Movie Review - Brightburn
Talk about your ‘Red Son’…
Sure, it can be easy to simply dismiss, or advertise, Brightburn as ‘Superman as a slasher film’…and it does hold to the tenets of a slasher film, certainly…but to do that kind of undersells it. Instead, and I’m definitely going to show my nerd credentials here, when this film is viewed as almost a multiversal companion piece to either Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie or Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, we end up with a fascinating ‘What If…?’ that not only continues to show the malleability of the “comic book” genre (even though there is no real comic that this is based off of…well, save for Superman himself) but also displays that through that malleability, the genre can avoid the ‘fatigue’ that so many voices (reviewers and filmmakers) have warned about.
The story is, at first, familiar: spaceship crash lands in a Kansas farm, found by a childless couple, they find a boy inside and raise it as their own. So, what’s keeping Brandon Breyer, our strange visitor from another planet in this story, from becoming the paragon of Truth, Justice and the American Way? Well, everything. The Breyers are not the Kents. Not that that is a bad thing or any sort of condemnation and the movie is really good about this. They’re normal people dealing with both normal life and their unique circumstances as best as they can. As such, there are arguments. There are suspicions. There are overreactions. There is panic. And, there are faults. Tori Breyer, played by Elizabeth Banks, coddles her son just a little too much…so in some ways, you can see how Brandon might not adjust well to the usual rites of passage for someone on the cusp of their teenage years: bullying, girls, so on and so forth. Kyle Breyer, played by David Denman, at one point tells Brandon that he wasn’t sure he’d be a good dad…and that can’t help but resonate with the viewer throughout the film. He’s a little too quick to react and will sometimes do so without thinking about the impact of his reactions. It’s very easy to see in the film and as such, his fate is very easy to predict. Some might view that as a weakness in the film, but in all honesty, it comes from a very understandable place. Again, not everyone is going to be Jonathon Kent here. Hell, NO ONE is going to be Jonathon Kent here…why would they? Because, see, the other factor here is that Brandon didn’t come from Krypton. While we’re never told (at least, not till the very end…but that’s spoiler material) whether or not he’s the last son of a doomed planet, it is VERY clear that he wasn’t sent from any sort of enlightened, albeit sterile and stagnant, culture like Krypton. No, Brandon comes from a world that…well…might be best described as ‘What If…Zod had conquered Krypton?’. One of the things I really enjoyed about this movie is that you can point to one exact instance where this story branches off from the standard Superman origin and it’s almost a PERFECT counterpoint to a scene from the Richard Donner film. In that movie, as young Clark reaches his 18th year, a crystal from the ship that brought him to Earth calls out to him telepathically…urging him to go north where he can learn about who he is and where he comes from. Brandon has a similar experience: his ship also calls to him, this time at 12 instead of 18, but with a far different message. And given that a red light comes with this telepathic pull, very different from Clark’s benign green, well, it’s pretty clear how this is going to go. There will be no soliloquy from Jor-El, no call to inspire, no hope. Here, well, there certainly may be more…heck, maybe there WAS a soliloquy…but given that it’s all summed up in three words, TAKE THE WORLD, it’s pretty clear how a bullied, awkward 12 year old kid with new-found superpowers is going to take that. And it’s not going to be pretty.
It’s here that we veer off into slasher territory, even hitting the three b’s: Blood, Breasts, and Beasts…that is if we consider Brandon the beast…or, it’s possible that if we were to consider the world from Brandon’s new point of view, maybe humans are the beasts. After all, how remorseful are we toward the extermination of an anthill? I would be hesitant to say that this is where the film loses some steam…because after all, if you’re making ‘Superman as a slasher’, then you have to have slasher elements! So there are jump scares, there are some pretty gruesome killings and even a nod to the final girl trope. If there’s one thing I could possibly fault the movie for is that its end tries to go for the existential dread hook that was pulled off so well by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but it doesn’t work quite as well here. While both films deal with fantastic scenarios: one zombies, the other superheroes, Romero’s ending haunts you while this film’s ending in some ways has you saying ‘well, that’s that’ and in other ways actually has you wanting to see just how fucked they are. Look, as I alluded to earlier, I don’t want to go into spoiler territory…but I can’t help but at least drop a little nugget that, if you’re a DC comics fan, you’ll get: think Crime Syndicate.
I can see how Brightburn isn’t going to be for everyone. Horror fans might find the slasher aspects a bit too trope-y and comic book movie fans may lament the missed opportunity for world building or delving into the mythology of whatever planet/race/people sent Brandon to Earth in the first place. And as a comic book fan, yeah, that would’ve been cool to tack on, say, an extra half hour, to explore that. But this movie had nowhere near the budget to do that. But for those that recognize this for what it is, a thought experiment played out in cinematic form…or, as I said in the opening, a multiversal counterpiece to the Superman myth that we’ve become so accustomed to over the 80+ years the story has been with us…Brightburn lives up to its promise in giving us the sociopath’s Superman and in those terms, we would indeed need to be afraid…very, very afraid.