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Brightburn

Posted May 26, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

It’s common knowledge that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced the world to Superman with Action Comics #1 in April of 1938. What’s considerably less known is that Siegel and Shuster had spent the previous five years trying to earn their big break, and their iconic creation had gone through all manner of revisions and iterations in that time. The earliest was “The Reign of the Superman”, a short story published in January 1933, in which hapless vagrant Bill Dunn is given psychic abilities by a mad scientist and goes on to become a supervillain until the superpowers wear off.

Siegel and Shuster made the character a superhero in later revisions, as comic strips with heroic protagonists tended to sell better. They figured out early on that people want and need superheroes, not only to serve as power fantasies but to teach us about power and the responsibility to use it well. Yet even before that, Siegel and Shuster apparently figured out that while superheroes are more satisfying, supervillains make more narrative sense. Anyone can fight crime if they’re invincible, but an antagonist with powers that no one could defeat without considerable effort makes for a far more compelling conflict.

However, that comes with a huge drawback: The possibility that the villain may be so overpowered that there’s no viable path to victory without some deus ex machina (like the superpowers simply wearing off, as in the initial “Reign of the Supermen” example).

Speaking of which, it perhaps bears mentioning that The Ultra-Humanite — the very first supervillain in Superman’s history — didn’t appear until June of 1939. Lex Luthor didn’t make his debut until April of 1940. Which means that it took Siegel and Shuster over a year (or six, depending on how you count) to figure out that supervillains and superheroes need each other. You can’t have a truly entertaining conflict worthy of such larger-than-life figures without the both of them to balance each other out.

Of course, Siegel and Shuster were more or less inventing the modern superhero, so it would’ve taken some trial and error for them to figure these things out. After eighty years, what excuse could Brightburn have?

Brightburn is set in the eponymous backwoods Kansas town and wastes no time in establishing itself as a riff on the classic Superman origin story. You’ve got the crashed alien vessel carrying what appears to be an infant boy, you’ve got the loving and devoted parents (Tori and Kyle Breyer, respectively played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), and you’ve got the preteen boy (Brandon Breyer, played by Jackson Dunn) who suddenly manifests a familiar set of superpowers.

In the Superman tale, this is where the boy would choose to live as a beacon of hope, using his powers to help humanity and inspire them to be more than they are. In this case, however, it’s heavily implied that Brandon was sent by an alien race for the purpose of wiping out humanity and colonizing the planet. But mostly, Brandon lashes out in typical pubescent temper tantrums, with fatal and catastrophic results.

Because the movie doesn’t have the “superhero messiah” angle to provide any kind of emotional or thematic hook, the filmmakers shift the focus to Brendan’s parents. It’s hard enough to raise a child, much less an adopted child. How do you discipline a kid, love a kid, teach him right from wrong, or have the standard “Your body will be going through some changes soon.” talk when the kid is an entirely different species?

Far more importantly, against everyone’s best efforts at denial, it becomes increasingly obvious that something is very seriously wrong with Brandon. All the warning signs are there that he’s entirely capable of cold-blooded murder, he’s probably done it before, and he could very well do it again. So how much of this is just standard adolescent hormonal bullshit and how much of this is homicidal psychopathic mania? At what point do the cops and/or psychiatrists have to get involved?

Most painful of all, what do you do when faced with the knowledge that your child is a monster? After so many years of treating a child with loving care, giving him everything and teaching him right, what can you do when he does something so horrific that he’s not even recognizable as a human being anymore? How do you turn your back on your child, even when the kid is indisputably beyond salvation? How can you cope with the knowledge that worse than anything else you could’ve possibly ever failed at, you’ve failed as a parent?

Put simply, what we’ve got here is We Need to Talk About Kevin, but with superpowers. Not a bad idea. It’s a timely and powerful subject, with a lot of material for deeply moving drama. Heaven knows Elizabeth Banks makes a meal out of it. And the superhero twist could have augmented the whole movie in a huge way, if only the filmmakers had thought it through for more than ten minutes.

First of all, the movie opens with close-up shots of books about infertility and pregnancy while Tori and Kyle are in the background, trying to conceive. The movie closes with “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish playing over the end credits. The camerawork is loaded with excessive handheld shaky-cam. The first few shots of the Breyer farm could have been lifted directly from Man of Steel, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the production team actually used the exact same shooting location. And everything — the props, costumes, set design, EVERYTHING — in this movie is colored blue, so that Brandon’s distinct red hue pops brightly enough to be seen from goddamn outer space. From literally the very first frame to the last, it’s made abundantly clear that subtlety is neither wanted nor needed here. If the debut director didn’t have to live every day with a name like “David Yarovesky”, I’d doubt that he could even spell “nuance”.

(Side note: No, I’m not counting The Hive. That movie got a couple of festival screenings and a one-night-only Fathom Events screening, that’s it. To call that Yarovesky’s debut would be a disservice to the man.)

More importantly, this is a movie about a supervillain in which there are no superheroes. This is a Superman riff in which… well, there is technically a kryptonite equivalent, but it’s so trivial and ineffectual that it doesn’t really count. So basically, if Brandon wants someone gone, they’re gone. If he wants someone dead, they’re dead. There is nothing anyone could possibly do to stop him, and no reason why he would ever stop. As a direct result, the conflict is pathetically one-sided. There’s no horror, no tension, no suspense, no reason to get invested in the conflict of the story when there’s only ever one way this could possibly end.

To be fair, that doesn’t make the parents and their predicament any less sympathetic. Indeed, the inevitability makes their story all the more tragic. And anyway, this whole movie is ultimately an origin story, which means that by definition, this movie cannot be an end in itself. It’s right there in the label: This is an origin story, built to be the beginning of something, so of course the ending is a foregone conclusion and the entire movie serves primarily to set up the next story (even if we never get to see the next story).

But here we run into another problem, because Brandon is actually a rather weak antagonist. Peel away the unsettling mask, the creepy VFX, and Jackson Dunn’s disturbing performance, and what you’re left with is a villain motivated pretty much entirely by teenage angst. Oh, and let’s not forget that he might be a kind of drone, programmed and sent by some alien race to wipe out humanity and colonize Earth. Whichever one you go with, that’s not a very strong motivation. Especially after Brandon’s entire town inevitably gets wiped off the map, and then who will he have a grudge to enact his petty vengeance on?

The entire thematic and emotional hook for this movie, pretty much the only reason this movie could ever possibly have for existing, is in the allegory for troubled kids who go on to become violent psychopaths at an early age. The problem is that (while I’m admittedly no expert) most of the troubled kids that make the news get arrested and/or killed. Indeed, that’s kind of the point for many such cases. So many teenaged and college-aged mass shooters are fed up with living for whatever reason, so they want to die like “soldiers”, slaughtering people in the hope that they’ll go out in a hail of gunfire, heroes and martyrs for some backwards-thinking cause. And indeed, many of them are.

That’s a rather crucial aspect of the discussion here, and it becomes a moot point in a movie about a kid who literally cannot be killed or arrested. As a direct result, this movie asks the bold question of what to do when your kid turns out to be a headline-worthy homicidal psychopath, and has jack shit to offer in terms of answers. I’m not saying the answers have to be easy, but this is a very real problem that very real parents have to deal with, and there are very real lives on the line here. Bringing up such a dynamite issue without suggesting any solutions or even the hope that solutions may be forthcoming seems lazy at best and irresponsible at worst.

(Side note: Consider the aforementioned We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which it’s shown early on that the eponymous Kevin has been locked up and the rest of the story is told in flashback. The implicit message being, “Be thankful that the problem child has been locked up, then find a way to live with this new emotional baggage as you pick up the pieces and get on with your life.” That may not be much of an answer and it’s certainly not an easy one, but it’s more than this movie can offer.)

Oh, and on a final note, I should mention that Michael Rooker appears in a mid-credits stinger. (James Gunn produced this, so of course Rooker had to show up somewhere.) Rooker’s purpose here is to hint at other superpowered beings who may or may not exist in this continuity. Right now, I don’t give a shit. If this is some attempt at sequel-baiting, or hinting at whatever this movie is supposed to be an origin story for, this half-assed attempt doesn’t come anywhere close to good enough.

Brightburn tries to blend family drama, body horror, and superhero satire into something harrowing and heartbreaking, but it’s all undone by the filmmakers’ unrepentant lack of subtlety. While Elizabeth Banks and Jackson Dunn were both able to turn in solid performances, nobody else had any idea what to do with this premise. The filmmakers certainly didn’t know how to make a coherent message or a compelling central conflict out of it.

Points for creativity and ambition. Plus, even if the movie fell apart in a big way, it still worked better than the basic “Superman origin story, but he’s evil” pitch should have. Even so, the follow-through on this one was so terribly botched that I can’t recommend it. Even for a home viewing, there are a hundred Blumhouse horror pictures I would recommend over this one. Hell, I think I would rather give Man of Steel a rewatch before sitting through this one again.