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Bad (Super)boy – ‘Brightburn’

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Sometimes, it takes a while for me to warm up to the idea of a film. I’ll hear about it, maybe see a trailer or two, and then experience a gradual build in interest. Other times, all I need is one sentence.

A sentence like “It’s Superman’s origin story, only if he was evil.”

That’s the single-sentence synopsis of “Brightburn,” a super-horror movie directed by David Yarovesky from a script by brothers Brian and Mark Gunn (their other, more famous brother James – no stranger to superheroes – produced the film). It’s a far darker exploration of the superhero mythos than we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in recent years, a bleaker (and better-executed) take than even Zack Snyder’s generally-reviled take on the DCEU.

By introducing elements such as body horror and moral corruption into the usually-sanitized realm of the superhero, “Brightburn” offers a very different – and often unsettling – look at the spandex-clad world-savers that have dominated the box office over the past decade.

On the surface, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn, “Gone Are the days”) seems like a fairly typical 12-year-old kid. He lives on a farm in the town of Brightburn, Kansas with his mother Tori (Elizabeth Banks, “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part”) and father Kyle (David Denman, “Puzzle”). He’s a bit of an introvert, a smart kid who gets bullied a bit.

But Brandon is far from typical.

See, Brandon isn’t from Brightburn. He’s not even from Earth. One night 12 years ago, Tori and Kyle heard a massive crash in the woods. When they investigated, they found the wreckage of a spaceship … and an infant boy. They took the child in and adopted him as their own, keeping the truth of his origins secret from him.

But suddenly, Brandon starts hearing mysterious voices. He begins to sleepwalk, going into trances that draw him to the locked cellar where his parents keep the vessel in which he arrived. The voices are incessant and demanding … and they begin to fully unlock Brandon’s potential for reasons of their own.

He is superhumanly strong and fast. He can shoot lasers from his eyes. He can fly. And he is beginning to realize that he can do anything he wants – no matter how immoral or outright evil that might be. And while his mother’s love still holds some sway over him, it becomes increasingly more difficult to ignore the voices and the horrifying task with which they charge him.

“Brightburn” is a brutally intense look at the other side of the superhero coin. So many of these stories are built on a foundation of strict morality; our heroes have a personal code that prevents them from turning the full force of their abilities against ordinary humans. Here, we’re offered a sense of what it might look like if that code simply didn’t exist, if a child was given godlike powers and had no moral qualms about using them against anyone who stood in their way.

There are moments in this film that are almost unsettlingly graphic, glimpses of what the aftermath of an amoral superbeing’s rampage might look like. “Brightburn” is very much a horror movie – one that earns every bit of its R-rating – but even the gruesome moments are of a piece with the possibilities that come with superhuman abilities. The hardcore effects work in general – both in terms of the superpowers and the horror stuff – is used relatively sparingly, but it’s all quite well done.

It doesn’t all work. There’s a little bit of clumsiness with regards to the narrative and some of the relationship dynamics don’t quite add up. We see a handful of convenient poor decisions and some of the gorier moments feel a touch gratuitous. Still, it clicks more often than it doesn’t.

A lot is asked of Jackson Dunn here, but the youngster manages to acquit himself nicely. There’s an iciness to him, a gradual lessening of affect as he becomes more and more removed from the boy he once was. Banks and Denman are good, each finding ways to create variations on the clear Martha/Jonathan Kent formula on which their characters are based. The three of them form a family unit that is flawed, but still very loving and basically good; it’s when that proves to not be enough that the movie really kicks into high gear. There are other characters: Brandon’s classmate crush and her mother, his aunt/school counselor, a local sheriff who has questions about the sudden spate of mysterious unpleasantness – they all do their jobs, but they exist primarily to service the plot.

So much of the superhero mythos is built around notions like “With great power comes great responsibility.” If that sense of responsibility is removed from the equation, you’re left with little more than unfettered superiority and the potential for unspeakable acts. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely … and there’s no power more absolute than this.

“Brightburn” is an unapologetic deconstruction of the very notion of superheroes, one that disabuses us of the culturally-ingrained notion that a moral compass would be enough to rein in the baser impulses of a god who walked amongst us. It is bloody and bleak and unrelenting, a savage look at the dark side of the superhero coin.

[3.5 out of 5]

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