What was Superman like as a kid?
In the past, that question informed TV shows like Superboy and Smallville as well as the first half of Richard Donner’s Superman. Across all three of those properties, the Little Blue Boy Scout struggles with the truth of who he really is and then struggles to hide that from his friends. Eventually, however, he grows to accept his responsibility to help people. Plus, the Smallville version of young Clark also did an awful lot of rather vague farmwork and turned the Kent barn into pretty much his own loft apartment.
Leave it to James Gunn, the Guardians of the Galaxy mastermind, to look at all of this through far more sinister eyes. With a screenplay by his cousin Mark and brother Brian and very capable direction by David Yarovesky, Gunn has produced a horror film take on the Superman myth. Taking his cue from the old Marvel What If comic book line, Gunn’s Brightburn might as well be titled What if Superman Broke Bad the Moment He Hit Puberty?
It’s a truly fantastic idea for a movie, which makes it all the more disappointing that Brightburn is a fairly average little stalk-and-slash thriller. Surprisingly, Brightburn’s most notable achievement isn’t its inversion of a familiar comic book origin story but instead its consistent ability to force us to turn away from the screen. As the internet found out when Sony released the full diner scene online, this is a film which will literally put a piece of glass into a woman’s eye and then hold the shot as she struggles to pull the glass shard back out.
That sequence sets the tone for all the horror scenes which come later: be prepared for the camera to linger on moments of bodily harm just a little longer than usual. It’s very effective.
They why of it all, however, could have used some more work. Brian Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn), this film’s Clark Kent stand-in, starts out as a rather quiet, but intelligent 11-year-old with no real friends other than his parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman). Growing up a happy child on a Kansas film, he’s been told his parents adopted him when he was just a baby, and even though he’s getting too old for it he still loves playing hide and seek with his remarkably supportive and affectionate mom.
Then he turns 12 and hits puberty. His body goes through changes. His dad has to have “the talk” with him. It’s pretty much complete hell after that. What kid can’t relate to that, amirite?
With the onset of puberty comes a rush of new superhuman abilities. Combine that with Brian’s rather violent reaction to learning the truth of his existence and you get a walking weapon of mass destruction wreaking havoc on the city. It’s not even that he’s acting act out against his parents for lying to him or school bullies for being mean to him or anything rooted in the story’s central puberty metaphor. Instead, the ship which brought Brian to Earth re-activates and calls to him, delivering voices into his head which convince him it is his birthright to take the world.
The question of whether the ship corrupts him or activates something in his DNA or is merely a voice which motivates him into a dark turn is left unanswered. Brian’s only explanation, as he dispassionately tells a school counselor, is that he simply realizes he’s a superior being. If he wants to stalk, play with, and eventually kill a waitress who said mean things about him or a close relative who might get him in trouble with his parents, so be it. He can do whatever he wants, just as long as his parents never find out and still love him.
There’s certainly a We Need to Talk About Kevin vibe to the last part, as Brian’s dad instantly suspects something is wrong while his mother’s faith in him is almost completely unshakeable. That’s certainly why someone like Elizabeth Banks, who lately has been working more as a director (her Charlie’s Angels reboot is due later this year) than an actress, would take the mom role. Sure, she gets to work with Gunn again after starring in Slither for him 13 years ago, but she also gets the meatiest drama in the whole film.
Once Brian breaks bad, he ceases to really be a character. That leaves all of the emotional heavy-lifting to Banks, but like everything else about Brightburn, there’s an inescapable sense that they could have done so much more with it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Brightburn has a pretty great idea for a movie hiding inside the body of a fairly average thriller. The cringe-inducing gore moments, however, are masterfully put-together.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Obligatory nitpick as a lifelong Kansan: who knew the legendary plains of Kansas look just like the lush forests of Georgia.
- Interesting choice: there are no references to comic books, superheroes, or superhero movies. Where Brian gets the idea to don a mask and cape, we have no idea, but it looks cool.
- For a better What If Superman story with a more thoughtful exploration of the nature vs. nurture debate, check out the graphic novel Superman: Red Son, in which Kal-El lands in the Soviet Union instead of Smallville, Kansas.