While the trailer for this film played, Batman smirked somewhere in a dark corner of the world with an “I told you so” grin. For me, ‘Brightburn’ is easily among the most awaited films this year, and it is commendable that simply by virtue of the concept of its premise, it builds its draw; rather, a question — a big “what if” that I am sure most of us have wondered about. Superman, among the most easily recognised icons across the world, is a being of supreme power, and I can damn well guarantee that if he’d existed for real, in this world, he’d be worshipped as a god.
As Amanda Waller put it in the rather dismal supervillain teamup ‘Suicide Squad’ in 2016, “We got lucky with Superman. He shared or values. The next one might not.” Well, sharing values is putting it rather mildly, but ‘Superman’ as a character had been designed to be the very epitome of hope, a beacon of goodness. That extreme goodness is what invites conflict, causing a number of writers to have their fun with the character, often adding shades of grey to the character to see how people would deal with a slightly corrupted Superman.
Jump to 2019, and ‘Brightburn’ turns that grey into tar black: it puts a savoury (and scary) twist to the all known origin tale and turns that “what if” on its head. This is the alien that crash landed from another planet in a pod in a field to be adopted by a childless couple, but turns out to be a malevolent entity. Ripe, ripe premise for a horror movie, that too twisting an instantly recognisable icon’s origin story, and churning out decent, often times horrific, scares out of it. I’d call that a creative win, if anything else, and as I said earlier, the draw is also huge.
Superman is never explicitly mentioned once in the story, even by way of a tease or Easter egg or pop culture reference, meaning that this is a completely new story, giving an alternate, evil version of the all too well known origin story for the American superhero. There are more than a few clever references to past Superman films that amplify said twist in the tale. While the cape and the alien escape pod visible even in the trailer are rather obvious, there is an eerily similar shot of a sunrise taken in low focal length from the fields somewhere halfway down the movie, similar to the one used in both ‘Justice League’ and ‘Man of Steel’.
To add to that, when the news of Brandon’s alien origins is finally broken to him, his mother tells him (similar to Jonathan Kent in ‘Man of Steel’) that they believed he was “sent there for a reason”. Unsubtle nods, but all of these instances point to an eerie kind of self-awareness of its own genesis, without seeming to be taunting or dismissive of a world icon or his respective properties. Pointing it out to state that the writers Mark and Brian Gunn deserve credit for that. However, for now, let’s delve into the narrative of this textbook supernatural horror film that scores by virtue of its inventive concept.
In the fictional town of Brightburn in the state of Kansas, a couple, Kyle and Tori Breyer (played by David Denham and Elizabeth Banks respectively), are desperately trying to conceive a child but have yet failed to do so. One night, a meteor falls from the sky into their field, and the couple discovers it to be glowing bright red, revealing it to be of an alien nature. While it is not shown overtly, as it is obviously known from the original story, the couple discover a child inside the space pod and decide to adopt and raise him, naming him Brandon.
As Brandon grows into a young boy at the verge of puberty, he discovers that he has superhuman strength on a fateful day while helping his dad in the farm with a mower. In an attempt to not let him discover his true origins, Kyle has specifically instructed Brandon to not go inside the barn, lest he hurt himself from the screws and tools lying in there as a coy. The same night, a series of creepy instances begin to befall the household, as Brandon is awoken by voices seemingly originating from the space pod that he arrived in and is unaware of. In a presumably sleep walking state, he leaps off the window unharmed and goes to the barn where the couple have housed the pod in an underground cellar. He continues to try to budge the door open with unnatural force for a 12-year-old, all the while being under that state of induced trance from voices originating from the pod, before he is interrupted by Tori, who deliberately hides the sequence of events that conspired from Kyle.
At his birthday celebration along with his parents and close family friends Noah and Merilee McNichol, Brandon shows uncharacteristically strong disobedience against Kyle when the latter refuses to let him have a rifle for his birthday gift from his aunt and uncle. The next day, Kyle witnesses yet another instance that points to something being wrong with Brandon, when he chews the metal fork he is having breakfast with. Before the family leaves for camping, Tori discovers strange images of a disturbing nature along with some explicit images of some women under Brandon’s bed, upon which Tori suggests that they have “the talk” with their teenage son.
In response to that, Kyle tries to have a fatherly conversation with Brandon regarding women, puberty and sexual urges, and how it was fine to give in to them every now and then, as a result of which a now sentient Brandon, aware of his powers, visits his classmate Caitlyn, who was earlier kind to him on one instance. While he is mostly obscured, Caitlyn recognises him and outs him by calling him a pervert at a “trust fall” exercise the next day at school. An enraged Brandon snaps at her and breaks her hand, upon which Caitlyn’s enraged mother demands for his arrest, only to be strongly resisted by Brandon’s parents and the school authorities, who suspend him for two days and subject him to compulsory counselling from his aunt Merilee. Brandon undergoes a session but to no avail since he displays absolutely no remorse or realisation of the gravity of his actions.
The same night, in a series of continued eerie instances at the Breyer household, the couple discover all their chickens killed in the coop. While Tori is insistent of it being a wolf attack, Kyle is almost certain that Brandon was involved having spotted him earlier standing still near the coop, watching as the chickens screamed. The intensity of the events is amplified when one night, Tori finds him levitating over the trap door of the barn cellar, repeating the phrase “take the world” in the alien language of where Brandon presumably was from. The phrase is the last thing in Brandon’s transition to the other side, with Brandon believing that he was a form of higher being than the humans, and that his purpose in life indeed was to “take the world”.
Moving forward, he visits a recovering Caitlyn in her bedroom with flowers and upon hearing that her mother forbade her from meeting him, goes off and attacks Erica at the diner she worked at in a finely done scene that is literally eye popping for its use of psychological body horror. Brandon then turns towards his next victims, a threat to his dominion over the planet, his aunt, who is to report his insubordination at the counselling sessions to the Sheriff and school authorities the next day. While Brandon threatens her at her home, an inebriated Noah finds him hiding in a closet and furiously decides to tell his parents while taking Brandon home. A triggered Brandon brutally kills his uncle Noah, and makes it look like a drunk driving accident.
While the news of Noah’s death is broken to him, Brandon reacts rather unemotionally and when confronted, physically attacks Kyle in a bout of unsolicited anger. Kyle recovers Brandon’s bloody shirt from last night and is convinced that Brandon was behind the murder and disappearance of Noah and Erica respectively, while Tori still resists, placing her trust in Brandon. He decides to take Brandon on a hunting trip over the weekend, where he intends on killing him, unbeknownst to Tori. He attempts to shoot him in the head, but the bullet doesn’t hurt him leaving him completely unaffected. An enraged Brandon shoots lasers into Kyle’s eyes in retaliation, immediately killing him.
On the other hand, Tori discovers the merit in what Kyle said after she finds drawings of Brandon doing the unspeakable acts, along with random, repeated scribblings of the double ‘B’ symbol, also discovered on the site of the murders. Now almost completely taken over to the other side, Brandon now visits his house and threatens Tori in retaliation, easily overpowering even the police and emergency services. Boiling to a fever pitch of gory killings until now, the final bits of the film begin here. This is the beginning of the end.
The Ending, Explained
A horrifically superpowered Brandon almost completely wrecks the Breyer house and lays carnage upon the two unfortunate officers who arrive for help at the house, reducing them to mere splinters. He then follows Tori into the barn where she seemingly runs to seek refuge, but instead hatches a plan to take a sliver from the space pod he arrived in, knowing as though it initially was able to cut him from earlier on in the film, much like anything Krypton is able to significantly weaken Superman. She barely makes it to the cellar underneath only to discover a tied up and tortured Erica.
Horrified beyond belief, Tori makes a shiv out of a sharp piece of the space pod, and tries to lure Brandon by appealing to the leftover goodness in him. Brandon initially seems to give in, but quickly catches her bluff, disabling her and slamming through the barn roof with her into the sky, where he drops her to her death. An aeroplane is seen approaching Brandon mid-air, and before we see what happens, the plane is revealed to have crashed “out of nowhere” over the Breyer farm, destroying the house and the barn. The news channels reveal that the crash left no survivors, and also killed Tori and Kyle Breyer, who were now survived by their only son, Brandon.
Credits, Explained: Future and Potential Franchise
While there is no overtly placed mid or post credits scene in the movie, a sequence of news clips accompanies the credits almost as soon as they start rolling, that both reveal what Brandon is up to now that virtually no one he knows would stand in the way of his world dominion. Quickly flashing news sequences now dub him “Brightburn” and Brandon is shown committing acts of destruction with his powers, destroying buildings and killing hundreds of people, also on one instant burning his double B insignia on a field. This, however horrific in its realisation, is a seemingly diametrically opposite end you would expect from a ‘Superman’ film, that we now know better to end on an optimistic and hopeful note, establishing ‘Brightburn’ as an almost complete antithesis of any of the ‘Superman’ films, from his origins, to internal struggles to finally being a man simply trying to do some good.
The second segment of the credits sequence is what gets me seriously hyped up, despite ‘Brightburn’ leaving me with a mixed bag of thoughts, and close to no emotion. Well, I initially had some reservations when the trailers liberally accompanied producer James Gunn’s title card with the ambitious term “visionary”, I would have no problem with it being used if the Gunn brothers, including Brian and Mark Gunn, writers for this film, can materialise and deliver on what is promised in mere glimpses. We have seen a fair number of films within this year itself that promise so much more of what was delivered as still yet to come. This is undoubtedly the age of crossovers, easter eggs and more importantly, shared universes, and the ground for the same is ripe and up for the taking just as the MCU showed the world how it’s done.
Naturally, the makers of ‘Brightburn’ have also envisaged a shared universe for Brightburn to inhabit, consisting of monsters with origins similar to superheroes, but with the inherently evil twist, as in this film. Michael Rooker, who also played Yondu in the previous two James Gunn directed ‘Guardians of The Galaxy’ films, appears as a conspiracy theorist while the news reel plays, revealing a Brightburn like figure hovering over sites of mass destruction. He lamentably states that his theories of other superpowered monsters being among them have been proven true by the existence of Brightburn.
He then goes on to mention a human like sea monster that has been known to eat people, evidently a horrific spin on another popular DC property, Aquaman, or the witch who strangled people with her inventive rope knots, evidently a horrific spin on Slipknot. Now, speaking honestly, this credits sequence left me high and dry, especially since the film wasn’t exactly a home run either, albeit excited for how all of this might look like.
‘Brightburn’s high points are clearly when the writing establishes him as the direct opposite of Superman, and wrings in instances to draw on that. Ironically enough, its weakest spots are also revealed when the writing slacks in random pockets throughout the film, simply relying on excessive gore to deliver the closest thing to the promised thrills. Lamentably so, the emotional weight in this story too is almost non-existent, as are any real consequences. With Superman being too overpowered, his writers, including the character’s creators, found it difficult for themselves to introduce worthy foes for the man of steel. Brandon (and Brightburn in essence) face something similar in the movie.
In one scene towards the end of the movie, a fully transformed Brandon simply dashes into the Sheriff to reduce him to a bloody mess of his remains within less than a second, while earlier, Brandon’s reluctance to let news of his insubordination during the counselling sessions with Merilee reaching the Sheriff would seem to establish him as some sort of threat. With that level of all overcoming power, you are then only looking for how gory the next kill can be, and not genuine tension on who makes it out of the unfortunate scenario. To add to that, the reason James Wan’s ‘Conjuring’ series caught up so well as a horror flick was that little piece of information in the beginning that stated it was “based on a true story”, that didn’t let the audience breathe a sigh of relief when the lights came back on. When the lights come on for this one, ‘Brightburn’ goes back to being completely fictional, as with his inspiratory source. To sum it up, while the concept gets full marks from me, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.