By Diego Roberto Hernandez
In the traditional, usually canonically confirmed, origin story of Superman, Kal-El, last son of the doomed planet Krypton, is sent, via outer-space life boat, to Earth. Baby Kal-El lands near a farm in Smallville, Kansas, and is found by Martha and Jonathan Kent, a husband and wife without children. The farmers decide to raise the child as their own, and with love, compassion, and rural wisdom, a seemingly ordinary couple end up instilling their moral code into a Demi God who will one day become the humble protector of all life on Earth.
Ma and Pa Kent got lucky.
Not so much for Tori and Kyle Breyer of Brightburn (played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) , a refreshing and solid entry into the otherwise sparse superhero/horror subgenre, a film that could very well be the personal nightmare of Lex Luthor. Brightburn is named after the small Kansas town in which it is set, and in which the classical Superman origin story has been radically reversed. The Breyers are young farmers having difficulty conceiving, and then, of course, a space craft lands near their farm containing a beautiful baby boy, clearly in answer to the young wife's prayers, and they decide to name their child Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn). This is, of course, not the only time that I have suspected that God has a disturbingly dark sense of humor, but even my hopelessly jaded brain reels somewhat at what occurs in this film. As it turns out, the ship, stashed away and hidden underneath the barn, starts to emit red light while growling in a disconcertingly demonic language, which is probably a good indication that it didn't come from a technological utopia undone by its peoples own arrogance, myopia, and stupidity, but perhaps some unspeakably Lovecraftian vista of time and space. Brandon eventually finds the ship, learns that his being adopted from an agency was a bit of a white lie, and, after some passing rage, eventually accepts his past.
However, this is about as far as the kid grows in maturity and ethics, especially when his super-powers start emerging. At this point, Brandon becomes increasingly callous and sadistic, and starts using his super-powers not so much to save lives or to make the world a better place to live in, but to eviscerate those who dare upset him. If Superman is a Christ like figure, then Brandon is the Anti-Christ, and that is essentially the entire plot of Brightburn. Yes, Brandon is a monster, as Tori and Kyle gradually begin to learn as all the connections between their son and the deaths in the small town become clearer and clearer. But he's their monster. Still, as the boy begins to believe more and more that his powers make him superior to humanity, the Breyers will eventually have to ask the horrifying question: Can we allow our monster to live?
I've already mentioned that Brightburn is essentially a twist on the Superman mythos. However, for further clarification, I would compare Brightburn to the classic Twilight Zone episode, It's a Good Life (based on a short story of the same name) in which a psychopathic child who can control reality enslaves a small town. The rather chilling reality behind both Brightburn and It's A Good Life, is, I think, is that children are, quite often and quite naturally, selfish jerks who believe that the world revolves around them, which I imagine any sane parent would confess. Children are not "innocent" in that they are flawless: they are innocent in that they amply possess the capacity for awe and wonder and for not taking the world for granted but rather for seeing it as something new and wonderful and a delight to explore, which you will not believe is sentimental Hallmark greeting card bullcrap when I tell you that this is the entire point of films of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki, especially considering that the latter has publicly stated that he would love to witness the extinction of humanity. Still, as today's tragedy of African child soldiers indicates, children are not nearly as harmless as we would like to believe. Give them weapons or powers, and they will seemingly become as violent as any other adult in their position.
The acting in Brightburn is actually quite good. A lot of people might rightfully give Dunn credit for making his character a believable demon whose temper tantrums are more cataclysmic than they are irritating (Oddly enough, I can't say the same thing about Superboy Prime), but I was especially impressed by Banks playing a mother who fights tooth and nail to avoid admitting that her son is pure evil but then eventually faces the music. So potent is her performance that the climax of the film actually feels heart-breaking, if not royally screwed up. When Nietzsche wrote that "The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly", I doubt that he meant doing what is easily one of the worst things that I can imagine happening to a parent.
The blood and gore is impressive, done sparingly but also to maximum effect. They actually seem to increase in intensity as the film progresses, which is a nice touch, although arguably the best kill comes sometime before the climax, involving Brandon's laser-vision (I've always wondered what that would do to a regular human). Given the rather tragic tone of the film, it was a good idea to make the violence not of the dumb, goofy slasher variety, where decapitation leads to a seemingly anatomically incorrect amount of blood erupting from the stump, but rather to make the violence the kind that will make viewers cringe, squirm, and place their hands over their mouths.
One issue that I did have with Brightburn is that there is really no character or plot device of any comparative power to oppose Brandon. This gave me the unsettling feeling (Although he does have a weakness [Maybe he wins, maybe he loses, loose lips sink the ship and snitches get stitches]), that I was essentially watching a movie where the characters, for the most part, have no chance of killing the monster hunting them. You could argue that this is little different than some slasher movies (Yeah, maybe Jason or Freddy or Michael die at the end, but they almost always come back to murder stupid horny teenagers), but when you combine this with a narrative about parents scrambling to decide what to do about their implacable super-villain/super-monster son, the effect feels at least somewhat excessively cruel. A sequel (Dark Justice League?) could fix this by giving Brandon an enemy with the power to potentially stop him, thus ending the sensation that you're watching a fictional snuff film.
Some more cynical moderns declare that Superman is irrelevant because he's too clean-cut, too much of a boy-scout, too much of an icon of an America that never was and probably never will be. This, of course, begs the question as to why Captain America is so popular (The answer: Other than Superman and Superman II, Captain simply has the better live-action movies), and also points out the inconsistency regarding modern audiences attitude towards Superman. Authors like Mark Waid and J Michael Starzynski have penned darker Superman stories, seemingly in answer to the complaint that Superman's utterly optimistic bodhisattva like philosophy is irrelevant... only for people to complain that they've destroyed the purpose of Superman (To which I answer that, no, such writers would only have destroyed Superman if they made the farm boy decide that humanity simply isn't worth saving).
The main problem Superman has fitting in with modern society, it seems to me, is that we (Americans, at least) lack the lack the hope that defined the eras of the Roosevelts, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. Superman's brother-from-another-mother Steve Rogers probably put it best: there were no good old days, but there was more hope. Without such hope, how could we ever believe in someone like Superman? How could we ever believe that there are people out there who simply do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do? Such simplicity seems to be beyond most people.
I write this philosophical diatribe because Brightburn has made me realize something essential about one of the most significant gods in modern mythology. Superman chooses to be a God, saving others because he can sense the divinity that lives within them all, instead of choosing to live as a Monster who refuses to possess the bravery needed to love others.
Thank Christ for that.