I haven’t exactly been subtle with my opinions regarding the recent cinematic appearances of Superman. The trifecta of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Justice League are easily some of the worst representations that that character has ever had, and it’s embarrassing how frustrated I get thinking about how much they fundamentally misunderstood what makes that character work, and what has made him stand the test of time. And, I’m not even the biggest Superman fan. I enjoy the character, and have grown to appreciate him more and more as I get older and the sheer idea of a wholly good person who does everything in his power to protect innocents becomes more and more powerful to me. But, I don’t even mind some experimentation with the character, taking him into different directions and trying something new with him, looking at the mythology surrounding Superman and trying to take a new spin on it. Having Superman be an unrepentant murderer, while still claiming to be Superman, is a line I can’t cross though. However, as someone who has spent the majority of his life reading comic books and obsessing over the lives of fictional people who dress in costumes and beat each other up, I’m well versed in the idea of knockoff characters. Every now and then some writer wants to explore an idea as simple as “what if Superman, but evil?” and then write up some new character that explores that. And, we’ve apparently reached the place in cinema’s fixation on superhero stories that we can get to these types of stories, as demonstrated by a new film, Brightburn, which is basically just that idea, stretched out for a whole movie.
Brightburn takes place in a small Kansas town, and follows the life of a young boy named Brandon Breyer. Much like Superman, Brandon is an alien who came to Earth as an infant after his space-ship crash-landed on the farm of a barren couple, Tori and Kyle Breyer, who decided to raise him as their own. But, they never told Brandon the truth of his strange birth, and have raised him as a normal, albeit quiet boy. However, on his twelfth birthday, something strange happens. He starts to get visions while sleeping of the alien space-ship that brought him to Earth, and a whole assortment of powers start to manifest. He finds himself gaining strength, invulnerability, flight, and a sort of heat-beam that comes from his eyes. Brandon seems generally confused by all of this, but keeps the new abilities from his parents, while slowly becoming more and more disrespectful and sullen towards them, which they just chock up to being a teenager.
However, slowly but surely things start to get more ominous. Brandon becomes fascinated with the insides of beings, he kills a bunch of chickens on the farm, and he starts stalking a girl in his class, which leads to him breaking her arm after she calls him out for his behavior. And, after Brandon attempts to find the spaceship kept under their barn, Tori tells Brandon the truth, causing him to fly into a rage. He takes this rage out on the girl who mocked him by brutally killer her mother, all while dressed up in a costume made from the blanket he’d been wrapped up with in the space-ship. And, just like that, Brandon has become a supervillain. He stops showing any sort of remorse about his actions, and starts to hear a voice in his head telling him to “Take the Planet.” And, anyone who gets in his way is swiftly killed, such as his uncle who finds him skulking around their house. Tori and Kyle are terrified at this point, but Tori maintains that Brandon will never turn fully evil. Kyle meanwhile plans a hunting trip, just him and Brandon, where he plans on killing his son. But, this doesn’t go well, and Brandon ends up using his heat-vision to kill his father. And, while this is going on Tori finally realizes that Brandon has been killing people, and decides to defend herself by using a chunk of the spaceship, which has proven to be able to hurt him. But, Brandon is too fast her for, and is able to disarm her before dropping him from a mile up in the air, killing her and bringing a passenger plane down onto the farm as well. And, free of any sort of familial constraints, Brandon heads out into the world to dominate it.
Brightburn is not a particularly good movie. It’s really clunky, full of some insanely bad foreshadowing, which just kind of spells out everything that will happen in the movie within the first ten minutes or so, while playing into every obvious decision they could have made. And, the tone is kind of all over the place, at times leaping fully into a gory horror movie, while never really building up any sort of suspense. I don’t even think I’d go so far as to call it a horror movie, because it really is just a violent superhero movie with moments of intense gore, missing any sort of artful pacing and suspense that would have made it something special. The acting is pretty solid, especially from Elizabeth Banks who is doing everything she can with this rather lackluster material, just giving us an impossibly naive woman who is apparently so blinded by her “mothering nature” that she doesn’t realize the alien she’s been raising is evil. There are some elements to the movie that could easily put people off, but by and large it’s the sort of movie that I just can’t see people feeling too strongly about, one way or the other. It’s just kind of forgettable, a weird little movie that’s horror-adjacent and largely serves as a painfully unsubtle metaphor for puberty.
But, where I did find at least a glimmer of interest from this movie was the sheer fact that we’ve gotten a movie version of an Elseworlds story. Now, that’s the term specifically used by DC Comics, and different companies use different terms, but the general gist of the Elseworlds stories were that they were alternate versions of the character we know and love, telling stories that they couldn’t possibly tell in regular continuity. Stuff like seeing what would happen if Superman had landed in Soviet Russia instead of rural America. Because, as wild and over-the-top superhero comics can be, they are constrained by decades of character development and continuity that can’t let you try something wild, without some sort of explanation. And, this concept became even wilder with the rise of the more indie publishers, who allowed writers and artists to create blatant rip-offs of famous characters while telling stories that they could never tell with the real characters, even with the help of being labeled an Elseworlds. There are no shortage to comic books that basically boil down to “What if Superman, but evil?” It’s a fairly obvious twist on one of the most inherently good characters ever created, and honestly it’s not an overly fertile source of stories. The idea just isn’t too interesting, and it quickly just becomes the obvious answer “he’d be hard to stop.” So, seeing a movie take this route and create a knock-off character of Superman to examine this story isn’t exactly breaking any new ground. However, I do find it interesting that superhero cinema has been around for long enough, and so prevalent in society, that we’ve reached the point where we can make movies that attempt to deconstruct characters like this. This movie was largely a failure, and I can’t imagine that they’ll be making any more, even though there was a slightly tongue-in-cheek reference to a whole Justice League of parody character by the end of this movie, but I can’t help but find it interesting that things have reached the point where they felt the general public was so familiar with Superman that they’d be able to watch a movie like this that twists him.
Brightburn was written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, directed by David Yarovesky, and released by Sony Pictures Releasing, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk