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‘Brightburn’ Has a Superman vs. Clark Kent Problem

This new take on the superhero genre, produced by ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ director James Gunn, isn’t all that new. It’s just the latest in a line of meta capes-and-tights films that interrogate the origins of heroism and villainy, and how those things are depicted in comics and on screen.

Sony Pictures/Ringer illustration

At the climax of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol 2, the titular character (David Carradine) does a five-minute monologue about comic books that doubles as an explication of the film’s own subtext. He believes that in choosing the ever-nerdy Clark Kent as his alter ego, Superman is not only disguising his strength but critiquing humanity’s comparative weakness. “That’s you,” he sneers at his ex-wife Beatrix (Uma Thurman). “Trying to disguise yourself as a worker bee. That’s you trying to blend in with the hive. But you’re not a worker bee … you’re a renegade killer bee … and no matter how much beer you drank or barbecue you ate or how fat your ass got, nothing in the world would ever change that.”

I’m guessing that Mark and Brian Gunn, the writers of Brightburn, have seen Kill Bill: Vol 2. Early in their film, there’s a scene in which 12-year old Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn)—an extraterrestrial foundling who’s been raised as a good Midwestern boy by his adoptive parents Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman)—absorbs a lecture about wasps programmed by nature to aggressively colonize other hives and his eyes flicker with recognition.

It’s a shivery, promising moment, and it suggests that David Yarovesky’s film, which grossed a modest but solid $7.8 million in its opening weekend (against a reported budget of $6 million) is going to capitalize on the subversive, satirical potential of Tarantino’s riff on the Superman mythos. The timing is right: In a summer when the Disney-branded heroes of the Marvel Universe reigns supreme, there’s an opening for an anti-superhero movie to make a dent in the pop-cultural consciousness.

It’d be nice to report that Brightburn lives up to its aspirations, but despite its clever premise and some pretty choice gore—including one literally jaw-dropping kill that’ll end up on YouTube highlight reels for years to come —it’s not a particularly strong movie. Instead of successfully dramatizing its protagonist’s secret-identity crisis, the film swings between comic-book camp and psychodrama. Brandon’s moods and increasingly unhealthy fixation on a pretty classmate (Emmie Hunter) suggest that he’s at war with hormonal impulses as much as he is hardwired to be evil, but instead of successfully developing the pubertal metaphor, the filmmakers settle quickly and lazily into a slasher-movie rhythm, right down to the burlap mask he dons as he starts terrorizing rivals in every corner of his small town.

Earlier this year, M. Night Shyamalan offered his latest deconstruction of Hollywood’s most omnipresent genre in Glass, which hinted that humanity might be saved if only its most extraordinary outliers were allowed to cultivate their potential. The villain in that film turned out not to be Samuel L. Jackson’s fragile brainiac Elijah Price but a shadowy cabal of government operatives working to undermine the saviors in our midst. Shyamalan’s wittiest touch, however, was building the action towards the promise of wide-scale carnage and then holding back, both to chide our collective appetite for destruction and also perhaps to comment on his lack of Marvel-style resources.

For my money, the decade’s sharpest combination of innovation and attack within and against the superhero movie template was Josh Trank’s Chronicle, another film from which Brightburn pilfers but doesn’t come close to equaling. I suspect that Chronicle would have a stronger legacy if not for the extracurricular activities and attitudes of its creative team; between Trank’s commercial faceplant with Fantastic Four (which he claimed was mutilated in the editing room by Fox) and screenwriter Max Landis’s abysmal reputation, it’s not a movie that’s necessarily fun to invoke. But examining its overall excellence does help to clarify where Brightburn comes up short.

Chronicle’s gimmick is that it’s a found-footage movie, and the fact that its main character, Andrew (Dane DeHaan) actually uses a video camera instead of an iPhone dates it just enough to make it feel like an early-aughts period piece. Nevertheless, the script’s intermingling of science-fiction tropes with documentary textures is ingenious. After encountering a downed meteorite, Andrew, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and their classmate Steve (a pre-stardom Michael B. Jordan) grapple with uncanny new powers. Watching them experiment with their abilities exclusively through handheld perspective lends the action a touch of authenticity, while their telekinetic gifts brilliantly exploit and expand the visual vocabulary of first-person verite.

Imagine a Jackass movie directed by Carrie-era Brian De Palma and that’s pretty close to what Trank accomplished in his debut. (De Palma also loved to play with formats and foregrounded filmmaking, and a double bill of Chronicle and the misanthropic guerilla comedy Hi, Mom! Would be instructive.) There are images here that linger in the mind, from the small scale (a Lego version of the Seattle Space Needle assembling itself on a living room floor) to the genuinely startling (a mid-air game of touch football interrupted by a commercial airliner), and they’re all accounted for by the film’s dramatic and stylistic conceit.

Instead of wondering why—or how—the camera is always present, we understand that it’s being actively wielded by the characters, primarily Andrew, whose decision to “chronicle” his life is steeped in a self-loathing narcissism that in turn informs certain cinematographic choices. When the camera swoops and hovers above DeHaan as he sits stoically on the ledge of a building, it’s not just a parody of a Christopher Nolan-esque crane shot —it’s an expression of the character’s nerdy self-aggrandizement.

This sense of psychological development—of a kid breaking bad—is what’s lacking in Brightburn’s bad-seed setup, which treats Brandon’s demonic nature as a given, and as such doesn’t wind up being suggestive of anything beyond the frame. Chronicle is too small and self-contained to attempt the kind of broad, sociological gesture Shyamalan is going for in Glass, and yet it still makes linkages between loneliness, solipsism, and a full-on immersion in technology that feel disturbing in light of radicalized beta-male masculinity. As perfectly acted by DeHaan, Andrew’s evolution in Chronicle from bullied, stifled nerd to sociopathic killer depicts a pathology that has become disturbingly familiar since the film’s release.

It’s the connection between this psychology and the tropes of superhero movies—now recognized as contested territory in a multiplex culture war in which anything or anybody in a cape or tights has become desperately politicized—that gives Trank’s film its odd and unsettling power. Andrew isn’t Superman pretending to be Clark Kent, or even Clark Kent realizing the power of being Superman; he’s a fanboy who takes the chance to realize his fantasies. Brightburn bites aspects of Cloverfield’s style and imagery (and also steals a couple of shots directly from Zack Snyder’s recent Superman movies, which are at their best when contemplating their subject as a potentially malevolent God), but can’t work up a similar sense of terror or awe. Its harsh, pitiless violence could earn it a cult, but it’s ultimately a workmanlike movie playing at being something more renegade—an unconvincing disguise.