Eric’s Review: Brightburn (2019)

ATMOSfx! Woo!

★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Lex Luthor was right. This alien may look like us, but he is here to destroy us. This VERY dark take on the Superman parable is the very violent flip side of the Man of Steel, right down to the swing set and the waving wheat of Kansas.

Directed by David Yarovsky

You can change the names, but the iconography stands out like a beacon. You can go all the way back to the original Joel Siegel Superman origin tale, and the idea that a man from space, arriving as a baby via an asteroid would, with the proper nurturing from good heartland American parents would become the paragon of truth, justice, and the American way. But what if nature overwhelmed nurture? That is this story.

We’ve seen the origin story before. In Richard Donner’s Superman The Movie, Brian Singer’s Superman Returns, and most recently Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel: a Kansas couple, this time the Breyers, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denham) are unsuccessful at having a child. One fateful night there is an explosion, and landing in their farmland is a small spacecraft, with a baby inside! Oh joy! (Oh no!)

Elizabeth Banks stars in Sony PIctures’ BRIGHTBURN.

We flash forward twelve years, and we see the baby, Brandon (Jackson Dunn), now an adolescent. He’s a very smart boy, but he’s awkward and he gets teased a bunch. His powers have yet to reveal themselves, and his parents have told him that he was adopted, and they all do love each other. But as puberty sets in, he begins to hear whispers in the night. Dark whispers lure him to the barn where Kyle and Tori have hidden the life pod he arrived in.

He accidentally discovers his emerging powers when messing with a lawnmower, and is ready to push back. Push back against his bullies. Push back against his parents telling him what to do. And, he becomes more assertive with his crush, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter) who has been kind to him. This proves disastrous though, as he uses his newfound powers to pay her a visit, and scares the shit out of her. Take a confused boy awkward to begin with and even more awkward with girls, add in some alien DNA and superpowers, and what could go wrong? A LOT.

In traditional Superman stories, young Clark would take comfort and solace with his parents, and would eventually reveal himself in heroic fashion, accepting his new-found powers to rescue and support his peers. In Man of Steel, Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) discourages Clark from revealing himself, to protect him from the suspicions of people not ready for this powerful being. In Brightburn, Brandon conceals himself in a make-shift disguise/costume, with a creepy hood made from his baby blanket. (A nice touch).

He confides with nobody, but Kyle suspects that there’s something off with the boy. A particularly creepy but not spoiler moment shows Brandon chewing on a fork, completely mangling it. When Kyle brings his concerns to Tori, she defends her beloved son against any signs of something wrong. In the context of this story, it’s doubtful that anything that they would have attempted would have succeeded in turning him around anyways.

Kyle goes full rage monster and begins to horribly destroy anybody who he perceives to be in his way. The big drama in this film is what will become of his family. Will he turn on the Breyers? Will they turn on him? The film, so familiar still packs in tension because we know what SHOULD happen, but we see the familiar script unraveling in front of us, and that irony is bitter and wonderful.

There are so many loving homages to the source material. The Gunn brothers, writers Brian and Mark, and producer James (Slither, Guardians of the Galaxy) know their superhero tropes, and they know their horror tropes. We even get the classic cruciform Superman in space pose, so iconic with fans of comics and comic movies. Everybody plays it straight in this film. I would have liked to have had some of the James Gunn humor mixed in, as this movie did feel very heavy. Elizabeth Banks is wonderful here, and I thought she could have brought some of her fantastic comic chops to the feature. Denman and Dunn are also great in their respective roles, and their father and son dynamic is very interesting to watch. Also, I couldn’t help thinking that there is a resemblance between Dunn and the stoic Barron Trump, both facially and posture-wise. (Barron has better hair.)

The movie is a bit of a one-trick pony. Its strength relies upon dismembering the familiar and reflecting the changes back to the audience. So, once you’ve established the premise, it isn’t particularly original. It is, however, a very entertaining watch. There was a fantastic other-worlds Superman tale called Red Son, which proposed a what-if scenario with baby Clark landing in Soviet Ukraine instead of Kansas, which reminded me of another alternate take of the nature-vs-nurture battle. I still hold out hope that WB will explore that story.

There is a great Michael Rooker post-credit scene with hints at an evil Aquaman and Wonder Woman. (A witch with ropes!) I doubt we will ever see an evil “Justice League” however, as the movie made its money back (A $6,000,000 budget and it made $32,000,000) but it wasn’t exactly a big hit. I am rather stunned that Warner Brothers was OK with this since this is a Sony production. It is so specifically Superman that if this did turn out to be a huge hit, WB would have been incensed that they lost out. Also, it is a really gory and nasty take on Supes, and by not making a stink about it they seem to have given it their blessing. Curious.

This is a great watch for DC comics fans who also happen to be horror fans. (That’s me!) If you are not a comic fan, and you’re not well versed in the lore of Superman, many of the subtleties would probably get missed.

Brightburn is rated R for gory violence, and language. It is currently available for rent on YouTube and Amazon, and purchase on VUDU and iTunes.

Review by Eric Li

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