A person only has two options when societal and political anxiety takes hold of their psyche. They can fight their dread with dreams and a powerful hope that good will ultimately triumph over evil, or they can embrace the darkness and wallow in the apocalyptic inevitability. In 2019, are you enveloping yourself in the bright optimism of Star Trek, or is Mad Max: Fury Road stuck on repeat in your chosen player?
Those that criticized Zack Snyder’s vision of the Man of Steel did so because his interpretation did not jive with their aspirations for Clark Kent. They did not want a confused god-being plagued with doubt filling the spandex. They wanted the Christopher Reeve beacon of courage and promise. It’s sorta surprising that we still care about such chivalrous attributes. The older I get, and the more hellish life can seemingly sink, I find myself chasing humanity’s prosperous potential rather than it’s most monstrous depths. I need to believe in our ability to improve, and I need heroes to lead by example.
Watching Brightburn this past weekend, I sunk into a stupor. Witnessing what our own Rob Hunter called “the gory origin story of Bizarro Superman” placed me into one nasty pit of a funk. Here is the Kryptonian that we deserve, not the one we need. The 91 minutes play like Clark Kent: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the final moments remain true to its grisly heart delivering a bleak future in which villains will inherit the earth.
↓Spoilers for Brightburn↓
When Ma (Elizabeth Banks) and Pa Breyer (David Denman) eventually discover that their adopted alien baby is responsible for a recent series of grotesque crimes haunting Brightburn, Kansas, they react in two very distinct ways. From the moment she snatched the baby bundle from the spacecraft, Ma Breyer gave her heart to the child completely. Pa Breyer treated the kid like his own, but he emotionally distanced himself at the moment puberty hit and the hormones transformed to backtalk. Confirmation that he’s been raising a little Jeffery Dahmer triggers his farmer’s brain, signaling that there is only one answer to a rabid dog. You gotta put it out of its misery, i.e., your misery.
Pa Breyer lures his son Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) into the woods under the guise of a camping/hunting trip. While they’re out looking for bucks, Pa lets the little squirt wander a few steps in front of him. He raises his rifle and aims at the child’s skull. BLAM! Plink. The bullet bounces off the kid’s dome, causing a startle mixed with mild irritation. That annoyance shifts to rage when Brandon fully grasps his father’s action, and he zips into the woods with lightning speed.
The child reappears wearing his makeshift costume – Superboy by way of 8MM and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. He flips and bops around the woods enjoying the terror he instills in dear ol’ dad before clasping the old man by the face and burning his eyes through the back of his head using a recognized heat vision. The camera plants itself on the violence, refusing to shudder at the fratricide. Our sympathy for Pa is minimal. After all, he went from zero to kill in the space of a couple of edits.
At the same time, Ma Breyer uncovers a series of drawings depicting grisly murders made by Brandon. She recognizes the BB symbol drawn in blood at her brother-in-law’s crash site and immediately calls her husband to report her findings. The son picks up the father’s phone. Hearing her betrayal, Brandon launches into an attack on the farmhouse.
As she screams and cowers, Brandon rips through their home. A couple of local law enforcement officers respond to her 911 call, but they’re quickly turned to pulp. Ma Breyer jumps out a window, racing to the barn where they buried the baby’s spaceship. She knows that only a shard from the hull can pierce the child’s flesh, but when she gets there she stumbles upon the splayed corpse of a classmate’s mother. Yep, the kid is pure evil.
Brandon finds his mother. She reassures him that she loves him no matter what horrors he has committed. Brandon is still struggling with his nature, and he explains to his mother that he wants to be good. Ma Breyer grasps Brandon in a hug, and there is a moment of warmth before she tries to jab a shard of the ship into his back. Fury takes over inside Brandon. He launches into the sky carrying his mom. When they penetrate the clouds, they take a beat to look deep inside each other’s eyes. And he drops her to the ground. Splat.
A commercial airliner crosses his path, and Brandon obliterates the vessel to mask the horrors he’s committed below. He pretends to be the sole survivor of the apparent disaster, and the film concludes with the child formulating an apocalyptic plan. Cut to a mid-credits sequence in which YouTube conspiracy nut The Big T (Michael Rooker) rants about a mysterious flying figure at the center of various catastrophes. We see the masked Brandon demolish an office building and his BB symbol scorched into a cornfield.
The Big T explains that this monster is one of six that have recently appeared on the planet. He screams about a sea creature that capsized fishing boats in the South China Sea. He describes a witch-woman that chokes people out with ropes and chords. “They are all out there,” The Big T warns. “They are all waiting, and they are all going to eat us for fucking breakfast unless we get our shit together and do something.”
On the screen, we see a flash of rudimentary drawings of this supposed Injustice League. Brandon represents Superman. The sea creature and the witch-woman equal Aquaman and Wonder Woman. The Batman of the group looks very much like The Crimson Bolt from James Gunn’s Super. No saviors here, only destroyers.
Brightburn refuses to assemble a single defender against such tyrants. In this world view, there are no Avengers, only Mad Titans. The film is the kind of mischievous fantasy that populates comic book titles like What If and Elseworlds. Imagine the nightmare we’d be in if Clark Kent landed in the backyard of a couple of incompetent parents instead of the apple pie wisdom of the Kents. Imagine if the Kryptonians would have been world conquerors instead of a desperate dying race. Brightburn is a twisted thought experiment that makes me thankful for the saccharine blockbuster tales.
This bent endeavor was upsetting enough; I cannot imagine the franchise proposed in its final moments where a gang of these characters gorges on humanity. The filmmakers successfully pervert the Superman mythos, souring the stomachs of daydreaming comic book optimists. If you’re looking to wallow or even self-flagellate to our grotesque news cycle, Brightburn is all too happy to help in your despair.