Monday, May 27, 2019

Review: Brightburn (2019)

Brightburn (2019)

Rated R for horror violence/bloody images, and language

Score: 3 out of 5

A spaceship from another world crash-lands outside a farm in small-town Kansas. The couple that owns the farm, who have been trying and failing to have a baby, rejoice when they discover an infant boy inside the spaceship, and raise him as their son. This boy is incredibly gifted, a brilliant, straight-A student at school, and his parents are convinced that their gift from God -- literally, one who arrived from the heavens above -- will go on to do great things. And in a way, they're right. Living in their home is a little monster in the making, one who has little empathy for his fellow man and feels that he is entitled to dominate them for his own pleasure. And with his powers of flight, super-strength, indestructibility, and burning heat vision, there is little out there that can stop him.

If you're at all familiar with superheroes, I probably don't even need to name the one whose backstory Brightburn is sending up. The idea of a normally good superhero, particularly Superman (or a figure based on him), turning evil is one that has been explored in comic books more frequently than you might imagine -- at least, if you're not already familiar with some of the darker strains of comics that have proliferated since the mid-'80s. But superhero movies have often been afraid to go there, for obvious reasons: namely, the average, non-geek public has a very particular idea of what a superhero is supposed to be, assembled from a mix of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the pre-MCU adaptations of Superman, Batman, the X-Men, and Spider-Man, and the hazy memories of comic books they read as kids. We do have foul-mouthed, R-rated movie and TV superheroes like DeadpoolKick-Ass, and the Punisher who are more than happy to just shoot the villains in the face, but even they are portrayed as heroes at the end of the day; anti-heroes, yes, but still good guys. Even the film adaptation of Alan Moore's seminal superhero deconstruction Watchmen, while remaining faithful to the text of the book, softened some of its characters and themes in the process of translation. So when producer James Gunn and his brothers Brian and Mark decided to create an adaptation of all of those "what if Superman was evil?" comics that I brought up earlier, it was immediately novel on those grounds alone, taking the backstory of the Caped Crusader and turning it into the basis for a sci-fi horror movie. The first trailer, homaging that for Man of Steel before taking a much darker turn, was genius. And, for the most part, it works. It felt like it was running out of gas in the third act, ignoring some potentially interesting themes and angles in favor of letting young Clark Kent's evil counterpart go on a rampage, but it still does a good job taking a seemingly tired "creepy kid" horror movie premise and finding something new in it just by combining it with Hollywood's go-to blockbuster genre in the 21st century.

To start, this film looks like a million bucks. For the kind of low-budget film that most horror movies these days tend to be, this one included, I was impressed by the special effects on display here. The kills are shockingly brutal, the standout being the bloody aftermath of a car crash that demonstrates why you should always wear your seat belt. They did not hold back in the slightest here, showing in graphic detail what would happen if Superman, even a young and unskilled one, went all-out in using his powers on other people. The costume worn by Brandon Breyer, the evil Superman analogue, looks like a warped parody of a superhero designed by, well, an adolescent boy with too many dark and twisted fantasies on his mind, and while there were points where logical questions came up as to how he managed to get into costume so quick, this isn't exactly an unusual sight in superhero movies either, and so it feels almost like an homage here. Jackson A. Dunn, the kid playing Brandon, didn't get a whole lot more to do than just play a superpowered version of Damien Thorn, but he still did it well, his cold performance painting a great portrait of a kid who fundamentally cannot empathize with anybody other than himself. The parents, however, were the real stars here. Elizabeth Banks' Tori is a mom who, like many parents, can't bring herself to believe that her little angel is the bad guy until it is too late, too grateful for this miracle that feels like it literally came from God to realize that there are times when you should look a gift horse in the mouth, and is absolutely horrified and heartbroken when she realizes the hard truth. David Denman's Kyle, on the other hand, is much quicker to realize that Brandon is up to no good, from when he kills the chickens to when Kyle discovers a most unusual stash of pornography underneath Brandon's bed. Together, they were the best part of the movie, grappling with both Brandon and their diverging feelings towards him as he grows increasingly unstable.

Where the film kind of lost its way, however, was with Brandon himself. Throughout the film, there seem to be two separate explanations for Brandon's unusual behavior, explanations that boil down to nature vs. nurture. Had the film dived straight into either one of these, I believe it might have been a more compelling story. With nature, the film could have focused on how Brandon, despite looking like a young human boy, is literally alien from everybody around him, and that, as he grows into his powers, he will increasingly come to see them as beneath him, not unlike how Watchmen treated its Superman pastiche Dr. Manhattan. It could have crafted a story about how power corrupts, and how absolute power corrupts absolutely. Focus on nurture, meanwhile, and you have a story about how Brandon, unlike Clark Kent, became a bully and a monster thanks to a fundamentally flawed upbringing; even though he had loving parents, they never deigned to teach him that with great power comes great responsibility, instead telling him that he's special. You could use this story to tackle several themes, from overprotective parents to toxic masculinity to the culture of self-esteem, painting a satirical portrait of how our society produces little monsters who shoot up their schools. The film leans towards both directions at various points, from when Brandon starts creeping on the film's version of young Lana Lang to the fact that he has a telepathic link with the spaceship that brought him to Earth, now locked away in the Breyers' barn and telling him to "take the world". But at various points, the messages often cut against each other, leaving a muddled mess when it comes to explaining just why Brandon has turned evil. He tells his parents that he wants to be a good person and is being swayed by the voices in his head coming from the spaceship, but this doesn't square with the fact that he is consistently depicted as a sociopath. By the end, the film is less interested in exploring Brandon's journey towards villainy and more interested in being a superhero slasher movie as he kills everybody who ever pissed him off. While these scenes at the end are very well-shot and action-packed, culminating in a finale that looks to set up a hell of a sequel, I felt more emotionally attached to and interested in Tori and Kyle than I did in Brandon, who was supposed to be at the heart of the film's themes.

The Bottom Line

I feel like this could've been a lot more than just "The Omen, but with superpowers", but even so, it largely delivers on what it promises: a movie about Superman growing up evil and becoming a psycho killer. Comic book fans especially will get a kick out of it, but it's still an effective horror movie that makes great use of what it does offer up, especially given the budget.

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