So I went to the movies this weekend. I don’t go as much as I used to, in part because I’m a picky bastard, and the local multiplexes mostly show big-budget crowd pleasers of a kind I’ve gotten tired of. But some things do pique my interest. Such as the funnybook-adjacent horror flick I went to see this week…
I wanted to see this film based on the premise alone: it’s the Superman origin, told as a horror movie. That’s a great idea, and one that’s probably overdue on film. After a decade of Marvel movies, it’s about time the mass audience was exposed to the dark flipside of the super human. And Brightburn certainly delivers on that. It lacks some of the depth I was hoping for, and it’s not all that scary, but it does what it sets out to do: demonstrate exactly how dangerous a super-powered alien adolescent might really be.
We’ve gotten “Evil Superman” in comics before, of course. It’s a natural idea, and in the modern era alone, everyone from Mark Waid to Alan Moore has done a take on it. The one that scarred me the most, though, has to be Rick Veitch’s Maximortal. Because that book…
I joked going in that, no matter how disturbing Brightburn might turn out to be, it couldn’t possibly be more disturbing than Maximortal. And as it turns out, I was more right than I knew. Veitch deals, in as bizarre a manner as possible, with the impossibility of socializing a young super-human. He was out to shock, bewilder, and offend. And he succeeded. His story holds absolutely zero sentimentality for… Well, I was going to say for its source material, but really… It has no sentimentality for anything. It’s ugly and weird and psychedelic, and I remember it fondly. Maybe more fondly than is entirely fair, in fact, because Brightburn isn’t nearly as terrifying or transgressive, and I think I’m holding that against the film a bit.
From the age of the kid in the promotional materials, I figured we weren’t going to get unbridled super-baby. And that’s fine. There’s only so much you can do with that; even Veitch’s Maximortal gets a kind of conditioning training after being taken down by a fatal weakness. So what I was hoping for was an exploration of the corrupting nature of power, a morally horrifying story about an otherwise normal kid slowly turning into a monster.
But that’s not what Brightburn is about. And there are SPOILERS ahead, by the way, so you might want to skip ahead a bit if you don’t wanna know. We’ll throw up a SPOILERS DONE flag when it’s safe to start reading again…
The path to “Evil Superboy” in this film is not by having a good kid turn bad. Not really. Young Brandon Breyer IS a good kid. A really good kid. He’s bright and helpful, and polite to his elders. You couldn’t ask for a better child, really. Which is great. Seeing that kid slowly descend into evil would be heart-rending. But that’s not what happens. Instead, just before his 12th birthday, the space capsule that brought him to Earth lights up out in the barn where his parents hid it away, and… I dunno… activates him, I suppose. The filmmakers are smart enough not to get too specific about the exact mechanism of it all. But he’s lying in bed and starts to convulse, as guttural voices chant something in a creepy alien language. And afterwards, he starts to change, both physically and mentally. He develops the array of super powers you’d expect him to have (along with some you might not), and within a day or two starts acting like a little sociopath.
So he’s basically a Cosmic Brood Parasite. He’s a member of an alien race that plants their babies among other species to be nurtured and cared for until they reach maturity, at which point they turn on their hosts and, essentially, destroy the nest. The idea is spelled out for us early in the film by Brandon himself, in a classroom scene in which he explains the activity of certain wasp species that do the same thing.
I knew where the story was going right then and there, but I still hoped for a little more moral struggle along the way. But this movie ain’t got time for that.
And the SPOILERS are DONE now, I suppose, so it’s safe to start reading again. Basically, what you missed was this: The idea of Brightburn isn’t that Our Hero is corrupted by power. It’s that he’s instinctually driven to evil. Which I find less interesting. It’s more The Omen than The Witch. But The Omen‘s pretty great in its own right, so I should probably judge Brightburn by what it’s trying to do rather than what I wanted it to do.
And on that front, as I said at the outset, it’s a fun little horror flick. It’s not very scary, but it’s got its fair share of creepy stuff and nice touches that make up for the lack of genuine horror. The first and most obvious creepy thing is the mask young Brandon Breyer makes for himself to wear when he’s out doing evil:
Heh. Yeah, that’s good stuff. Plus, it reminds me a bit of another Rick Veitch character: Dr. Blasphemy.
I think the nod might be intentional, too. Dr. Blasphemy is connected to the Maximortal, after all, and it seems pretty obvious that the Gunn brothers (James and Brian, and their cousin Mark) familiarized themselves with the other big Evil Superman stories before they wrote this thing. I’m told there are moments that could have been lifted entirely from Joe Hill’s The Cape, and I can personally attest that one scene in particular was taken right out of Alan Moore’s Miracleman. But, hey. It’s not a scene featuring Johnny Bates, at least, so I’ll give them points for not stealing the most obvious thing. The line between homage and theft is wafer-thin.
Once Brandon really opens up with the super powers, they do some very nice stuff. His super speed is especially well-done. It’s the source of a jump-scare or two, of course, and there’s one kill that demonstrates exactly how deadly a power it could be. But (me being me) I was more impressed with the subtle stuff, like how he uses it to terrorize his victims before killing them. There’s a real sadistic edge to the character after he turns, like a cat playing with its prey. So he disappears in literally the blink of an eye, or does something so fast that it seems to happen like magic. There’s a lot of entertaining little touches like that throughout the film, and they’re so well-thought-out that it makes up for the general lack of scares.
They also try to make up for it with gore, it seems, but that seldom works. You have to go really extreme with it, or present it in such a way that the audience actually feels the pain, and cringes at the thought of whatever’s happening on-screen. There’s an inventive moment or two, but for the most part, they pulled back too much. Like they were afraid of actually shocking or surprising the audience. The instrument of the violence is unusual, but the presentation of it is of the bog-standard horror movie sort, and it makes the gore seem kind of bland. Perfunctory.
If I have a legitimate complaint to level against Brightburn, in fact, it’s that: the whole thing feels a bit perfunctory. It hits all the notes you’d expect, and hits them competently. But it doesn’t do much else. It doesn’t delve into plot or character very deeply, and there are no real themes to be found. There’s some stuff in there about parents and children, but even that’s mostly plot-based. It resolutely makes no statement about anything. It’s a thematic blank slate.
That doesn’t keep people from trying to write on it, of course. I’ve seen reviews that try to make it about the Trump era (and lord knows I could see some particularly virulent anti-immigrant bigot thinking that it really speaks to his personal fears). I’ve also seen someone try to make it about the plight of all the comic book creators getting screwed over by their publishers while the movies based on their work make millions. And while I most definitely have sympathy for that…
I’m not buying any of it.
This is a movie about what it would be like if Superman was evil.
And that’s all it’s about.
Which is fine. Stories don’t have to be about anything. They can just be entertaining. And this one is entertaining. It has its flaws. It doesn’t sing. But I liked it well enough. In that, I suppose it’s a lot like the super hero movies it exists in counterpoint to: They’re fine. I’m glad people enjoy them. But they’re not great.