Directed by David Yarovesky, Brightburn is thought to be an evil Superman origin story, but it also comes across as a representation of the destructive behavior in modern society. The initial set-up is a robust construction for the allegory, yet the changing tone and intense images of bodily horror water it down. Brightburn walks an unsteady line between serious and comical – ultimately begging the question of whether the film even considers itself to be symbolic. Regrettably, these fluctuations in tone mixed with gratuitous violence muddles the overall impact. Brightburn wants to have its fun and laser it to death, too.
Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) plays the role of evil baby Superman, sent to Earth in a spaceship with tremendous powers, which are kept secret from him for most of his life. Brightburn deals exclusively and uniquely in Brandon’s coming-of-age moment. The film’s portrayal of puberty can be validating for some and toxic for others. Whereas Brandon is bullied at school for being smart, he ends up punishing the cute girl who told him that smart guys end up “ruling the planet.”
Brandon’s parents find an odd collage of women in lingerie and pictures of intestines in his room. As a result, his father (David Denman) decides to have a sex talk with Brandon, which deviates into an extremely uncomfortable conversation. Within the next few scenes, he’s told by his mother (Elizabeth Banks) that he’s special; the spacecraft somehow takes over his body and convinces him to “take the world.” His parents (especially his mom) then develop a pattern to ignore their son’s worst tendencies. As Brandon begins to view himself as special, his ego becomes “super-powered” and he becomes even more dangerous.
The mythology of the spaceship or where Brandon gets his power is never addressed. Avoiding the fantastical origin route grounds the story more in reality and bolsters the idea of Brandon becoming a product of what our society allowed in him.
Once Brandon is totally convinced of his own superiority, his violence escalates quickly. It’s also at this point that Brandon’s acts of violence – the acts themselves – are overshadowed by the carnal horror the audience experiences. Being disgusted by something can eventually become funny to an audience. The film encourages a natural self-preservation maneuver to the detriment of its own allegory. Blood squirting out an exposed eyeball, a jaw hanging off its hinges, and a body falling back to earth in slow motion are groaned and laughed at to mask disgust. But by laughing at it, we are made conspirators in Brandon’s worst nature.
Brandon Beyer being viewed as the origin story for any and all toxic masculinity should make Brightburn a win. But the film is not nearly as creative, or consistent, as it thinks it is.