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Brightburn Review: What If Superman Broke Bad?

Superman is kind of boring. Let’s face it, good ol’ Kal El isn’t the most risqué character out there in nerdom. His reputation for being a bit of a straight-laced Boy Scout certainly proceeds him. Everybody knows the tale of the Kryptonian refugee that lands on Earth, is adopted by loving Kansans who shape and mold the young alien into the epitome of American gumption and bravado, a messianic figure to save us all.

There hasn’t been much of a desire to take risks when it comes to telling stories about the Man of Steel. Truth! Justice! The American way! Up, up, and away!

Brightburn is not boring. Brightburn fully embraces its premise by bashing in that safe, well known Superman story on its bleeding, dislodged head.

Director David Yarovesky, writers Brain and Mark Gunn, and producer James Gunn ask audiences to come along while they explore the idea of a young Superman crash landing on our Earth not to be its refugee savior, but rather to destroy it.

Brightburn: Raising a Super Villain

Brightburn’s homeless alien Brandon Breyer (played by Jackson Dunn) comes to Earth, but he’s not going to be assimilating our values anytime soon. Brandon’s actually a pretty normal kid until his spacecraft starts talking with him late at night soon after the boy hits puberty. His perplexed parents Tori and Kyle Breyer (played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman respectively) are blissfully slow to act as Brandon’s powers begin to bud. 

In many ways, this film works as a blunt allegory for the trials and tribulations of raising kids today. Not every kid is a good kid. I say that not only as a father, but also as a high school teacher. No kid is perfect, but there are definitely some kids that others shouldn’t hang out with because they make poor decisions.

What happens when your child is that child all other parents warn you about? What then do you do as a parent as you slowly realize that your child is kind of a monster? In Brightburn’s case, Brandon is literally becoming a monster, and both Tori and Kyle struggle with what to do with their budding little planet conqueror. 

Brightburn Versus Your Typical Superman Narrative

It doesn’t take long for the movie to begin a murderous path that diverges strongly from our perception of how Superman should and shouldn’t behave. It presents an interesting parenting challenge. How do you discipline an interstellar space demigod? Timeout does begin to lose its bite when you can lift cars into the air with little effort. 

Brightburn goes where the DCEU dares not go, making Superman fully evil. Sure, DC has hinted at a possible evil future in Batman v Superman, but that’s a dream sequence, a dalliance with playing in What Ifs.

Fans are notoriously cool to the idea of making Superman something he’s not. Especially when it comes to his representation in the modern comic cinema-industrial complex of the DC Cinematic Universe, fans have clapped back at DC/Warner for trying to make Superman too edgy with his appearances thus far. 

Fans really want to see Superman out pace speeding bullets, manhandle locomotives, and leap over tall buildings in a single bound. When Superman breaks Zod’s neck in Man of Steel, the collective outrage rivaled the millions of voices crying out when Alderann was vaporized by the Death Star. They don’t necessarily want him brooding over his coffee or listening to a Morrissey mixtape.  

The handlers of the DC Extended Universe (such as they are) have mistaken edgy for good storytelling. Brightburn skips the edginess by fully committing to its hedonistic take on the Superman myth and goes the gory distance. There are parts of this movie that are absolutely brutal. It doesn’t take long for Brandon to start 

Brightburn does a great job of setting up the well-trodden ground of the Superman origin story without getting lost in the minutia. It never concerns itself with where Brandon comes from, only that he’s a sleeper agent for some alien power.

Editor’s Note: Click here for a few more alternate takes on the Superman figure and story.

Is Brightborn a Superhero Movie or a Horror Film?

As the film progresses, Brandon’s tale diverges more into the serial killer motif than the superhero genre as he begins to select victims from his Smallville-like surrounding. He obsesses over girls, begins to dislike authority, questions his parent’s decision making, and all the other things teenagers do to rebel against the stratified system or order placed around themselves by those older than him. 

Except Brandon has superpowers and an alien civilization thundering in his head, goading him to take over the planet. Jackson Dunn plays up the creepiness of being an omnipotent tween alien in several scenes. He’s believably creepy and menacing all at once, avoiding portraying Brandon as some cartoonish teen on a CW show. 

Much of one’s enjoyment of Brightburn depends on whether or not you like to be scared or you like to see violent, gory deaths. As a horror movie, it works well. Brightburn is definitely a slow burn, having more in common with traditional horror than the blood spattered hack and slash films most horror movies devolve into these days. That’s not to say that Brightburn doesn’t bring the gore when needed, because it does, but it’s not the kind of movie that revels in its violent viscera every other minute. 

Brightburn: Final Verdict

Brightburn is a welcome refrain from the studio madness to plug in superheroes into our every living minute at the multiplex. It’s a nice one-and-done sort of film (or at least I hope so), though the credits scene enticingly points to a larger villainous multiverse on planet-Brightburn.

This isn’t like the most recent Avengers films where we’re given the illusion of the villains winning, only to have a last minute reprieve due to plot armor or lazy studio writing. Brightburn offers little hope of time traveling shenanigans to undo the harm caused by Brandon’s discovery of a greater destiny than being as American as apple pie. There’s no future beat job at the Daily Bugle in store for Brandon because there may not be any future at all.  

Brightburn was released on May 24, 2019 from The H Collective and Troll Court Entertainment. It stars Jackson Dunn, Elizabeth Banks, and David Denman. Brightburn is rated R, so keep the kiddos at home.