My friend Atley and I watched Brightburn on Saturday (warning: spoilers ahead). We both enjoyed the movie, but we noticed that the movie left us feeling a bit gross. Granted, that’s not uncommon for horror movies, especially in an age when the horror genre seems to lean heavily on gratuitous violence or sexual content to capture attention. I typically don’t enjoy (or view) such movies. But Brightburn was different. While Atley and I pointed to a few instances of unnecessary gore in the movie, Brightburn left us uncomfortable not because of what it included but because of what it lacked.
Brightburn, which blends the horror genre with the superhero genre, feels very much like a dark retelling of Superman’s origin story as it asks an intriguing question: what if Superman came not to save the earth but to take it? Brandon Breyer stands in stark contrast to Clark Kent, exhibiting arrogance instead of humility, vengeance instead of justice, selfishness instead of selflessness. Where Superman seeks to serve, Brightburn seeks to take. And as the story progresses, the viewer watches as nothing can stop the onslaught.
In most superhero movies, you have two major characters: the hero and the villain. No matter how hopeless the odds may be, you still expect to see the hero emerge victorious over the villain. You may have to wait for it, as Marvel recently showed us with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, but the wait will be worth it. The hero will prevail. Justice and goodness and love will overcome the forces of darkness every time. We know and love that story in its many forms. Horror movies like Brightburn, however, subvert the model. The classic story of good versus evil gets replaced with a story in which evil runs unchecked. The good guys fail and the bad guys succeed. And we, as an audience, feel almost cheated, disturbed that the story doesn’t end like it’s supposed to.
While other movies left me similarly disturbed, I didn’t recognize the source of my discomfort until talking about Brightburn with Atley. In a movie like Sinister or Hereditary, you can trace some of film’s themes, but you may not give much thought to what’s missing. You feel disturbed that evil wins, but that’s about it. It’s a horror movie, after all; sometimes horror movies just don’t have happy endings. In Brightburn, however, you feel like you’re missing a necessary element to the story: the hero. You see evil clearly, but you can’t find the good that will overcome it. You know to expect the hero in the superhero genre, and you feel the hero’s absence here.
Evil is indeed a present reality; evil will not have the final word, however. The grandest story of all speaks of how “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Into the midst of enemies, humanity’s great hero arrived, wielding a sword that “pierc[es] to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The world knows the story. Paul writes that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God . . . And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:19, 23). We feel the broken state of the world, but we hold fast to a hope that endures any challenge and threat. “If God is for us,” Paul writes, “who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” C. S. Lewis spends some time discussing fear in children’s stories. He argues that authors ought not shield children from the harshness of reality. Children will encounter real evil in this broken world, and they must be reminded that evil is not all powerful. “Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies,” writes Lewis, “let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker” . Good storytellers seem to know this, giving us a Sam or a Luke or a Harry to combat the Saurons and Vaders and Voldemorts. Daunting enemies demand courageous heroes. And even when the storytellers reject Christ, they cannot avoid reflecting his story in their stories, as Doctor Who consistently proves. Good must triumph. Hope must not put us to shame. Light must overcome the darkness.
We feel the absence of hope in movies like Brightburn, but we who know God recognize that such stories do not accurately depict reality. We ache for hope, for the truth to be told, for justice to be upheld, for love to conquer all; yet we do not ache in vain. God, Paul states, “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). We can rest because we know that, in the end, God will make all things new (Revelation 21:5).
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
Photo by Saketh Garuda on Unsplash
 C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” in On Stories (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 59.
Huge thanks to Atley for talking through these ideas with me and for helping me in the editing of this post. Many of these ideas came from our conversation.