Thursday, January 9, 2020

What If...?

Films: Brightburn
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on basement television.
p> Back in the day (and perhaps now, too—I’m not a comic book guy anymore), Marvel Comics had a high concept book called “What If…” where a particular scenario would be played out. The book asked questions like “What if Spider-Man had the Infinity Gauntlet?” or “What if Professor X had amnesia?” It’s a fun idea. Brightburn would have fit in nicely with the concept even though Superman is a DC property. Essentially, this movie asks the question, “What if Superman was evil?”

I love the idea of Brightburn. In a cinematic world filed with superheroes, it’s a great question to ask. The smartest decision made here is not to make this an action movie but to make it a straight horror film. Brightburn could have gone in a lot of directions, but this was absolutely the right one. Certainly there are action moments here, but this is a film that wants to be as dark as possible.

It’s not at all a joke or a stretch to say this is more or less an evil Superman story. It follows all of the same beats and particulars. Instead of an alien spacecraft landing near Smallville, Kansas, it lands near Brightburn, Kansas. Instead of an alien child being “adopted” by the Kents and named Clark, the alien child is “adopted” by the Breyers and named Brandon. Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) seems like a normal kid until around his twelfth birthday when things start to change. Brandon starts to have typical 12-year-old boy urges, particularly regarding a classmate named Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter). He also starts to manifest powers. Frustrated by a mower that won’t start, he flings it across the yard and then stops the blade with his hand. More distressing, Brandon is doing something like sleepwalking, but it involves hovering in mid-air in the barn where the spaceship is hidden and speaking in an alien language.

And then things start to get ugly. Brandon manifests more and more powers that indicate that he is essentially an evil Superman. He can fly, has super strength, heat vision, and more. When he shows up in Caitlyn’s bedroom and is then shunned by her, he starts to act out against her and other people. His parents (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) aren’t sure how to handle what Brandon is becoming. After all, they found him in a spaceship in the woods.

Things escalate quickly as Brandon explores the various powers he has with the complete lack of restraint of a virtually indestructible being with a 12-year-old’s grasp on consequences and morality. When he starts donning a homemade mask and rudimentary cape, things start to get much, much darker.

Brightburn rather sadly tanked at the box office and didn’t get the kind of critical support that it deserved. It’s one of those films that came in just under the Mendoza line on Rotten Tomatoes and has a surprisingly low score on sites like Metacritic. It’s a smarter film than I think a lot of people gave it credit for being. A lot of that is how it treats Brandon as he comes into his power. It would be easy to more or less write him as being some sort of evil genius, but that’s not what happens. He has these staggering powers and would be capable of killing anyone or anything without much effort. He’s incredibly fast and strong, capable of flight, and apparently invulnerable to just about everything imaginable. But he thinks like a 12-year-old boy, and a lot of Brandon’s plots are simplistic and poorly reasoned out. In fact, much of the violence that happens here does so not just because of Brandon’s temper, but because he doesn’t really plan out his actions very well. I like that aspect of the film a great deal. It grounds something so surreal into a kind of reality.

This could have gone a great deal darker, and it probably should have. It’s clearly trying to cash in on the superhero craze (and was written by James Gunn’s brother and cousin, and produced by Gunn himself), and it does this well, but the plot isn’t nearly as tight as it could be. There are a lot of loose ends here. Caitlyn, for instance, who seems to be one of the people who motivates Brandon to action, is gone from the back half of the film. The kids who bully Brandon are ignored as well—we don’t really get anything in terms of a real resolution for plot points that absolutely should be a part of the film. In that respect, Brightburn could use another 10 minutes or so to resolve these ideas.

Still, while it has its problems, it’s a lot better than its sad critical acclaim. One could only wonder what Brandon might do to those critics.

Why to watch Brightburn: A great idea for a superhero-saturated world.
Why not to watch: This doesn’t end up being as dark as it could be.


  1. My own review was less charitable than yours, although upon rereading it, I think I may have been a bit too harsh.

    FYI, Marvel is indeed doing "What If" again, but as a TV series.

    Oh, yeah: if you haven't seen Amazon's "The Boys," there's an evil Superman in that series, and he does the same thing to his guardian/mother-figure/lover that Brandon ends up doing to his dad. I haven't read the comic, so I don't know whether the incident we see on TV has a basis in the original comic-book story.

    1. Ultimately, the problem with Brightburn is that it doesn't go far enough beyond the premise. Too much is set up and just...ignored.

      It's sad to say, but the only reason this got made is because James Gunn got it made.

    2. " doesn't go far enough beyond the premise."

      Whatever the differences in our reviews, we seem to agree on that point.

    3. You can say that you were too harsh on the film; I could probably just as easily (and correctly) say that I wasn't hard enough. It's a movie I really want to work because of how interesting the high concept is. It's sad to say that it's not enough to be an interesting failure because it's not brave enough to go where it should.

  2. I saw bits of it as it is interesting but not enough to form an opinion though I'll probably get to it later on.

    1. It runs about 90 minutes, so it's not a huge commitment. It's a little better than the buzz, but not a lot better than it.