Well, the long-awaited evening arrived. I’d been looking forward to Brightburn with at least tenuously high expectations since Michael told me about the premise oh-so-many-months ago. The film’s situation sounded fascinating – an inversion of the Superman mythos, in which Superman is embodied in an evil 12-year-old child – and the previews looked plenty scary. Couple that with the fact that I really like Elizabeth Banks – and she’s one of the main forces behind Shrill, a show I’ve been singing the praises of a la twitter for months – and this was definitely a film I had to see when it came out. “How about we see it Saturday” Michael suggested sweetly. I replied, “I’m going on Thursday night when I get off work, whether you go with me or not.” So, I’m not quite sure if I would have put my money where my mouth was – I don’t go to the movies alone much, and I hadn’t asked anyone else along – but luckily, Michael capitulated, and after a quick four hour shift at Torrid, I met him at the coffee shop across the street and we zipped to Tinseltown, where we were two of six people in the theater to see one of the first screenings of Brightburn.
This is not a movie I feel a need to dissect in great detail. Either it doesn’t much lend itself to such dissection, or it does lend itself to it, but I’m failing to grasp the right angle from which to approach my analysis. So there will be no theoretical dive into the diegetic narrative, no meandering into the mis-en-scene—simply some observations about what I liked, what I didn’t, and what I think would have made the film even better than it already was (not that I’m at all qualified to say what a screenwriter should do to enhance a cinematic experience, but I’m going to, anyway). I’ll start, though, with my overall take on the film: it was a well-done, engaging film that came close to meeting, but didn’t fully meet, nor exceed, the expectations I had for it. Would I urge you to rush to the theater to see it? Not necessarily, but if you’re a horror fan and you need a satisfying scream on a Friday or Saturday night out, it may be worth the investment—of money, and of time.
Brightburn is the story of a couple, Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, respectively) who can’t seem to have a baby, not matter how hard they try. So when a space ship from a strange place crash lands in their backyard carrying a wee one, they don’t really question whether or not they’re going to excavate the baby from the space ship, keep him, and raise him as theirs. In other words, it’s a done deal as soon as they see the little guy. They raise him as their son, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) and tell him he was adopted. Circa age twelve, however, Brandon discovers the space ship he arrived in locked under the floorboards of the family barn, and when he makes contact with the ship it unlocks a series of powers that were already developing within him. But Brandon isn’t your typical twelve-year-old kid; he’s fiercely smart and considerably wrathful and vengeful—at least, once he starts “coming into” his powers and his personality begins to change. It doesn’t take long for him to become an uncomfortable, then a formidable force in the small town that he lives in. The audience knows he’s dangerous far before his parents are willing to admit to themselves that their son is a sociopathic version of Superman—but that’s more of the story than you really need to know to appreciate this review.
Before delving into what I didn’t love about the film, let me give the film props for a few things: first, the actors are fantastic, insofar as they have a chance to really showcase their talents. Elizabeth Banks and David Denman play realistic, loving parents who do a solid job acting together and amplifying narrative tension when disagreement lingers about how dangerous Brandon is or isn’t. And mad props go to Jackson A. Dunn, who I probably couldn’t see in public without getting creeped out now that I’ve seen how insidious he is in the film. Second, the gore is uniquely disgusting—which you may see as a benefit or a downfall, perspective-contingent. Think bones and organs and close-ups and lots of juicy, squirting blood. If you’re of the squeamish variety, this film isn’t for you. Want some spoilers? K, if you don’t, don’t read the next part: you’ll see jaws drop (literally, a man’s bloody, mutilated jaw detaches from his face) and a woman slowly but messily dislodge a piece of glass from her eye. That second bit of pleasantry you got a hint about in the preview; the first bit, not so much. One movie reviewer tweeted that the filmmakers weren’t responsible with their “r” rating, but I’m hesitant to agree with that assertion. The film is rated “r” for a reason, and the gore is no worse than some of the $#!t you see on AMC on a regular basis—not to mention HBO. I found the gore “just right,” – not completely unbearable, and not gratuitous, but shocking enough to add a unique, unexpected element to the film and to make me close my eyes during a few key parts of the plot—which, to me, is always a sign that something’s going right in a horror movie.
My qualm with the film was basically that the preview shows too much, and except for some really gory scenes, we don’t get much in the film that goes beyond what we see ahead of time in the trailer. In other words, I’d say the most pivotal, consequential narrative moments are foregrounded in the preview, so that it feels like the narrative was sort of built around the key scenes that you’re well aware of before actually seeing them in the film. Saying this may be saying too much, if you wanted to be surprised, but there was nothing in the film that really jarred or shocked me (except for the aforementioned gore)—no plot twists or unusual narrative elements. Indeed, there were only one or two memorable scenes that I didn’t see in the trailer—a trailer that, as an ancillary point (and this may be a spoiler—beware) shows you some of the ending ahead of time, as if that ending were just a casual component of the film. This phenomenon is not an unusual one in horror films, and it didn’t detract from all the intrigue of the film, but it left the film feeling like it was lacking something; if we had seen less of the film’s surprises in the trailer, certain scenes might have compensated for that ostensible lack, might have filled in the sort of cinematic void. I guess, after finishing the film, I thought to myself: That was pretty interesting, but I feel like I need something else. Alas, that something else never arrived.
One thing the filmmakers might have done (again, these suggestions take a considerable amount of hubris on my part, but I’m willing to go there for the sake of discussion) is prolong the film. The movie totals barely over an hour and a half, and Brandon’s alteration from the sweet kid his parents know and love to a malicious, remorseless killer is rather sudden. Furthermore, he starts committing brutal murders shortly after acquiring his powers, which leaves some narrative questions. Yes, Brandon is bullied in school, but with the pretty solid upbringing he has—with his loving parents—why does he coalesce to malevolent machinations so early in the film? Do his powers suddenly “make him” evil, or has the seed of sinister always been lurking inside him, just waiting to flower (quickly and aggressively) when he had the chance to act those feelings out. I think, in short, I would have preferred a slower, more carefully explained transition between the relatively benign, lovable Brandon—of whom we get barely a glimpse—and the monstrous murderer with whom we’re acquainted for most of the film.
Of course, this tactic would have to be implemented carefully so the film didn’t seem drawn out, and I have no idea how it best could have been achieved (I’m not a screen writer), but as I’ve suggested before, there was just some “lack” inherent in the movie, some void I was waiting to be filled—a void partially created by trailers that give away most of the film ahead of time. The benefit of slowing Brandon’s transition from sweet little boy to sinister little ghoul is also that it would give Banks and Denman more time to showcase their talent. There are a few key moments in the film, after all, where Banks and Denman are at odds over Brandon’s level of evildoing and dangerousness. While Banks ardently defends their son, Denman already suspects that he’s behind the murders that have taken place in the town. The tension between Banks and Denman’s characters makes for some uncomfortable family drama that could have augmented the movie the way that poor family ties supplement the narrative in films like The Babadook or Hereditary—if the tension between those two actors had been considerably more expanded and detailed. As it stands, the seeming need, on the filmmaker’s behalf, to present us with action scene after action scene, quickly and succinctly, left us with what I thought was a more formulaic, average horror film. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy it—indeed, it was still a bit unique, and I enjoy formulaic, average horror films—but I think with more evident risk-taking involved in the screenwriting, directing, and producing, it could have been an incredibly unusual, ground-breaking piece of horror. Instead, it was just a decent film that provided a fun way to pass a Thursday evening.
2 thoughts on “Feel the (Bright)Burn: Strengths and Shortcomings of the Inverted Superman Mythos”
What’s interesting to me – especially as its an inversion of a (perhaps THE) classic superhero story – is superhero movies fall into this trap all the time too. Your line, “As it stands, the seeming need, on the filmmaker’s behalf, to present us with action scene after action scene, quickly and succinctly, left us with what I thought was a more formulaic, average horror film” could have ended with “average superhero film” and been just as accurate.
As someone who always checks the run time for horror movies and who likes to get out of the theatre when we’re seeing a horror movie AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE, I agree with what you said about it being longer. I think more time with the characters and more time with Brandon’s transition could have added something otherwise missing to the story. I kept wanting to know more about his ship/home planet. In the traditional Superman story, Clark’s father Jor-El sends information and guidance for his son in the ship – about who he is, where he comes from, and why he was sent to Earth. Something like this could have given us more about the alien culture, showed different dimensions to Brandon’s personality, and allowed for the “struggle” between the influence of Brandon’s nurturing and loving earthly parents and his apparently insidious extraterrestrial nature.
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I agree. In fact, I think I meant to put something like that in the piece but forgot. Along with Brandon’s quick transition, the lack of backstory was a little disorienting, but not in a positive way. I felt I wanted to be more grounded in the story by knowing about the ship and why Brandon was sent to earth. A sequel could fulfill that inquiry, but the film didn’t seem to set us up for one.