In one of Superman: The Animated Series’ more self-aware moments, Supes rescues a boy from a utility pole, who’d been goaded up there on a dare. He sets the boy down safely next to his two “friends,” imparts a quick life lesson about the dangers of peer pressure and the bravery in holding firm against it, and then sails off into the bright blue yonder to do more good elsewhere. One of the kids gets in the last word, stating for posterity what at least some of us were thinking: “What a dork.”
Superman is and always has been kind of a dork, by design. He is an affable Kansas farm boy turned superhero powered by the literal sun, a shining, speeding, rippling beacon of light, a fictive stand-in for small-town patriotic values. His jaw is square, as is his entire system of living. When the character was canonized on TV in the ’50s—in the post-WWII climate of American primacy, the halcyon days of “common values,” if common values ever actually existed—he was fighting “a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” Not only is Superman supposed to be perfect and just, but also unfailingly so, and overkind to boot. He has the powers of a god and can think of nothing better to do than help the little man. Brightburn, out last Friday and a corruption of the Superman story, is sort of like if the what a dork barb spawned a whole movie in response.
Like Clark Kent, Brandon Breyer (Jackson Dunn) is an immigrant. When his alien pod crash-lands in flyover country, Brandon is taken in by two loving Earth parents, played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman. A montage of home video footage shows Brandon’s first steps; his first trip down a slide at the local playground; him cruising around the living room on a toy tractor—normal kid stuff. Then one day he sticks his hand in a lawn mower rotor and realizes he’s different. Where Brightburn dovetails with the traditional superhero story is at this realization: Brandon immediately begins to entertain the idea that he could also be superior. The next hour or so is Brandon quickly forgetting the difference between right and wrong, between what’s his and what isn’t, between friend and foe. Brightburn folds the discovery of Brandon’s powers into his first scrapes with puberty—he is 12—and his parents are left to the impossible task of navigating both.
Brightburn revels in taking all the familiar beats from the superhero origin story and perverting them. Brandon scribbles costume designs in his notebook, but the lines are jagged and frenzied, the designs hideous and sinister. When first we see him in a school setting, he gives a correct, but overly detailed answer in biology class, and, as the peanut gallery sets in on him for being a teacher’s pet, his crush extends him a kindness: “My mom always says it’s the smart guys that end up ruling the planet.” The camera lingers on Brandon’s face, as he receives it almost as permission. He’s never bled, broken a bone, or even had a bruise, as his dad anxiously points out in a later scene, once his son begins to break bad. How long before Brandon starts hurting people? What could you possibly do once that starts happening?
Poor Mr. and Mrs. Breyer, who aren’t really given a whole lot to do in the second and third acts except, well, fret and cower, really. Somewhere in Brightburn, there’s a headier movie about the struggles and pitfalls of raising a child, and a digital native at that. The Breyers are given the trappings of first-time parents—a Duck Dynasty beard for Dad and purple hair dye for Mom in the opening shot; a stack of well-worn books about fertility and baby care—and Mr. Breyer, who never gets a name besides Dad, freely admits to making it up as he goes along. Of course, if you’re not careful, you could bring another Logan Paul into the world would always be subtext, once Brandon started lifting cars and levitating. While we’re at it, the “action” in Brightburn is deliberately gross and excessive, although tonally, it’s sort of mixed. It was tough to know at points whether to be terrified by Brandon or in awe of him.
What I found most disappointing was the nature of Brandon’s descent into villainy. It’s gradual to a point, and then he suddenly and decisively goes full The Good Son. This happens off-screen, in a single night, after the reality-altering discovery that he’s from not-Earth, and cratered rural Kansas in a facehugger ship. Throughout the movie, the spaceship—locked in the barn out back—invades Brandon’s dreams and fills his head with notions of world domination. This means that Brightburn pulls back before considering too deeply how gentle, sustained insistence that a child is both unique and significant might warp that child’s sense of self. Just before he fully embraces his calling as a supervillain, Brandon grievously injures a classmate and is sentenced to principal-ordered therapy. There’s a laminated motivational poster that reads in big, friendly letters: “YOU ARE SPECIAL!” Brandon expresses that he feels no remorse for what he did, because he’s something more than human. It might hit harder if we could believe that he came to this twisted conclusion on his own. Instead, it’s unclear whether he was spoon-fed the idea in a demonic siren song.
It’s difficult to come away from Brightburn without feeling like there were some missed opportunities, in other words. Rarely does it rise above the basic subversion of what if Superman, but evil, which can be read in comics like Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son (Kal-El lands in the USSR) or seen in movies like Justice League: Gods and Monsters (Kal-El lands in Mexico, is son to General Zod, and a big fan of capital punishment). But—but!—if you’re exhausted of superhero movies that require at least partial knowledge of other, prior superhero movies, and don’t mind just monstrous amounts of gore, you will probably have a good time with Brightburn. The story is largely self-contained (although it may have set up a tiny cinematic universe. Please, just … no, OK?), and clocks in at just an hour and a half. Brightburn comes, fucks shit up, and then leaves. You just wish it would’ve made a deeper impression.