‘Brightburn’ soft on satire, complex take on family disfunction

Images courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing.

6/10 Brightburn is a minimalist, almost frustratingly simple film. That’s what might be disappointing about it, and it’s also what might be great about it.

In Brightburn County, Kansas, Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) struggle to conceive a child. Their prayers are seemingly answered when, one night, a pod from another world rips the sky open in the wooded area behind their farm, and in it, they find a seemingly normal baby boy, whom they raise as their own.

Twelve years later, Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), who is not aware of his true origins, begins to hear strange sounds coming from the pod that brought him and displays astonishing powers. His parents, who think he’s merely hit puberty, only tell him that what he’s going through is normal. Realizing his power, Brandon takes over the world.

Brightburn isn’t a direct satire of superhero movies as much as it is a spiteful perversion of them, only addressing them in a roundabout way by incorporating many of the genre’s most common themes like puberty and poor parental relationships. It’s much more interested in existing as its own film than being a riff on others.

Brightburn spent most of its development as “untitled James Gunn horror project,” and that’s still the key name here. While he’s listed as producer, ostensibly because he was too busy directing tentpole projects like the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel and the Suicide Squad sequel/reboot “relaunch?” thing, he was a hands-on producer for Brightburn, helping his brothers Brian and Mark Gunn write and helping protégé David Yarovesky direct.

Before the blockbusters, James Gunn cut his teeth on the genre with Super, a black comedy that set superhero tropes against a real-world backdrop. The satire ironically opened doors for Gunn despite its minute release, bringing him superstardom directing mainstream superhero movies, and Brightburn brings things full circle – where Super subverted superhero tropes for comedy, Brightburn subverts them for horror. The film studiously follows the Superman origin story but, instead of Clark Kent growing up as a beacon of truth, justice and the American way, Brandon Breyer developes a pubescent male entitlement complex with the power to enforce it.

The big-ticket item is his laser vision, which is mostly limited to the forbidding red glow in his eyes when he loses his temper. It’s a great effect and a clever incorporation of one genre into another.

Brightburn may not be the spoof you’re looking for, but it is every inch the $6 million B horror movie you’re looking for, trading in the same over-the-top gore you could find in any ‘80s era exploitation film. That said, it does go much further than most mainstream gore movies you see today, and that is appreciated.

Most of the cheapness comes out in how Brightburn uses its special effects, which seem to be lifted directly from the Zack Snyder Superman movies. The minimalism works in some ways, but not in others. Brandon Breyer mostly uses the super-speed wooshing, which fits in great from a budget perspective and as a genre tool – B horror monsters frequently vanish and reappear elsewhere for seemingly no reason, but Breyer canonically has the power to do that and gets to do that onscreen.

Despite Brightburn’s celestial plotline, the story is remarkably human. Tori and Kyle Breyer are two normal parents who don’t know what they’re doing. Brandon Breyer is a normal, bullied and “gifted” teenage boy who learns he can play out his power fantasies before he’s outgrown them. What’s the metaphor here? Is it puberty-as-horror? Parental failure-as-horror? Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s “the talk” as horror.

The 12-year timeskip begs a lot of the questions a movie making fun of Superman ought to feast on. How does a child simply appearing out of nowhere work with the Social Security Administration, or among a community that’s tight-knit enough to know the Breyers weren’t pregnant or adopting? What did pediatricians think when presented with this child who is not human? Did anybody who watches the sky for a living come asking about that spacecraft? These are all questions a satire would delight in exploring, and apparently the Gunn brothers tried their hands at addressing them, but they thought it was boring. The upshot from a character perspective is the audience re-enters the story immediately before things go south and doesn’t get to see much of Brandon’s childhood at all, leaving it up in the air as to what makes him take such a dark turn.

But the shrapnel of a dysfunctional family is everywhere. We come back in on a couple in deep denial about their son, and a son who is clearly suffering because of their failure to communicate. The Breyers seem to have told no one how Brandon was found and have been operating under the assumption that he is a normal child, and even then, they’re not great at this. Kyle Breyer handles every parental conflict by yelling at or talking over it and backing his raised voice up with his imposing frame, a method that doesn’t age well on a child who can throw cars. Tori Breyer takes the opposite track, dealing with every problem by telling Brandon he’s loved and valued and everything is OK.

Neither of them seem to have ever asked their son how he feels, or if they did, they certainly didn’t listen to the answer. When they discover instructions on animal dissection mixed in with skin magazines under his bed, they do what they’ve always done – wonder behind his back whether or not this is normal, but ultimately never address it. When Brandon starts hearing voices in his head and his parents assume it’s just puberty, Kyle takes him into the woods and evasively tells him that whatever he’s going through is normal, foolishly and willfully unaware of how wrong he is

Kyle’s parenting never rises to the level of outright abuse, but his strongman tactics have a clear impact on Brandon, who takes that might-makes-right mentality to Olympian extremes once he comes into his power.

In an era when audiences are demanding more three-dimensional villains, Brandon Breyer is remarkably opaque. The only things we’re really shown about him is that he’s suffering not just from the throes of puberty, but from schizophrenia, somnambulism and a severe degree of sociopathy – and he very much does suffer from these ailments. In an era of villains who seem to delight in their mental illness, this is another rarity.

This child doesn’t need to be yelled at or reassured, he needs help, and he needs parents who understand that, but the Breyers don’t seem to have known anything about him even before he starts his transformation.

The more I think about it, I think that’s what the metaphor is. Not just puberty- or parental failure-as-horror, but the horror of realizing your child has become someone you don’t understand anymore, and maybe you never understood him in the first place. Maybe he’s literally a space alien.

That’s just a small sample of several different readings that could be applied to Brightburn, and the mix feels less like intentional ambiguity and more like it’s simply under-written. It can get pretty ugly – the film contains one of the most potent portrayals of toxic masculinity transferred from father to son in recent memory, and that’s reportedly something the writers didn’t even consider. The thematic grey area makes for a cinematic experience that could vary wildly from person-to-person, one that’s at least worth exploring.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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