The concept behind Brightburn was brilliant, “What if a child from another world crash-landed on Earth, but instead of becoming a hero to mankind, he proved to be something far more sinister?” It felt familiar, an alien child crash-landing in the rural town of Brightburn, to a couple who was having difficulty conceiving a child of their own, to be blessed with a child from the stars. Tori and Kyle Brenner, played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, found a young child in a spaceship, who they decided to raise as their own, whom they named Brandon. However, what happens when a young child learns that they are something more? Something special? We are going to explore how Brightburn, a film with a $12 million budget, came so close to delivering on a story that audiences may have not known that they craved, in the heels of Avengers: Endgame, which boasted a budget of $356 million. [Spoilers ahead]
A Familiar Story With a Sinister Twist
Its no secret that Brightburn borrowed from the origins of Superman, an alien baby crash-landing in rural America, to be found and raised by farmers, who is far more special than anyone could have imagined. The connections do not just lie in the base story, but the film also produces several parallel images between a Clark Kent and Brandon Brenner. When Brandon’s powers are first awakened it is from his ship reaching out to him in his sleep, as Brandon awakes, he crawls out of bed, with his red blanket trailing behind him. For a brief moment we see Brandon standing by his window from above so that his red blanket looks much like Superman’s cape, right before it falls away.
Early on the rise of his powers are met with sinister tones. When Brandon first realizes he has superhuman strength it is after getting angry with a lawnmower refusing to start, which results in Brandon flinging the machine several hundred yards away. What follows is a far more dark realization. Brandon approaches the now running lawnmower which has its blades spinning towards the sky. Brandon approaches the machine, sees the blades spinning, and his instinct is to stick his hand into the spinning blade, only to find that the machine loses against Brandon’s inhuman strength and inability to be physically injured.
In an attempt to understand what his son is going through, Kyle Brenner tries to give Brandon “the talk”. Telling him that it is okay to have “urges” and “feelings” when it comes to girls, and that it is okay to act on them. This directs Brandon to seek out his crush. We see Brandon visit her, at night, in a most creepy way. When his advances are stopped, Brandon is confronted with rejection, with his crush calling him a pervert in front of his classmates. In response, he crushes the poor girls hand.
Something Special, Something Super(ior)
Brandon is constantly reminded by his mother that he is special. With his new-found powers, how is Brandon to believe any different. However, his uniqueness, becomes the crux of what leads Brandon down a dark path. With Brandon realizing his powers, he is met with the fragility that is mankind. He is bullied in school, seen as an outcast. After crushing his crushes hand, her mother accuses him of being different and dangerous. This is the second time in the film that Brandon is met with rejection from being embraced by mankind.
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In response, Brandon harasses, kidnaps, and ultimately kills her. This story is about a young boy, who is going through puberty, with the additional challenges of having super powers and knowing that he is not even human, facing the rejection of humanity. Brandon then meets with his Aunt Merilee (Emmie Hunter), the school counselor. During their discussion we see that Brandon is already distancing himself from humanity, feeling no remorse for injuring his classmate, and even calling humans inferior. She tells him that she is going to tell the police.
In addition to Brandon’s superior physical capabilities, he is established as being brilliant. He knows that if the authorities start poking their nose into his business that they may find out what he has done, what he is capable of. This is the portion of the film that may be the strongest. He goes to his Aunt’s house to warn her that if she speaks to the police it would be bad for her own personal safety.
After being rejected again, Brandon is told to go home. His response is to do somethign to stop his aunt from speaking with the police. He is stopped by his uncle, who finds Brandon in their bedroom closet. In proper response, his uncle tells Brandon he is going to take him home. Brandon now has to do something to keep his secret, but his thought out plan of dealing with his aunt is out the window. Now he has to think on the fly on how to handle his uncle. Brandon takes advantage of the situation and is able to make his attack on his uncle look like an accident. This is due to his superior intellect, even at twelve, Brandon knows how humans react to loss and accidents. It also solidifies his taste for human suffering and pain as he watches the life go out of his uncle’s dying eyes, the blood pooling.
Rejection of Humanity
Regardless of everything he has done, Brandon is met with his father attempting to make amends and get to reconnect with his son. Going out hunting with his father, Brandon is given one more chance to embrace his life and reconcile his place in humanity. The opportunity is stolen away from him as his father, believing he is doing the right thing and taking Brandon out of this world, shoots his son in the back of the head. Brandon immediately realizes that this chance to reconnect with his father was an elaborate lie and that one of the two cornerstones in his life has given up on him.
This pushes Brandon to believe that he has not only been forsaken by his father, but that his mother, that helped set up Brandon on the weekend hunting trip may have betrayed his trust as well. In an epic final showing of Brandon’s power, he pushes Tori, his mother, to accept that her son is gone, and that the superior being that has taken his place needs to be stopped. Her attempt to kill him is thwarted and it is the final straw for Brandon, as he realizes that his own mother, who has stuck up for him and reinforced the idea that he is special, has betrayed him.
Brightburn follows Brandon’s realizations of his powers, of his superiority, with the constant rejection of those that he loved. This is the portion of the story that is so fascinating. Superman came to be because he had parent’s that always stood behind him and nurtured him, and had a inner calling to be something greater, to be the hope that humanity needed. Brandon came to be because he had family that gave up on him. He didn’t understand that he may have come to Earth to help humanity, but rather humanity was an inferior race that needed to be conquered. So Brandon used his power to inflict his will on the lesser beings.
Why It Failed
The concept is solid. The idea that if circumstances were different, Superman could have destroyed the world, rather than being Earth’s champion. Brightburn questions whether a super-being’s upbringing, their circumstances, could change how they developed. Looking at nurture rather than nature. The problem was that Brandon was not failed by those around him, he failed those who had nurtured and supported him. We see that Tori truly believed that her son was something special, and even with mounting evidence to the contrary, that he was inherently good.
We learn early on though, that Brandon’s nature is to be sinister. When he is called by his spaceship to embrace his true nature, it is a nature to “take”, to destroy and conquer. What would have been more compelling is if we saw a Superman double failed by those raising him. What if he was failed in his nurtuting and upbringing. What if humanity made him evil, rather than being inherently evil. The way Brightburn plays out, it is more about an “anti-Christ” type character, which has been played out several times in films. From there it follows a very classic horror story-line, which feels a bit tired.
Sure it is scary to watch an evil child with Superman-type powers wreak havoc, but it is not as scary as seeing a child failed by his parents, to be created and pushed to be evil. This is how the story fails, because it feels cliche while watching. The audience is just waiting for the next terrible act and kill to take place rather than having any social commentary added. It would have been far more compelling to have the social commentary that a killer can be nurtured to take on that nature, rather than just being born that way.
However, Brightburn does deliver on some very tense and scary moments, full of shock-factor and blood curdling moments. If the narrative would have played out and been explored more, the whole film could have benefited and we could have been treated to an instant horror classic rather than just another entry in the genre.
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