The good news is that Brightburn is everything the trailers promised, and then some. It’s a movie that explores one tantalizing concept (“Superman, but make him evil”) and does so with admirable expediency. It’s not overly clever, and there is almost nothing about the plot that could possibly be a spoiler since it’s all inspired by one of the greatest modern myths of our time. An alien child crash-lands in Kansas, where he is found and raised by a loving couple on a farm. Eventually, his powers emerge: flight, laser eyes, impenetrable skin. The movie trusts that we all know the basic framework of this origin, and doesn’t waste unnecessary time or energy exploring it before the twist. And the twist is that this is a horror movie, shaky hand-held cameras and all, only with Superman as the unstoppable villain. In a time where superheroes dominate all of our screens, there’s something deeply satisfying about watching the most quintessential one distorted through the funhouse mirror. Superman always had the power to crush us — but he chose to save us instead. So what would we do if he took the other path?
I’m on board with this intellectual exercise — though the idea of heroes breaking bad isn’t new either. There’s already been multiple versions of a “Bizarro” Superman in the pages of DC comics. In a few weeks we’ll be watching Jean Grey take a destructive turn in Dark Phoenix, and later this summer Amazon will launch their adaptation of The Boys, which is about a group of enforcers who police debaucherous superheroes who have let their powers go to their heads. But again, the twist is that this is genuinely a horror spin on the concept, and it is not one for the squeamish. The violence is unexpectedly gory, graphic, and unsettling. And yet, there are only a handful of instances of it. The rest of the film relies heavily on dread — and that’s its weakness. Because 99% of the movie plays out exactly as you’d imagine, and you’re not invested enough in the inevitable descent into darkness for the dread to grip you.
There are bright spots in Brightburn. But the majority of it is… kinda boring.
I have been trying to put my finger on why this movie didn’t quite work for me, and I think it comes down to the fact that it never really picks a lane. It focuses on the Breyer family — mom Tori (Elizabeth Banks), dad Kyle (David Denman), and alien superkid Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn, who is delightfully creepy) — but there’s no grand revelation to be found there. On the surface, this is a normal and loving household, not so unlike the Kents, only modernized. If you’re looking for an insightful nature vs. nurture argument, you won’t find it — and when it flirts with the idea of mixing some element of that in, it’s off-putting. There is one scene where Tori and Kyle discuss how differently they were raised compared to how they are raising Brandon — the familiar “I would have gotten my ass kicked if I tried that with my parents” complaint — and for a second I worried the film was going to make some kind of hamfisted argument that treating kids like special snowflakes turns them into monsters. Thankfully, it doesn’t. But it also doesn’t ever explain what does turn Brandon into a monster, either. Absolute power seems to corrupt Brandon absolutely, and that’s a good enough reason as any for the movie to hinge its plot on, apparently.
Instead, the movie focuses on how Tori and Kyle handle it. There are stages of disbelief and acceptance as they each struggle to understand the turn their son is taking, and try to decide how far they should go to protect him — or if they should be protecting others from him instead. The tension arises from the rapid escalation in Brandon’s misdeeds versus the slow dawning of awareness as his parents put the pieces together — but never from the idea that Brandon might be saved, if only Tori or Kyle do the right thing at the right moment. Brandon Breyer is unredeemable — and, worse, it almost seems like he never had a chance to start with. It’s a bleak and hopeless little film in that regard, and in some ways, I respect it for that. It takes its horror theme seriously and created a monster who is better suited for the ranks of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhies than he is the Justice League (or the Injustice League, for that matter).
But ultimately, the parts that work don’t add up to a satisfying whole or counterbalance the wasted potential in the premise. The horror elements may be superbly, GAGGINGLY effective, but there was room for more of them. The way the movie takes all the hallmarks of Superman — the character, and actual scenes from the movies — and turns them dark is fun, but shallow. In the time it didn’t spend laying out any sort of philosophical arguments or digging into the psychology of the characters, it could have leaned harder into the things we came here for. But at the end of the day, the film really is nothing more than an intellectual exercise. And while that would make for a hell of an episode of The Twilight Zone or something, it makes for an intermittently interesting yet mildly disappointing night at the movies.
But there is one thing that sparked my interest, and while it isn’t much of a SPOILER I do want to warn you before I dig into it. If your curiosity is piqued and you want to watch this movie, then stop reading and go have fun. But if you’d like to hear about a particular loose plot thread, then stick with me for a minute …
At the end of the film, there’s a sequence of news footage revealing the ongoing highflying exploits of Brandon. But it also reveals that he’s not the only super-powered figure wreaking havoc in the world — and the other figures who pop up on the screen bear a striking resemblance to other members of the Justice League. That’s right: in true superhero fashion, we’ve got a dangling potential team-up to consider. Only, like, an evil one. And to Brightburn’s credit, I’m intrigued enough by this world to want to see how much further they could push it, if they turn this into a franchise. Evil Wonder Woman? Bad Aquaman? Murdery Martian Manhunter? Hell, I’d be down to see more of what Brandon Breyer does with his powers, now that he’s free from the shackles of his former humanity. There’s still plenty of potential in this premise, and while I may have wanted more from its freshman effort, I’d certainly pay to see where they could take it next. I’ve had enough of shining spandex-y goodness. I’m ready to watch what happens when all those powers are put to very bad, bloody use.
Header Image Source: Sony Pictures