‘What if Superman grew up evil?’ is an interesting starting point for a film. It’s an idea you could take places and one that could culminate in interesting commentary. It is not, however, inherently interesting. Brightburn is of the opinion that it is, an assumption that is the starting point of the film’s numerous failings.
Brightburn is a pseudo-retelling of the Superman origin story we all know. A human couple end up raising an alien baby that’s crashed on our planet as their own and this baby grows up to develop super powers. There’s an element of puberty metaphor at play, but not in any kind of interesting way – merely as a punchline later in the film. Where Brightburn strays from its inspiration is in what the child, in this case twelve year old Brandon Breyer, does. In another world, Brightburn is a more tongue in cheek and pulpy take on the idea that great power more often than not equals great irresponsibility. This film wants to be a violent movie about super heroes (and there is actually some really impressive gore), and the power set of Superman does lend itself to this. However, Brightburn takes an odd approach. This is not a trashy B-movie, this is a self serious, edgy picture and that is its undoing. Brightburn thinks its premise is shocking and subversive, when it’s actually pretty empty and dated. It’s a film that takes itself far too seriously and ends up just stumbling around for 90 minutes with nothing interesting to say outside of… It’s Superman but evil .
This is a huge problem, because this premise is not facilitated or extended, it’s just presented. The child flips on a dime from cute kid to sociopath in a very unengaging way. This is a real shame, because the territory covered is rife with opportunity, but this is one of those films you watch where all you will think about is what could have been. Brandon himself displays a horrendous attitude towards women (there’s a fixation on lingering and targeted violence towards women and there are weird relationship dynamics) – which the film does not admonish but does frequently display. In a much smarter film, this would either be excised or dealt with properly.
As a society, we have a real issue with misogyny, specifically derived from men who find themselves in positions of power. Brightburn has nothing to say about this other than to reflect this dynamic for entertainment purposes. We also live in a society where young children are being radicalised by the alt-right, and in which isolated and entitled white boys become incels due to our racist and sexist societal structures. Brightburn could easily comment upon this, it could become a searingly contemporary and critical take on modern society: a white boy bestowed with power and ostracised from society devolves into entitled incel, rather than humanity’s protector. It could be a scathing expose of how we’ve broken society. And all the pieces are there: intelligent but socially isolated child; doting parents who always take his side and label him as special; school kids that seem to not understand the central character; a girl who doesn’t fancy Brandon even though Brandon fancies her; access to guns from a young age – the list goes on. However, these are just external or unexplored factors – they are never presented as causal. Why is Brandon evil? Because the filmmakers think an evil superman would be cool as hell. Is it? No. It’s actually rather disturbing, but what is more disturbing is that film doesn’t seem to understand this and, once again, doesn’t do anything with the concept.
Brightburn is that frustrating type of film that takes itself seriously but is completely unaware of subtext. The plotting is nonsensical and is all there to facilitate a paper-thin idea. There’s also no narrative cohesion or cohesion of characters, everybody is just a cog with the sole purpose of moving things along. This relentless movement causes a lot of collateral damage. At one point, we even have a character who is framed as a loveable and innocent goofball despite the fact he drink drives and buys a surprise gun for a 12 year old. The drink driving plotline is especially abhorrent, as the character’s immoral behaviour is blamed for things going wrong before it is revealed that this wasn’t the case. The drink driving was not a problem, in fact there were no negative repercussions of this – the only message left for characters is that they were wrong to judge him for this behaviour as it didn’t lead him to danger. It’s really messed up.
And here we find ourselves back at Brightburn’s key issue: a premise isn’t enough, you have to do something. And the premise itself isn’t very original. Evil Superman has been explored ad nauseam, and in much more interesting ways. After all, it’s a term with a direct link to Nazism and the controversial ethical theories of Friedrich Nietzsche. Brightburn, of course – outside of a couple of frames where a character is writing an essay with some Nietzschean ideas in it – ignores this and is infinitely less interesting for doing so. All that is left is an empty movie populated with loaded imagery, which it exacerbates with its grim and serious aesthetic, and does so carelessly. The result is something nasty and distasteful, a misguided movie that presents and reinforces the grotesque sides of society it should be critiquing.