Brightburn and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing
Directed by David Yarovesky
I’ve only had this movie vaguely on my radar for some time now (which frankly is a lot more than MOST movies but that’s another discussion) and I was certainly interested to see what it was, but more importantly I wasn’t quite sure what it was ultimately ABOUT which piqued my interest more than anything else. Was it truly just a kid with super powers killing people? Would there be some sort of They Live or even Frailty kind of twist at the end to explain his actions? It’s a fascinating premise to basically take the Superman origin story and turn it into that of a villain, but evil kid movies aren’t the easiest thing to pull off well and we’ve had at least ONE example this year of Hollywood screwing that up spectacularly. Is this the dark and twisted superhero horror movie we’ve all been waiting for, or is this just more horror tripe with a trendy coat of paint on it? Let’s find out!!
Brandon Breyer (Jackson Dunn) is your typical Midwest tween. He works on his parents’ farm, he goes to school every day, and oh yeah he’s an alien who crash landed when he was a baby and has been raised by his parents Tori and Kyle (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) since then. He’s not aware of that though, but it’s also something that’s not TOO easy to hide; especially since Space Puberty is turning out to be quite a bit more INTENSE than the Earthling variety! Brandon begins to pick up on the fact that he’s a little bit different from others, what with his invulnerability and eye lasers, and eventually things come to a head as Tori and Kyle have to figure out the best way to handle the fact that their adopted son has UNSPEAKABLE COSMIC POWERS. You know, sending him to his room without dinner isn’t gonna work all that well when he can rip your heart out with his bare hands and then fly to the arcade. Brandon seems to understand this little power differential as well, not to mention that his alien side might not be from the most humble and good natured parts of the universe which can only spell trouble as he gets more and more proficient with his powers. Can Tori and Kyle instill enough self-control and empathy into this brat before he starts burning Pepe memes into the corn fields? Just how powerful can Brandon get, and is there any way to stop him if he goes too far? See, this is why everyone needs an Uncle Ben. Neither Tori nor Kyle have a brother named Ben, and that’s why this is all happening in the first place!!
If you know me, then you know that I have certain bug-bears that movies can trip that will sink my opinion of them rather quickly. I’ve always defined this vaguely as cruelty, but if Brightburn taught me anything it’s that I can add Fatalism as a more specific facet of it! Now to be clear, this movie isn’t bad. In fact, it’s pretty good in almost every way you can think of… expect for the part that matters the most to me when telling this kind of story. It wants to be a movie about how a monster becomes a monster, but it fails spectacularly at doing that. It wants to be a What If scenario about Superman deciding to become a bad guy, but it doesn’t seem to understand Superman enough in the first place for this idea to work. It’s a mishmash of decent enough ideas but the script just holds it back with some very fundamental issues in its premise that it simply cannot get around or doesn’t even realize completely undercut its own thematic arc. Seriously, how is that Damien: The Omen 2 is STILL the best example of this kind of story done right!? No, I won’t shut up about that movie, so you all might as well go see it!!
Now before we go in on what’s wrong with it (which will necessitate LIGHT spoilers), we should talk about what this movie does right which is quite a lot if we’re being honest. The overall look of the film is solid and possibly one of the many things they ripped straight out of Man of Steel. It’s washed out and full of earthy colors to give it sense of authenticity which helps in the believability of the story; not so much the super powers themselves which don’t get any real explanation other than ALIEN (we don’t even know if he’s powered by the sun), but in the consequences that his actions have throughout the community. It’s not going for camp or splatter despite the premise pretty much allowing for that, but more of a character study vibe or maybe even an element of neo-noir where the failings of certain characters invite disaster on everyone. Speaking of which, while I’ll get into THE GIANT ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM soon enough, I think that Elizabeth Banks and David Denman as the parents Tori and Kyle do about as well with this material as can be expected, and I like how Kyle in particular seems to always be covering up his real feelings under the thinnest of pretenses which gets shattered by about the halfway point. It’s actually more distressing to watch his demons come pouring out than anything Kyle does because it feels… sadly real in a lot of ways. Tori on the other hand has kind of the same deal going on but in the opposite direction. She’s authentic throughout most of the movie, but she’s like a bear trap; ready to snap up her defense mechanisms at the slightest hint of danger. While Kyle can almost be seen as just riding this out until the inevitable, Tori is pretending the inevitable doesn’t exist and is trying to live her life to the fullest until she can’t avoid it any longer. It’s actually a pretty solid movie from their perspective, but unfortunately the rest of the movie just can’t keep up with them and everything starts to fall apart when it comes to Brandon.
So I mentioned earlier that my problem with this film can be boiled down to fatalism; a concept I only have the barest of understanding of but will try to co-opt here to try and sound smart! Essentially, the movie is dictated not by character actions but by fate; whatever flailing efforts certain characters make towards resolving this problem are more or less predetermined to fail, and there’s no indication that Brandon himself will deviate from his horrifying course. Everything is doomed, and we’re just biding our time until it gets here. I HATE that kind of storytelling; especially in horror movies. Now that’s not to say that I need things to have a happy ending or that someone can’t be harmed or killed simply by bad luck, but there has to be the sense that a character’s actions are not without meaning. Now at least as far as his parents are concerned, there IS some meaning to that; the straining of their relationship, their inability to handle the changes in their child, and even their own fears and prejudices getting the better of them, so at least in that regard it does succeed. Where it doesn’t though is Brandon who at NO POINT in this movie feels like a character in control of his own destiny; he just hears a Satan voice in his head telling him (AND ONLY HIM) to take over the world. So what, does he come from a planet of DEMONIC ALIENS who enjoy glowing red lights and obnoxious buzzing sounds? Do they ALL sound like extras from Event Horizon, or was their masterstroke to send a baby down to the planet and have Jim in Planet Acquisitions tell him that he’s like… Alien Antichrist? This also by the way is why it fails to be a Superman analog because the key factor regarding Superman is that Clark the man has to CHOOSE how he will use his powers, and by the sensible moralistic upbringing by good ol’ Ma and Pa, he made the right choice. He didn’t have Jor El screaming in his ear to be the savior of all mankind! Okay, he KIND of did, but only AFTER finding the Fortress of Solitude which was much later. Man of Steel, for all its faults and problematic elements, did understand this and I think that THAT movie lays a much better foundation for an Evil Superman than this movie does. No that’s not a tired and hack slam against Man of Steel; it’s a testament to its ability to be about characters (sometimes CONFUSING characters, but I digress) instead of focusing on Young Clark’s super powers. That would come once he puts the suit on, but again we’re not here to talk about Man of Steel’s failings, we’re here to talk about this movie’s failings in relation to Man of Steel’s good points which were a lot of the scenes of him as a kid discovering his powers and Pa Kent trying to figure out how to help him deal with that! Frankly, the scenes that are direct lifts from Man of Steel only twisted in a darker direction and they should have just done A LOT more of that throughout.
And yes, we’re gonna have to talk about this movie AGAIN because no one has learned from it yet! This is ALSO not how you do an Evil Child movie either because the good ones know better than to just have a kid BE NATURALLY evil; they make them a fully realized kid who has evil within him, a la Damien: The Omen 2. I really like this movie because Damien is an actual CHILD in this movie who has the evil power within him, but does not have a DIRECT LINK to Satan inside of his brain. He has a life with friends and family, and sure some weird things are starting to happen and some of the adults seem particularly interested in him at the school, but it’s not clear early on in the movie if his evil destiny is certain or not. Once he DOES realize what he’s capable of, he has a rather realistic and somewhat profound reaction to it before deciding that it IS what he wants and proceeds to flaunt his power more and more audaciously as the movie goes on. This movie has HINTS of that arc within it, but the whole VOICE INSIDE HIS HEAD thing just robs it of any ambiguity. He comes off a bit creepy and possessive in early scenes, and it’s always gonna be dangerous for someone that young and still developing to realize he can say and do whatever he wants without consequence to himself, but it never feels like he’s even making a choice in this movie. He doesn’t feel bad or have moments of self-doubt when he starts to abuse his powers. He doesn’t seem like he had much attachment to ANYTHING once he starts to get his powers which is in stark contrast to the character he was before then and the transition from good kid to THE DEVIL FROM MARS doesn’t feel like it involves him in any way; like he was simply DESTINED to be bad instead of someone who genuinely chose to be that way. I just don’t find that kind of story satisfying, especially when that character is supposed to be the one with the primary arc, and it completely ruined this movie for me as I watched it play out in a rather predictable and unengaging way.
We’ve gotten a lot of really great horror movies recently about kids and we’ve got plenty of good super hero movies to boot, but this was not the perfect melding of chocolate and peanut butter that such an ingenious premise should have been. I want to like this movie for so much of what it gets right, particularly the parents who are fleshed out and feel very real given the circumstances, but the filmmakers either didn’t quite know what to do with Brandon or thought that hashing out the particulars of his arc wasn’t as important as nailing the gruesome kills or remaking scenes form Man of Steel. I wouldn’t really recommend seeing it in theaters, but like I’ve pointed out here and in other places, I have particular hang ups when it comes to movies like this that other people won’t have, so go enjoy this one while I sit at home watching The Omen 2 for like the fiftieth time. At least THAT film gets me!!