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Brightburn ••1/2

Starring:  Elizabeth BanksDavid DenmanJackson A. Dunn
Director:  David Yarovesky
Screenplay: Brian GunnMark Gunn
Genre: Horror/Sci-Fi, Rated: R
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Date: May 24, 2019


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Scott, I had to wear shades for this film as it was too bright for me.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Glad you see the light, Greg. It burns me that I forgot my shades. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Kyle and Tori Breyer (David Denman, Elizabeth Banks) who are a rural couple trying to start a family. One day, a meteor crash lands in their backyard and they find an infant inside. We flash forward 10 years and young Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is a happy lad trying to get along in grade school. His parents are loving and attentive, and yet something seems to be troubling our young hero. He can’t seem to gain the affections of a young girl in his class and he’s becoming increasingly petulant with his parents.

Kyle and Tori begin to see signs that Brandon is no ordinary child. One day he chews on a fork and mangles it. He shows signs of super strength when he throws his dad across a room. When his love interest spurns him, he crushes her hand, and later when her mother gets Brandon in trouble, the boy murders her. Kyle and Tori realize they are dealing with something unnatural and it appears too late to stop Brandon from his growing malevolence.

Scott, this is obviously a different take on the Superman story, asking the question, “What if Superman were evil instead of good?” The parallels to the Superman mythology are clear and clearly not accidental. There are also echoes of other “child monster” movies like The Omen and Pet Sematary. Tori believes there is good in her child and tries to protect him, while Kyle quickly realizes that Brandon is not of this Earth and needs to be destroyed. Ultimately, Tori comes around and tries to destroy Brandon, but it’s too late. Brandon destroys her, too.

Brandon is a clear anti-hero (albeit not one that we like) in that he is a villainous character who is the lead in the story. By the end of the movie he has not realized the error of his ways, but (through a montage of news video reports) is increasing in power and also increasing the scope of his destruction. This seems to prep for sequel films – perhaps films in which mankind tries to destroy the young super-villain.

Well said, Greg — although I can’t say that I like Brandon. The kid is a disturbed menace. Brightburn kind of reminds me of the 2014 film Nightcrawler in that it is a textbook lesson on the slow, steady growth of unstoppable evil. I was not a big fan of Nightcrawler, although I admired the craftsmanship of the movie. Unchecked evil, for me, isn’t satisfying to watch.

Brightburn is a curiously incomplete villain origin story. We don’t know what happens to Brandon after he murders his parents at the film’s conclusion, and so this movie feels incomplete. We suspect, based on Brandon’s drawings, that he’ll try to destroy Earth. If this film is intended to be the beginning of a franchise, it would have been nice to include a parallel origin story of a superhero who will eventually stop Brandon from achieving his evil aims. As an audience, we’re kind of left dangling in the wind without any closure. Perhaps this ambiguity about Brandon’s future was the movie’s goal, and if so, it sadly missed the point.

Brightburn is a strangely violent movie, with gore thrown at us in a way suggesting that the filmmakers knew the audience needed something to keep their attention. And yes, I needed something to hold my interest. After all, this film makes it pretty clear early on that Brandon has superpowers and that no human can stop him. And so when humans try to stop him and fail miserably, it’s rather humdrum and predictable. We know any human that confronts Brandon is going to die; we just don’t know how they’ll die. This is not the recipe for a good movie.

What is the message?  Perhaps it is, “Don’t adopt babies from spaceships that have crash-landed in your backyard.” Or perhaps it is, “If your child shows superhuman powers, don’t piss him off.” There probably is no viable message here, which is a shame because good movies need to have some point to them. I don’t think the message that “evil exists and grows” is a message worth my time at the movie theater.

I have a much more positive view of Brightburn than you do, Scott. I think this is a compelling exploration of a theme you and I have talked about in the past – the difference between the Hero’s Journey and the Villain’s Journey. The hero faces a devastating failure or missing inner quality and deals with it – overcoming that lack of something allows the hero to move down the “good path.” However, the villain never does overcome this lack. In never overcoming it, the villain’s pain festers and causes him to lash out and become a destructive force.

I enjoyed Brightburn as a counter-story to the Superman myth. Many people have wondered what would happen if Superman had been raised by immoral people instead of the kindly Kents. In fact, there are several incarnations of the Superman comic book that allow Superman to wander down the dark path – even a whole character named Bizarro who is Superman’s evil counterpart. While there were no real surprises here, I constantly hoped that Tori would find the good in Brandon and “turn him to the light side.” Or, that she would have the wherewithal to finally kill Brandon with a piece of the ship that he was brought to Earth in (Brandon’s Kryptonite). In the end, this is, for me, a complete Villain’s Journey and origin story for the villain. I didn’t feel the need for a complementary “hero” to rise to face Brando. I give Brightburn 3 out of 5 Reels.

I won’t rate Brandon on the usual hero scale, as he’s an anti-hero (as we define the anti-hero in our book Reel Heroes & Villains). He’s a villainous character who happens to be the main character of the story. If Brandon had seen the error of his ways, we might have called him a redeemed hero. Or if he had been killed, we might have called him a fallen villain or even a tragic hero. But, by the end of the story, he kills everyone in sight and is becoming ever more villainous. He gets negative 4 Heroes out of 5.

Like you, Scott, I feel the message isn’t clear – and that’s fine as it isn’t really a “message movie”. Brightburn is a “what if” counter-example movie on a popular trope. Still, if I were pressed at gunpoint, I might argue that (like we found in The Intruder) we should “trust our gut” when we see something is wrong. Sometimes our vision is clouded by love or by the need for love. I give Brightburn just 2 Message points out of 5.

Movie: Message: Anti-Hero:

Greg, Brightburn does indeed give us a snippet of the villain’s journey, but only just a snippet because we just see the very beginnings of Brandon’s life. And you’re right about Brandon never being able to transcend his circumstances. He is The Born Villain in much the same way that Jesus and Superman are Born Heroes. For me, Brandon’s story is not terribly interesting and the way in which he easily mows everyone down is pretty dull, too. I can only give Brightburn a rating of 2 Reels out of 5. 

Our anti-hero Brandon is a rather lifeless character who doesn’t appeal to me at all. Do we wish he would use his superpowers for good instead of evil? Yes, of course, but it’s pretty clear from the outset that he’s incapable of what psychologists call emotional self-regulation. Also, as his aunt discovers, Brandon is incapable of showing remorse — a classic sign of a psychopath. I’m not impressed by Brandon as a character and as a hero, he just isn’t that interesting. I give him 2 Anti-Hero points out of 5.

I really don’t see any message in this film. If somehow Tori and Kyle were able to help Brandon use his powers for good instead of evil, the message might center on the importance of not giving up on people. But alas, pure evil, we learn, cannot be tamed. The absence of a decent message here leads me toward this film 1 paltry Message point out of 5.

Movie: Message: Anti-Hero:

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