Superman has been a beloved and easily recognizable character since he first appeared in 1938. There have been a lot of different stories told about him, and about characters very similar to him. Brightburn, a 2019 movie, to me seemed to be essentially an evil version of Clark Kent’s time growing up in Smallville, Kansas.
Brightburn is the story of Brandon Bryer, a young boy who finds he’s nothing at all like the people around him. The echoes of early Superman are many: a baby crashes in a spaceship, landing in a rural Kansas town, adopted by a loving couple who work a farm. He gradually learns some of the secrets of his past, developing superpowers including flight, strength, invulnerability. But the spin of the story is very, very different.
Some people call it an “evil Superman” movie, and that’s true to a point, but it’s a bit simplistic. It would be easy to ask “Why would Superman turn evil?” but a more reasonable question might be “Why would he be good?” Think about it: an alien with superior abilities lands on a planet that is primitive compared to his own. Why would he turn into a hero? In fact, in an earlier draft of the script by creators Siegel and Shuster, the alien in question was far from a paragon of virtue, but became more of an evil overlord.
In Brightburn, you can clearly see the bare bones of young Clark Kent’s story, but Brandon is a lot less philanthropic. In a lot of ways, it’s a lot more realistic. The more he learns about his powers and past, the less he identifies with the people around him. In school, early in the movie, he gives a disturbing talk in class about some kinds of wasps, and it serves as a warning of what’s to come. Why wouldn’t someone that far beyond human look on us as insects?
It’s a horror movie in most ways, and it certainly gets there fast. Brandon has a lot of power, but lacks subtlety. When things start spinning out of his control, he just applies force, and when that doesn’t solve it, uses more force. Imagine someone with Superman’s kind of power going completely out of control, with the emotional maturity of someone in grade school. You can imagine what happens. Things go from bad to worse, some of the things you might expect to stop him are tried, and things keep getting ugly. By the end of the movie, the problem has gotten a lot bigger than just a small town, and the world is clearly in for some surprises. In a mid-credits scene, Paul Rooker (Walking Dead, Guardians of the Galaxy) plays a conspiracy theorist with a cable show, but his rantings make it sound a lot like there are twisted versions of the rest of the Justice League running around. In the comics, alternate Earths are nothing new, and there have been a few versions of ones populated by evil versions of well-known heroes. It almost seems like that’s what they’re setting up here.
What I liked: I’m always interested in a new spin on a familiar stories, and this takes Superman (Superboy, arguably) in some very different directions. Casting Elizabeth Banks in a major role was a nice touch. She’s usually associated with comedies, and seeing her suffer through what she does here is a very striking contrast. The growing sense of Brandon being unstoppable and out of control builds well. Rooker’s bit at the end is well done and makes you wonder what’s coming next, if there’s going to be more to the story.
What I didn’t: I’m not sure why Brandon ended up wearing the “costume” for a lack of a better word, that he did. I get him going dark, but I’m not quite sure we needed the level of gore in some of his attacks.
It was a better movie than I thought it would be, and I’m interested in the hints at world building. I’ll give this a 3.5 out of 5, with the caution that it’s kind of intense for some people’s tastes.