A young couple, struggling to conceive a child, is blessed by the stars one night as a small spaceship hurls through the sky, crashing into the woods on their property. It’s a story we’ve seen many times before in the vast catalog of DC properties. The story of Superman. But this is where the movie Brightburn turns as it twists the familiar setting and characters and bypasses the usual comic book tropes.
Brandon Breyers, the young boy at the center of this story, begins to exhibit behavior that worries his parents. Angry outbursts, animal mutilation, strange sketches depicting the cruel and bloody demise of strangers, and an air of apathy that haunts every conversation all show us Brandon’s true nature. Exhaustion and despair hang in each scene. The tension builds between characters who love and care for Brandon and, yet, fear him.With each suspense filled scene the viewer is left wondering, “What if someone with the powers and abilities of Superman showed up—but with wrath, not peace?”
This may seem like behavior that a counselor or therapist might ordinarily be able to help with, but Brandon is not ordinary. He has developed powers and abilities beyond human comprehension. Super-speed, flight, invulnerability, superhuman strength, shooting plasma beams from his eyes: all powers and abilities we have seen before—but this is not our benevolent Superman. No, Brandon knows he is superior. He embraces his place above the insects of this earth, and doesn’t let anyone who crosses him forget it. Not even his parents.
With each suspense filled scene the viewer is left wondering, “What if someone with the powers and abilities of Superman showed up—but with wrath, not peace?” How would mankind react? How would those closest to Brandon carry on in life with paranoia haunting each interaction? At the center of this story is not just Brandon, but also his mother, father, aunt, and uncle. The child they have raised for twelve years, since he was an infant, is slowly transforming into a pathological monster. All they can do is watch, paralyzed, hoping that he doesn’t get the slightest bit suspicious of their concerns. There is an old saying, “if you’re going to kill the king, you better be absolutely sure you don’t miss.” This is the tension that we feel with the characters throughout Brandon’s story.
Superman has been someone who has seen the best in humanity since his comic conception, even in the filmed Reeve adaptations (the 1950s tv show and the Superman movies). Superman has always been posited as a savior—a messianic figure who sees the best in those around him and embraces his humanity. He strives to inspire the best in people, saving them from their own self destruction. His creators, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, two Jewish kids who met in Cleveland, always viewed the Man of Steel as a Mosaic figure, a remnant of his own people, raised apart from his true family and origin, who would rise up and deliver his people from oppression (the name Kal-El even means “voice of God” in Hebrew).In many ways, Brandon’s story is like viewing the biblical Exodus story in reverse and from the perspective of the Egyptians.
In Brightburn, Brandon represents a twisted version of the Mosaic story. A boy, called by the voice of his people to “take the world,” must decide who he is. In many ways, Brandon’s story is like viewing the biblical Exodus story in reverse and from the perspective of the Egyptians. Brightburn makes us question our place in this universe. We all like to think that if granted god-like powers we would use them for peace, justice, and mercy—but we could just as easily justify the use of such abilities for our own good. The struggle within Brandon, while mild, does exist and there are moments that something akin to humanity shines through his sadistic nature. But, seemingly, this is only to indulge his own desires. Power and authority become his primary drive, manipulating whoever he needs to in order to achieve his own selfish goals.
Many have questioned why a movie like Brightburn even exists, and I understand that turning a traditional superhero movie on its head may not be original. However, Brightburn forces viewers to look in the mirror and answer some uncomfortable questions. Questions about our own nature and intentions. How far are we willing to go for the ones we love? How do we stand firm in the face of evil? Brightburn may seem like just another horror film to kick off the summer movie season, but there is something much deeper here than a scary kid doing scary things.