‘Brightburn’ Review: Superman Is Mighty Scary as a Slasher Villain
When you get right down to it, Brightburn is a story about nature versus nurture. Brandon Breyer had the kind of childhood most kids dream about: Two loving parents who worship and protect him, a beautiful home on a farm with land stretching as far as the eye can see. Everything is great — except for the minor detail of the rocket ship out in the barn that’s telling Brandon to murder everyone in sight. Will Brandon succumb to his alien urges or remember his kind parents’ teachings? Will it be nature or nurture?
By the end of Brightburn, a winningly scary riff on the Superman mythos, we get a definitive answer to that question. The details of Superman’s origin are so ingrained in pop culture they’re rarely questioned, but dwell on them for even a second and the story becomes completely deranged. A kind couple from Kansas discovers an alien baby in a space ship and raises it as their child? When he begins displaying world-changing (or perhaps world-destroying) super powers, they take it in stride and keep it secret? How do they know this thing won’t eat them?
They don’t, and that’s the point. The original Superman story is about the triumph of American values over everything else. Clark Kent doesn’t just fight for truth, justice, and the American way; his entire personality was forged by those ideals. They transformed him from strange visitor from another world into a man of steel — but a man, first and foremost.
Of course, that’s the Superman the America of the 1930 and 1940s produced. Which makes you wonder: What kind of Superman would the America of 2019 give us? Brightburn suggests one rather dark possibility, and in doing so, quietly critiques one of the most beloved power fantasies of all time. Instead of truth, justice, and the American Way, this super-being fights for chaos, murder, and the subjugation of society.
Superman is so regularly depicted as a being of pure goodness, it’s easy to overlook how terrifying he could be if he wasn’t so noble and selfless. Stripped of his morality and empathy, Superman is basically a slasher movie villain. He’s incredibly strong and completely unstoppable. Putting that character into an actual slasher movie is a brilliant high-concept premise for horror. At that point, all you have to do is not screw it up.
Brightburn doesn’t. It’s got more than its share of disturbing sequences, and a string of brutal murders. It’s also got surprisingly decent special effects for a movie that was surely made on a fraction of the budget of a DC Comics film. And it has a perfectly cast Jackson A. Dunn as Brandon, whose eyes beam pure innocence, total apathy, or fiery death depending on the requirements of any particular scene. His sweet disposition dares us to empathize with his plight before his otherworldly etymology begins to take hold. It invites to look at Brightburn like so many other superhero stories; as a metaphor for puberty run amok. Then the body count starts to rise.
The name above the title on Brightburn’s poster is James Gunn, who produced the film; its screenplay was written by his brother Brian and his cousin Mark. The director is David Yarovesky, who worked with the more famous Gunn on a few projects. Together, they’ve made a smart and extremely gory horror film. They understand the iconography they’re working with and play with it cleverly — Brandon, for example, is only seen in outfits of red and blue, and his “superhero costume” is made out of the tattered remains of the blanket his mother wrapped him in when he first arrived on Earth, just the real Superman. Although Brightburn is not a comedy, Yarovesky and the Gunns have some fun with their dialogue. Listen closely early on and you’ll hear some of the characters foreshadow their later, untimely fates.
The final, crucial pieces of this puzzle are Brandon’s parents Tori and Kyle, played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman. Deeply in love, they’re devastated by fertility issues until the night Brandon crashed in the woods behind their house. Any couple that’s struggled to conceive will tell you they would do almost anything to get pregnant — even, say, pretend a monster from beyond the stars was their adopted son. They have nothing but the best intentions. And they are good parents, as evidenced by scenes like the one where Kyle awkwardly tries to have “the talk” about girls with Brandon.
Still, Tori and Kyle’s best intentions ultimately don’t amount to much, a fear any father or mother will relate to. The nightly news is filled with stories of teens who’ve committed atrocious crimes against their schoolmates and others, and their parents so often repeat the same refrain: “We don’t know why he would do this, why he would believe this, why he would be so upset, where these ideas came from.” Those young men aren’t aliens like Brandon. But I recognized them in him, and that made this movie even scarier.
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