Brightburn movie review: A mild diversion from the superhero fatigue with horror tropes as a crutch
Brightburn belongs to the queerly modern phenomenon of popular entertainments whose subtext offers far more edifying fare than their narrative.
Brightburn belongs to the queerly modern phenomenon of popular entertainments whose subtext offers far more edifying fare than their narrative. Much has been, and will be, made of its subversion of the classic American superhero mythos, Superman in particular. The Gunn brothers — producer James, writers Mark and Brian — set about accomplishing this task with great vigour. They start off by establishing the normative vision of American life, replete with painted over mailboxes, grainy home movies and expansive farms. It sets us up primly for the arrival of Brandon, the nerdy kid who shall duly discover his superpowers.
But they begin dismantling the mythos once Brandon starts using his powers to perpetrate evil. Call it a super villain origin story for dramatic effect. However, apart from its final 20 minutes or thereabouts, Brightburn remains dramatically inert, and its characters stuck inside the vacuum of a structure the writers fail to find a way out of. It also commits the cardinal mistake of reserving its most hackneyed dialogue for its protagonist. As if recognising the enormity of the superhero superstructure, the Gunns add horror to the mix, even resorting to gore when they find their project dramatically wanting and tame. The result is a horror and super villain latte that is rescued by its relentless commentary on contemporary America, which seems to run like a parallel track throughout.
Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) live with their super-smart, wiry son Brandon in Kansas, smack in the middle of America. Brandon is the typical Hollywood nerd, hyper-articulate yet aloof in class and subject to bullying outside. All these seem destined to become things of the past once he accidentally discovers he is ‘special’, inhumanly powerful, perhaps even indestructible. But once he begins using his powers to malicious ends, a closely held Breyer family secret rears its head and, predictably, threatens the existence of the world.
Off late, I have begun warming up to the idea of holding superhero entertainments to an altogether different standard of scrutiny. For director David Yarovesky appears most at home while filming the carefully choreographed action sequences. Brandon’s character development is given short shrift, further undercut by bad dialogue and a less than satisfactory performance by Jackson Dunn. Tori is portrayed as an overtly protective mother who, in keeping with the worst horror movie parents, fails to discern signs of impending doom a normal person would have noticed from a mile away, thereby rendering her character unconvincingly stupid. Kyle is the saving grace, unafraid to act on his suspicions about Brandon, unsure about the wisdom of their family secret and willing to nip the menace in the bud. He also gets the best lines. All three characters are trapped within the overarching structure of a superhuman origin story the Gunns set out to subvert gleefully. Only, the humour fails to land most of the time. Brandon’s progression of crimes is lifted generously from superhuman and horror tropes and the emotional engagement is negligible at best. Most films would capsize under the weight of these collective failures. But superhero entertainments embrace them dutifully, slipping them under the rancour of relentless action, and emerging with their critical acclaim intact.
In that respect, Brightburn offers a mildly effective diversion from the fatigue induced by modern superhero entertainments. It invites us to look a few inches beyond the good versus evil prototype. The horror sequences are pedestrian but moderately satisfying. The gory bits are especially well done. But that is not surprising considering it is produced by the mind behind the fantastic Slither. But it truly earns its stripes due to its assault on the state of contemporary America and the world at large, culminating with a direct attack on the right-wing broadcasters who inject hate down the veins of the country day in and day out.
The Gunns exhort you to think of the possibility of a superhuman who chooses the path of evil, an alien to the very human ideals of morality. Tori and Kyle shower him with love and care, nurture him selflessly, only to find that their efforts have not had the desired effect. The writers point towards the flip side of deep emotional engagement with a person or an idea, to the degree where we are blinded by our need to see only the best in him and ignore the warning signs that spell disaster.
Despite its unwieldy dramatic conflicts, a shaky central performance, and carelessly cut and haphazardly spliced scenes, the message of Brightburn rings loud and clear. Perhaps it is fitting that I watched the film on 23 May, 2019, the day the nation’s fate for the next five years was decided unanimously. For Brightburn ends with a barely disguised potshot at the Man of Steel himself, emerging without a scratch from the wreckage he has caused around him, the creators neatly setting up a sequel for another franchise blooming out of the mucky superhero pond. Billie Eilish’s wicked rendition of 'Bad Guy' plays over the credit roll.
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