You HAVE To Watch: Brightburn
A couple of weeks ago, I saw The Batman in theatres. I’ve barely thought of it since. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, I thought it was an entertaining way to spend a few hours, and if every movie watching experience matched it, I’d be happy.
However, I love when a movie sticks with me. Some movies -even ones I didn’t enjoy as much as The Batman- owe me rent, they’ve spent so much time in my thoughts. One such movie is 2019’s Brightburn.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A young, middle-American couple finds a surprisingly-human looking baby in a spaceship and raises him as their own. Ends up, the baby grows up and gets super powers. A lot of super powers. He might be the most powerful being on Earth.
I noticed you stopped me. Well here’s the twist! He’s evil!
Ah, you’ve stopped me again.
Red Cape Red Flags
Brightburn gave me pause going into it for a few reasons.
The evil Superman analog is well played out at this point. I mentioned in my review of the first season of the Invincible animated series that “Invincible isn’t even the only Amazon Prime super hero series with… an evil Superman type.”
On top of that, Brightburn’s marketing tried to use a trick that automatically makes me weary: Selling the movie on the producer’s name value. According to underrated classic Wag The Dog, a film’s producer plays a larger role in a film’s success than they get credit for. Because their job is more logistic than artistic, their contribution to a film’s creative success often goes uncredited. As Dustin Hoffman’s Stanley Motss says, there’s not even an Oscar for Best Producer. If you don’t believe me/him, Google Oscars 2022. I’m sure the top result will be a list of winners and nothing else.
All that to say, I’m not dismissing the role of the producer. But I question when an ad tells me a movie’s produced by the director of another film. In this case:
Now, I like James Gunn. As a director. And although I didn’t know it when Brightburn came out, as a showrunner. None of which tells me if he’s any good as a producer. I know the idea is that the movie gets a rub from the most marquee name attached to the project, but it also seems like whenever marketing highlights the producer, they bury the director lest their ruse be discovered. Well David Yarovesky, director of Brightburn, I see you.
And I saw Brightburn! Here are my thoughts.
First of all, Brightburn isn’t an evil Superman analog. He’s an evil Superboy analog. That may not sound significant, but it turns out to make a huge difference. In the case of Omni-Man and Homelander, they’re firmly established as these powerful heroes that we, the audience, know can wreak havoc at the drop of a hat and mild mannered glasses. They’re otherworldly, flying around in bright costumes with free reign to do as they please.
Brightburn (aka Brandon Breyer, played by Jackson A. Dunn) develops his powers at the beginning of the movie. It’s a puberty metaphor, but without the fluffy cuteness of a red panda. He’s discovering what he can do, and changing as a person, while everyone around him isn’t tuned into what he’s going through. A scene in which Brandon’s uncle Noah, played by Matt Jones, finds him creeping around his house really delivers on the storytelling potential of this premise. From Noah’s point of view, his nephew’s just acting weird. And when he insists on telling Brandon’s parents (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), Noah’s completely misunderstanding the power dynamic between them.
Another important difference between Brightburn and other popular media about an evil Superman type is the genre. Where The Boys and Invincible are sensationalized super hero stories, Brightburn is horror in tone and super hero origin in structure. Instead of showing what Brightburn can do from his first kill, his powers are slowly revealed. We know what he can do, but we only see glimpses of it followed by scenes of the repercussions. This builds to a terrifying climax where everything that’s been hinted at is now in our face.
The Central Metaphor
I went into this assuming the pitch for the movie went basically like what I’ve been talking about. “What if Superboy, but evil?” I was even willing to double down and say the scene in Man of Steel in which Martha Kent tries to soothe Clark when he is in crisis over his super hearing directly inspired Brightburn. However, an early scene in this movie made me realize there was probably a much smarter and more visceral inspiration.
Even though this is one of the film’s earliest scenes, I’m still issuing a spoiler warning on the next two paragraphs for anyone interested in seeing the movie fresh.
In Brandon (I almost wrote Clark)’s science class, the teacher discusses a species of wasp that tricks bees into raising their young, only for the wasps to murder the entire hive at adolescence. The wasps are bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than the bees, and would truly come off as superbees. The movie turns that into the premise, that aliens seeded a Superman-like creature on Earth to take advantage of our empathy until he was old enough to kill us all. It establishes from the get go why Brandon’s suddenly so aggressive. Absolute power didn’t corrupt him absolutely. It was nature, not nurture, and there’s nothing his parents can do to get through to him. We know that, but they don’t.
Brightburn’s strength is applying human psychology to those bees. As Brandon kills his family and towns folks, we see moments of realization as the child these people thought they knew betrays them. Brandon’s parents eventually figure out what he’s been doing, struggle to understand why, then accept what they must do. But how do they do what must be done? That’s why Brightburn left such an impression on me: the parents go from heartbreak to helplessness. We watch them fully aware of their inevitable emotional arcs, and yet we’re invested in their journey.
I remember Brightburn’s trailer being received positively, and having seen the movie, I’d say it delivers on what the ad campaign promised. That said, most of my friends who liked the Brightburn trailer skipped seeing Brightburn in theatres, myself included. It wasn’t until Brightburn came to Netflix and I happen to have a few nights free that I gave it a try. It left a greater emotional impact that most media I watched in the last year.