When Cherubs Gain Superpowers
The Duality Between Deadpool 2 & Brightburn
(Warning For In The Arcade Readers: Extensive spoilers for both films and their endings will follow, I highly recommend watching the films in their entirety before reading this essay. Seriously. They’re good films.)
Prompt: Explain what it means to do a ‘symptomatic reading’ of a text. Choose two contemporary media texts to compare. What key ideologies are present in each text and are these ideologies hegemonic and/or counter-hegemonic? How might each text interpellate audiences?
A symptomatic reading is the analysation of a media text with the aim of uncovering how the media paints the world, society and the ideologies within. It discusses what the text tries to promote and denounce based on how it portrays these things, and how it places it’s audience in relation to these images. This essay will do one such reading on David Leitch’s 2018 film Deadpool 2, and Dave Yarovesky’s 2019 film Brightburn. It will highlight how the ideology of Childhood Innocence is represented in the two media texts. Additionally, it will attempt to establish Deadpool 2’s argument that children are always redeemable, even in adolescence, and that Brightburn argues that children are simply born a certain way, and cannot change.
Childhood innocence, as a hegemonic ideology, has existed in western culture as far back as 1899, when the state of Illinois, USA, created the juvenile justice system. Here, “treatment rather than punishment would be stressed.” (Marcotte, P 1990, p. 61) Scientifically speaking, a study dictated that “children do not have a unitary orientation toward social rules, but rather distinguish different types of rules, including those about morality and social conventions.” (Helwig et al, 2001, p. 1383) A later canadian study concluded that “children’s reasoning about laws is multi-faceted and that children consider a number of factors in evaluating laws and making judgements of legal compliance.” (Helwig et al, 2001, p. 1390). In short: Children tend to be treated as markers of innocence and pure morality. However, Childhood Innocence as an ideological belief has been subverted for quite some time. As Karen Renner states in her article “Evil Children in Film and Literature; “Stories about evil children began to first proliferate with serious regularity in the 1950s. What is noteworthy about these early texts is their tendency to claim that evil children are born bad.” (Renner, K 2012, p. 1)
In Dave Yarovesky’s Brightburn, it is argued that the Ideology of Childhood Innocence is a false one, and that children are not always redeemable. The vehicle for driving this into the audience is the character of Brandon. Throughout the film’s events, for varying reasons, although none are virtuous, Brandon kills 274 people in total, physically assaulting two people, and begins to stalk his non-consenting love interest. He is also a 12 year old boy. The ideology of Childhood Innocence would make society argue that it is possible to absolve him of his actions, and change him for the better. As a result, those who subscribe to this ideology, are interpellated with Brandon’s mother, Tori, the film’s protagonist.
It is through her, the film attempts to illustrate again and again, that he cannot be changed, and tries to break down Tori’s character, and therefore break down the ideology and say “This is why this isn’t always true.” Tori’s refusal to believe the truth and acknowledge the evidence around her indirectly results in the deaths of those around her, causing her own mental breakdown and eventual death by the end of the film.
It is also through her, that we discover how Brandon expresses his evil nature through childlike activities; through his drawings. This is similar to how the 1997 film Deep Red treated the family home, as Dominic Lennard discusses in his paper on children in horror films, “Deep Red (Profondo rosso, 1975) had incorporated the symbolism of children’s culture – dolls, drawings, songs – into a carnivalesque display of ruthless aggression that excised it from the comfort of the familial home.” (Lennard, 2012, p.133) To expand on Lennard’s analysis, in this instance, it not only excises Brandon from the familial home, but also from the appearance of a child that can be shaped to be an angel, as Childhood Innocence would dictate.
Furthermore, if the audience were to try to turn to the real world to argue against the film, they would be met with heavy resistance. There is no definitive answer as to what finalises who a person is, as one study states in its findings “that we are all creatures created and/or formed either by our genetics and/or respective environments.” (Parish, Barness, 2009, p. 152) To complicate the debate further, it also describes the “Personal Choice Model”(Parish, Barness, 2009, p. 152), the idea that “suggests that others (not even ourselves) can ever put you down without your permission, and that our genes, and whatever they predispose us to do, are not the final word, unless we (or the individual in question) fail to counter them successfully through the implementation of positive choices.” (Parish, Barness, 2009, p. 152) So, the science in this field is neither black or white, and this depiction is somewhat plausible given the evidence we have. This would no doubt add another nail in the coffin of the resistant viewer of Brightburn’s message.
The film also draws an unsubtle parallel of Superman as a point of reference for the audience early on. This is established through his origin into his family, the setting of the film in Kansas, and his predominantly blue costuming early on. This leads the audience to immediately relate to Brandon and argue he could become Heroic. However, We can also see Brandon’s descent into immorality mirrored in how his clothes gradually turn from predominantly blue to red. This use of the “Brightburn Red” (Brightburn 2019. ‘Filmmaker Commentary’.) colour telegraphs to the audience in the very clear sign language of colour that his descent isn’t slowing down, and is inevitably going to consume him. It effectively breaks down how a character similar to Superman could have simply been drawn to another path.
These are the film’s way of exhausting every possible way that someone might claim Brandon’s innocence, and instead slapping those audience members in the face. Here, Yarovesky has shown how a guardian can’t always redeem their child. There is no possible way for Tori and the audience to reconcile his actions and agency in murdering her family members, especially as he exhibits no remorse. Yarovesky has done his best to interpellate those who believe in Childhood Innocence with Tori, and brutalise them both into submission.
Upon a Symptomatic reading, David Leitch’s Deadpool 2 clearly places itself in direct opposition to Brightburn. Leitch fits the ideology of Childhood Innocence in an iron-clad set of arguments, interpellating audience members like Yarovesky, and utilising examples of situations that draw aspects from real-life.
Leitch interpellates audience members like Yarovesky into the character of Cable: who almost seems like a caricature of their attitude towards Childhood Innocence; Gruff, grizzled, and cartoonishly hellbent on killing off the film’s centre-piece; Russell, who he believes to be an irredeemable killer. Russell is Leitch’s attempt at building a foundation for how Childhood Innocence rings true. Meanwhile, Leitch interpellates those like himself that believe in Childhood Innocence with the protagonists of the film: Deadpool and Domino.
Whilst none of the characters are angelic in their demeanour, it strengthens those in favour of Childhood Innocence drastically more than those who aren’t, through their interpellations with the protagonists. Throughout the film, Cable is constantly bested by Deadpool and the other protagonists, and is eventually shown by Deadpool that Russell is redeemable, by doing exactly that. Cable as a result finds a new-found respect for Deadpool, and goes out of his way to help him, and abandons his old views. Of course, this is clearly meant as a way of convincing those who are interpellated in Cable to accept the idea of Childhood Innocence. This is supported by Cable effectively doing so himself, and completing a gradual transition into a supporting role for the protagonists that started at the beginning of the third act. Leitch has told those interpellated by Cable that they are fundamentally wrong in their view.
Additionally, it becomes apparent that Leitch explicitly supports the notion of Nurture, rather than Brightburn’s Nature stance. It is established that Russell’s anger is born from his current home; An orphanage that behaves scarily like a real-life gay-conversion therapy camp, in order to supress their mutant powers. It is also insinuated multiple times (admittedly in an inappropriate manner) that the children are sexually abused by the staff of the orphanage. This abuse is reflected in the real world, as a children’s law paper refers to statistics that describes “mind-boggling numbers of children abused and neglected by caretakers” (Zavez, 2000, pg 3.) and that “researchers estimate that twenty-percent of children and adolescents have diagnosable mental health disorders” ( Zavez, 2000, pg 3.).
The X-Men series is also well known for drawing a parallel with real-world racism, coding (Overly Sarcastic productions, 2019) racism of racial minorities alongside the mutant characters in the series. The character of Deapool, is utilised by Leitch to draw attention to this, stating that the X-men are a “dated metaphor for racism” (Deadpool 2 2018. ‘Super Duper $@%!#& Cut’.) Leitch has purposefully brought up this fact, so that we can see that same metaphor represented in this scene, bringing it to the forefront of the audience’s mind. Arguably, research shows that this is not dated at all. In a 2018 study, it is stated that in America, “officers’ behaviours were largely driven by stereotypes rather than objective evidence that a crime had been committed. Consequently, the most severe dispositions were often reserved for ‘Negroes’ and youths who fit officers’ preconceived notions of criminals.” (Brunson et al, 2018, p. 85) This directly reflects the situation of the scene, with officers not investigating the orphanage, and instead mirroring Cable and his interpellated counterparts in the audience.
The perceived injustice that Leitch is trying to show the audience is further emphasised when Russell is placed inside an Adult correctional facility. It is described by Deadpool, who we must remember interpellates those who share Leitch’s views, that it is a dangerous place that Russell must be prepared to defend himself in. It is shown to the audience as an uncaring place, that is less about correcting it’s inmates, and simply drawing the line at punishing and demonising it’s prisoners. As a result, it’s clear to the audience that it is unacceptable that a young, impressionable teenager like Russell should be here. As stated in a 1990 law article, “Adult correctional facilities are the last place you want to put someone who is 14, 15, or 16 years old” (Marcotte, 1990, p. 65), which matches the age group that Russell would fit into. As a result, the entire audience on both sides of the debate of Childhood Innocence empathise with Russell in this regard.
Brightburn 2019, [Blu-Ray], Screen Gems, Stage 6 Films, The H Collective, Troll Court Entertainment.
Brightburn 2019, [Blu-Ray], Screen Gems, Stage 6 Films, The H Collective, Troll Court Entertainment. ‘Filmmaker Commentary’.
Brunson, R, Pegram, K 2018, ‘“Kids do not so much make trouble, They are trouble”: Police-Youth Relations’, Future Of Children, Vol. 28, No. 1, p. 85.
Deadpool 2 2018, [Blu-Ray], Twentieth Century Fox, Marvel Entertainment, Kinberg Genre, Maximum Effort, TSG Entertainment, Donners’ Company. ‘Super Duper $@%!#& Cut’.
Helwig, C, Jasiobedzka, U 2001, ‘The Relation between Law and Morality: Children’s Reasoning about Socially Beneficial and Unjust Laws’, Child Development, Vo. 72, No. 5, p. 1382-1390.
Lennard, D 2012, ‘All fun and games…:children’s culture in the horror film, from Deep Red (1975) to Child’s Play (1988)’, Continium: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1, pg 133.
Marcotte, P 1990, ‘Criminal Kids’, Aba Journal, Vol. 76, p 61-65
Overly Sarcastic Productions, 2019, ‘Trope Talk: Robots’, June 29th, viewed 26th April 2020 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZGRdxP_8Js>
Parish, S, Barness, R 2009, ‘Personality: Is it a product of Nature, Nurture, and/or Personal Choice?’, Education, Vol. 130, No. 1, pg 152.
Renner, K, 2012, The ‘Evil Child’ in Literature, Film and Popular Culture, London : Taylor & Francis Group, Ebook Central.
Zavez, M, 2000, ‘Kids and the Criminal Justice System: Questions of Capacity and Competence’, Children’s Legal Rights Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1, pg 3.
Image Source: Brightburn’s IMDB page, under photos.