Some eighty years ago in 1939 a comic book character was introduced and not only altered the way comic books were perceived but created a substantial change to the zeitgeist that is currently stronger than any time in history. That character was a strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman. As World War Two escalated, Superman became the bastion of all that is good, truth, justice and the American way. Over the decades the surrounding backstory and subsequent adventures, characters were embraced as the modern day mythology. Over the many decades, various writers explored scenarios featuring a Man of Steel, exhibiting a decidedly dark side. Ultimately Superman was the personification of good pitted against the forces of evil no matter what form they might employ popular narrative devices employed by many comic books such as the special issues featuring a dream, imaginary story or what if setup. Recently, filmmaker, David Yarovesky, has undertaken a project to transform such an alternate narrative into a feature length film, 'Brightburn’. Fundamentally this story is a high concept take on the well-known superman origin story. The difference driving account is ‘what if the baby found by the rural family grew up into a psychopathic teen? Rather than championing the weak, fighting evil, inequality crime, the super powered alien was quickly developing into a psychotic monster readily inflicting pain, destroying anything in his path and inflicting pain just because it is easy to accomplish.
The film ‘Brightburn’ is, superficially at least, a high concept story. Screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn posit an alternate universe where the spaceship from a doomed planet brought an infant discovered by a descent rural couple, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) Breyer. Despite their inherent kindness and love for the foundling, he did not grow up as a mainstay of righteousness. Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), a sadistic, malignant psychopath, is concerned only with satisfying his dark hedonistic cravings. The major plot points contained in the familiar mythos is present and readily recognizable. The infant’s ship hidden in the family’s barn and the boy’s extraordinary abilities manifest gradually as he approaches puberty. It appears normal when Tori finds a stash of lingerie and swimsuit model pictures. Boys that age are curious about sex and women’s body. What was exceptionally concerning his stash also contained surgical diagrams, and graphic photos of human organs. When his father gives Brandon ‘the talk, ostensibly about masturbation and his burgeoning sexuality, the boy misunderstands it as explicit permission to use his new powers to satisfy those nascent feelings. Brandon focuses on a pretty girl in his class, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter). His crush manifests in stalking but with super sped he can instantly appear lurking in her bedroom.
An unfortunate byproduct of such graphically explicit imagery has instilled in many filmmakers the predisposition to rush the plot elements and linger on the actual acts of brutal carnage. David Yarovesky does not have an extensive list of credits, but the craftsmanship infused in this movie reveals an incredible, innate talent. The evil that permeates the person of the boy is demonstrated with a well-established trope; animals panic in his presence. Instead of depicting him slaughtering a clutch of hens that displayed such a reaction, the audience is shown the terrified birds and then the results of their brutal slaughter. Mr. Yarovesky respects the intelligence of his audience by omitting the intermeeting carnage leaving the image of the aftermath and the parent’s reaction make the point. It is exceedingly rare for modern horror to exhibit such artistry and restraint. The film’s genre is a hybrid between horror, science fiction and fantasy. There are inherent difficulties in each but to attempt a synthesis of the three, blending the strengths while expurgating the usual weakness, is a master class endeavor that few can achieve. Not only has Mr. Yarovesky achieve this, but the result also exhibited a symbiosis. I realize that according to the popular review aggregate sites, the movie was rated as barely passing by the critical community and slightly better by the Vox Popular. This assessment is an under representation of the narrative and its presentation. As with a disparaging number of modern movies, the unfamiliarity with the historical cultural significance prevents a fully valid comprehension of the prevailing social mythology while falling short of achieving the generally accepted criteria for cinematic accomplishment. A substantial portion of the missteps that degrade the ultimate rating of the movie. The inherent problems of telling a well-known story within the confines of a previously genre that was only slightly exploded. There have been some horror movies based on comic books, notably DC titles including many of the animated DC movies notably those featuring a gritty version of Batman of the supernatural horrors utilized in the ‘Constantine’ storylines. The Superman origin is beloved by several generations so the concept of a young extraterrestrial amazing abilities as a monster, a psychopathic serial killer, is a difficult premise to entertain fans.
Several years ago, the movie, ‘Handcock (2008)’ attempted to alter the superman archetype as an antihero but the filmmaker decided to focus on the popular trope of a decent person who descended into substance abuse and massive ennui. ‘Brightburn represents an entirely different approach. The screenwriters generally neglected the all-important character development. Some might cite a tradeoff between narrative depth and running time but that is little more than a simplistic excuse. The story is light on the details preferring to focus on establishing the foundation for the anticipated violence. Without permitting the audience familiarity with the principle plyers it is impossible to emotionally connect with the characters, refrrint to to both the positive bonds towards the parents and victims and the seething dislike generated for the heinous actions of the antagonist. In due course the conclusion is validated that this film is yet another instance of a high concept story failing to reach its potential largely as a result of ignoring the crucial contribution of character development to establish and nurture the bond between characters and audience.
Emmie Hunter delivers a solid performance as Caitlyn, the young woman with the dubious distinction of attracting the obsessive focus of Brandon’s puberty driven desires. What is lacking is not her fault as a performer but falls upon the screenwriters and director. Instead of examining a young woman undergoing the most extreme example of sexual predation, her part is reduced to yet another generic damsel in distress. At one time or another most of us have done something ill-conceived and regrettable to respond to the nascent call of sexual attraction. The critical difference is first, we are constrained by some inherent sense of conscience. Second, we like near god-like abilities. When such unimaginable power is wielded by a psychopath, devoid of empathy, love bereft of any psychological and emotional boundaries. Sadly, not only is this another example of more sizzle than steak but regrettably, a fascinating concept mishandled.