James Gunn produces a lean, mean, messy genre exercise that supposes Superman was more Damien than Clark Kent.
Superman’s origin story isn’t just well-known, it’s practically one of our modern myths: an orphaned child from a dead planet who fell from the sky in a spaceship to a sleepy Kansas farm, and taken in by kind, well-meaning parents who raised him to respect truth, justice and the American way. But that sort of idyllic American boyhood is long gone (if it ever really existed), replaced by cynicism, anger, and an almost genetically-coded sense of entitlement, particularly for young white boys.
What the James Gunn-produced horror film Brightburn supposes is: what if Ma and Pa Kent’s teachings didn’t rub off on Clark Kent they way they should have? What if nature trumps nurture, and the sheer power that comes with being a superhero went to his head? The implications are terrifying and intriguing, but Brightburn is far more focused on its nature as a genre exercise than exploring those questions in a satisfying way.
The Ma and Pa Kent analogues of Brightburn are Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman), a wholesome Kansas farm couple struggling with infertility when a mysterious red pod crashes in the woods outside their house containing a babbling young boy. Feeling that their prayers have been answered, they take the boy in, hide the pod in their barn, and raise him as their own.
Cut to a decade later, and 12-year-old Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is a sweet, but extremely strange boy constantly bullied in school and prone to doodling weird cool-S versions of his name in his notebook. But one night, the pod in the barn begins speaking to him in a strange, alien language, imbuing him with super-strength, the ability to fly, and laser vision — all of which are quite deadly in the hands of a hormonal tween struggling with an identity crisis.
Screenwriters Mark and Brian Gunn, brother of producer James Gunn (who presumably funded this sparse, but handsome passion project on the back of a single day’s worth of Guardians residuals) seem at least somewhat interested in the dark side of these kinds of superheroic power fantasies. The appeal of someone like Superman, after all, is to imagine what we’d do with the kinds of awesome abilities granted the Kryptonian.
Within the cultural landscape Brightburn occupies, Brandon’s story is especially loaded. The country is beset with angry, young, white men who are socialized into a certain level of entitlement – to respect, to power, to women’s bodies. All of that is borne out in Brandon’s story, at least superficially: one of his first acts is to obsess over a young classmate (Emmie Hunter) he likes (“Smart guys end up ruling the planet,” she misguidedly reassures him after he’s bullied), right down to flying into her bedroom window at night. His powers grant him immediate, angry license to demand gifts and assert his superiority in a serial killer’s flat affect — promising sadistic violence if he doesn’t get his way. All that’s missing is a steady diet of alt-right Youtube, and he’s essentially Elliot Rodger.
But what about the parents? Done well, Brightburn could have been a much smarter exercise in recognizing the challenges parents have in bringing these kids up right – to teach them a better way to live. As is, the Breyers spend the entire movie confused and terrified of their son, often inadvertently giving him the wrong lessons. “It’s okay to give in to… urges,” says Kyle in one awkward version of The Talk, hoping to teach him a healthy attitude toward sexuality. But Brandon’s urges, as we soon see, are far more violent and horrifying than staring at nudie mags.
Ostensibly the main characters, the Gunns write the Breyers as relatively clueless, feckless parents. This is especially true of Tori, who becomes the resolute Final Mom of the picture but who spends far too much time prior to that defending her son, even after he breaks classmates’ hands and transparently lies to them about where he is the same night other townspeople go missing. The smart thing to do would have been to switch their roles, Tori the concerned young mother who sees the way the wind is blowing, Kyle the gruff dad willing to let boys be boys. Maybe then, Brightburn would have a more cogent point about the ways young men are socialized to feel the world owes them something, and the way women’s warnings about this kind of behavior are shrugged off.
All that’s missing is a steady diet of alt-right Youtube, and he’s essentially Elliot Rodger.
Instead of exploring those questions, Brightburn is more than content to carry the banner of gory horror films in a bloodless PG-13 theatrical landscape. Clocking in at a lean ninety minutes and showcasing all the blood-gushing bluster of James Gunn’s Troma background, Brightburn delights in seeing what happens when Superman’s powers are effectively wielded by a gun-toting incel. Director David Yarovesky stages the expected horror scenes with a fair bit of panache, shaking up the usual jump-scare formula just enough to stand out.
But it’s the gore effects that are Brightburn‘s true showcase, forcing audience members to wince as victims slowly pull shards of glass from their eyes, or dying men with jaws hanging off their heads gurgle their final breaths. The camera is unflinching in its depiction of mangled bodies that aren’t quite dead, hammering home the devastation of Brandon’s powers in a way that also implicates the audience for also delighting in these things. By the time the film’s shockingly grim ending comes about, the nihilism of the Gunns’ script is made plain – if someone with Superman’s strength suddenly got big britches about what he deserved, there’d be no one to stop him.
For fans of tight, bloody theatrical horror films with a fun genre twist, Brightburn has just enough to appeal. But it’s dismaying to recognize how close the film is to saying something really interesting with its Superman-as-teenage-mass-shooter subtext, only to pull away from it at the last minute for sheer shock value. As it stands, Brightburn is a modest novelty, a feature-length thought exercise that teeters just on the edge of insight. Maybe for a hard-R film coming out in early summer, that’s enough. But as Jor-El says to Brightburn’s DC Comics counterpart in Superman: The Movie, it can be a great movie, and wishes to be. It only lacks the light to show it the way.