian. He monitored every conversation with his super hearing, and dissidents were lobotomized, with technology put into their heads to make them compliant. All in an effort to make the world “perfect”.
Ultimately, United States President Lex Luthor tried to goad him into war. During a series of very convoluted events, Superman’s inner good resulted in his sacrifice to save the world. Which was all he ever wanted to do in the first place.
In Search of Utopia
Superman doing the wrong thing for the right reasons was also the plot of the 1985 Marvel Miniseries, Squadron Supreme. Set in an alternate dimension, legendary writer Mark Gruenwald constructed an ersatz Justice League. Hyperion, the leader of the Squadron and this version’s fake Superman, also wanted to create a utopia. He led the team while they assumed governance of the United States. They forced criminals and supervillains to undergo a behavior modification procedure to “replace any negative tendencies with positive ones”.
This invention led to one member of the team using it to brainwash another member into being in love with him. In the end, through the help of their Batman-esque ex-teammate, Nighthawk, Hyperion realizes that they have overstepped, inadvertently creating an authoritarian state. They surrender control of the United States and the group disbands.
Science Gone Bad
Aside from nature vs. nurture and a backfiring desire the fix the world, there are other reasons a Superman could break bad. And for these final two, that reason is pain. A lot of pain.
In the case of DC’s Ultraman, that pain is physical. There are many versions of Ultraman, but my favorite comes from 1999’s JLA: Earth 2, written by Grant Morrison. Ultraman was astronaut Clark Kent. After a space accident, he was found by aliens who brought him back from near-death in order to use him as a science experiment. This gave him superpowers like regular Clark, but, as these things sometimes do, it came with a price. The price was his sanity. He was the leader of the Crime Syndicate of America, evil mirror versions of the JLA. He also plays Big Brother, surveilling the world and eye-beaming anyone who says a bad word about the Syndicate.
A good-guy version of Lex Luthor, named Alexander, brings the OG JLA over to Earth 2 to help overthrow the CSA. The JLA soon learn that despite all of their efforts, there is no one left on Earth 2 who isn’t a power-hungry monster. They are forced to leave or else both worlds will be destroyed. In the end, Ultraman and the CSA are right back to where they started.
The Joker’s Meddling
Physical pain isn’t the only thing that can break a person. Our last Superman comes from the video game and tie-in comic book series, Injustice: Gods Among Us.
In another alternate universe, the Joker hits Superman with Joker gas, leading him to kill a pregnant Lois while hallucinating that she’s Doomsday. The Joker rigged Lois’s heart with the trigger to a nuke, so murdering her also destroys Metropolis. This sends Superman into a frenzy, and he shoves his hand through Joker’s heart. He decides that it’s up to him to fix the world, and other superheroes join him. His One Earth Government kills anyone who fights back. Over the course of gameplay, members of the JLA from the main DC universe travel to his. They defeat him, and he ultimately lands in jail.
With the exception of Brightburn and Ultraman, the obvious theme is that, when unchecked, Superman’s absolute power corrupts absolutely. These stories show that even someone with the noblest of intentions, when given the power, can commit egregious acts in the name of the greater good. It is a lesson on how razor thin the line between savior and oppressor really is. After reading through all of these, I now know better than to blindly trust a well-meaning alien in tights who can crush a skull one-handed.