Not All Supermen

Brightburn Tackles the Horror of Puberty


Brightburn is a gory fable that speaks in the modern vernacular of superhero storytelling. It argues that young boys at the precipice of puberty must be steered correctly, lest they wind up savage, selfish monsters guided only by an internal message to “take the world.” It is less a deconstruction of ubiquitous comic book world building and more a stark warning that signs of masculine malevolence cannot be dismissed as youthful indiscretions or lackadaisically addressed by failing institutions.

You’ll maybe hate it?

It’s not quite as good as it sounds, but also better than most seem to be admitting. The script by Brian and Mark Gunn is lithe if you want to compliment it and Kryptonically simplistic if you don’t. Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) are furiously trying to reproduce in Kansas when a sky baby falls into the forest behind their farm. Overwhelmed by their compulsion to breed, the couple adopts the extraterrestrial. Cribbing Superman’s origin story sure does expose it for being wacky nonsense, huh?

Tori and Kyle ain’t no Ma and Pa Kent. Although Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) grows up okay, puberty switches on buried programming in his brain. He discovers he has powers and soon surrenders to his worst impulses. That’s really what Brightburn is about more than anything; it is an exploration of the imbalance of gendered power and the horror of the powerful refusing to be told no.

Director David Yarovesky plays things straight right up until the credits, which often makes for some gloriously, unintentionally hilarious beats. Watching Banks, a breathlessly gifted comedian, dramatically intone monologues about her murdery space baby is a special kind of delight. The film’s tone is gleefully chaotic if you want to compliment it and a total mess if you don’t.

Most notably, the graphic violence has been criticized as being out of place. Maybe… But also maybe it is a way of making invisible and implicit power dynamics explicit and shocking? It is not an accident that Brandon’s dark path starts by stalking a girl he has a crush on, after his father specifically says that it’s okay for boys to surrender to their urges sometimes. Every victim in the film is either someone who won’t give Brandon what he wants or someone who attempts to discipline him.

Repeatedly, Tori and Kyle ask if they missed something in Brandon’s youth. That is, something other than the fact that he arrived via crashing rocket ship. If you read the film as saying Brandon snapped, it’s a suggestion that puberty is a perilous crucible that must be carefully monitored in young boys. An alternative, and wholly justified reading, would be to say that parents too often whisk such concerns beneath floor mats reading “boys will be boys.”

Again, Brightburn is not quite as good as it could have been. As a pure horror film, it’s pretty ineffective. The script has very few (if any) surprises, and the potential for a critique of the dominant superhero genre is wholly absent. Basically, Brightburn is a condemnation of toxic masculinity if you want to compliment it and nothing more than Elizabeth Banks sincerely yelling about her sad, angry space baby if you don’t.

Grade = B-


Category: Film
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