Just over nine years ago, one of the better episodes of The Simpsons in its latter-day form aired. The 18th episode of Season 21, dubbed “Chief of Hearts,” is a decently funny episode where Homer, forced into community service, bonds with Chief Clancy Wiggum, forming a friendship and giving Springfield’s rotund Chief of Police a bit of much needed character development and depth.
The highlight of the episode is a bonding moment midway through, when Homer and Clancy share a moment on the bluffs overlooking the city. Wiggum wistfully asks Homer the utterly stupid question, “Do you ever wonder where the sun goes at night?” to which Homer confusedly responds with a drawn out, “Noooo?” Wiggum quickly compensates, noting that he doesn’t either, but his son, Ralph, does. He then gives other examples of Ralph’s more curious curiosities, including, “What if the bed wets him?” and this gem:
That oddly lovable, indirect Ralphism is apparently the basis for the new superhero horror thriller, Brightburn, produced by James Gunn, written by his brothers Mark and Brian, and directed by David Yarovesky. Taking the very basic idea of someone like Clark Kent developing into a villain, the movie gets a lot of stuff right, but sadly can’t quite live up to the promise of its premise due to some rushed plotting.
Hewing very closely to the origins of the Man of Steel, Brightburn is set in the titular small town in Kansas (also fictitious, just like Smallville, though the town of Hutchinson renamed itself for a day in its honor), where the childless Breyer couple, Tori and Kyle (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) seemingly have their prayers for a baby answered when an alien craft crash lands in the woods of their farmland. Inside is an infant boy, whom they name Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn, who played the young version of Ant-Man during the time travel experiments of Avengers: Endgame earlier this spring).
Unlike the Kent family, however, Brandon is raised without any knowledge of his heritage or different abilities, which start to manifest after his 12th birthday. Tori and Kyle are extremely protective of the boy – especially Kyle, who sometimes is distant and cautious around him – but they still raise him with loving care. At his birthday, his aunt Merilee and uncle Noah (Meredith Hagner and Matt Jones) give him a rifle, which Kyle immediately confiscates. He’s not against guns, in fact he and Brandon hunt regularly, but he’s against his 12-year-old son personally owning a weapon, as he’s too young to have such deadly power (FORESHADOWING!). Brandon lashes out and strongly slams down on restaurant furniture when the gun is taken away.
He begins acting out at school as well. While he is gently teased by his classmates for being a know-it-all (as evidenced by his Hermione Granger-like explanation of the difference between bees and wasps), he doesn’t really have any problems until he creepily stalks a girl he likes (Emmie Hunter). She then turns on him in gym class, and in a rage, he breaks her hand in a heretofore unseen (by other people anyway) feat of dangerous strength.
Brandon is confused and overly emotional. He doesn’t know why he’s targeted (the girl’s mother, who also works in the diner where he spent his birthday, demands he be arrested for causing the injury), or why he’s different, but he always feels like he’s on the defensive. His best outlet is a composition book, where he sketches out scenes of destruction and revenge, as well as a symbol with back-to-back letter B’s with what appears to be a blade in the middle (it also looks like what would happen if you mirrored and intersected the famous Superman “S” with itself), which he leaves as a calling card when he finally begins acting on his rage.
When his burgeoning powers become too much to handle, and when he begins reacting subconsciously to telekinetic signals from the very ship that delivered him to Earth (buried in his family’s barn) telling him to “Take the World,” Tori and Kyle finally acquiesce and tell Brandon of his origins. Rather than looking at this as a gesture of love and understanding, Brandon instead feels betrayed, resentful, and even more alone. But he also now knows that he’s “special,” superior to humans, which he uses to assert his dominance more and more, until he finally takes matters into his own hands and the body count begins.
All in all, this is a brilliant concept. You take Superman’s origins and imbue them with a bit of malice and manifest destiny via his alien roots instead of Jor-El sending Kal-El to Earth with a message of peace and benevolence. You hide the boy’s secret for too long, rather than easing him into the idea of his powers until it’s too late. You tie his development to the onset of puberty, where Brandon is forced to double, triple, and quadruple down on the confusion about his own body and the ratcheting of hormones. Add all this up and instead of creating a superhero who fights for truth, justice, and the American way, you create a monster who kills indiscriminately, fights only for his selfish desires, and who carries no remorse for his actions because he’s convinced of his own superiority. It’s so simple, yet so brilliant.
The problem is in the pacing. Like many horror movies, the carnage doesn’t really start until the third act, and really, the vast majority is saved for a montage of media coverage during the credits (including a hilarious turn by Michael Rooker as an Alex Jones-type conspiracy theorist), as if the filmmakers are setting up a sequel where the real devastation will happen (based on box office take so far, I wouldn’t count on it). The few orchestrated kills we do get are fantastically executed (including one that will make your jaw drop, though not as much as the victim’s), but it’s all backloaded and happens way too suddenly given the buildup. We got two acts of great setup, and then an ending that was just way too rushed to be fully enjoyed.
A lot of movies have pacing problems because they’re too long, but here I’d argue that the movie was too short. Here it would have been beyond appropriate for an extra 10-20 minutes of self-discovery for Brandon, unease on the part of his parents (it takes a lot for Tori to turn, and when she does it’s instantaneous instead of the pained acceptance of reality that it should have been), and a few more bodies to add to the pile. The film goes a long way to demonstrate just how nearly invincible Brandon is, but never really pits him against someone who can defeat him, so you might as well spend some time giving the audience a few more good splatters.
Still, this is a nice bit of popcorn entertainment. Young Jackson Dunn does a great job in his first major role, thanks in large part to the decision to make his puberty and hormonal toxic masculinity go hand in hand with his transformation. Every kid goes through it, and every kid has questions about how their body develops as it changes. With Brandon, it’s cranked up to 11 in that he not only feels desire, but can also stick his hand in a whirling lawnmower without a scratch. And like a lot of rural areas, the best he gets is a vague, uncomfortable “sex talk” by his dad that lasts about 30 seconds. It’s fairly clear the school didn’t teach him anything. And it all works because Dunn is able to sell every mood swing, every death stare, every demand for deference once he starts to understand who, and what he is. There’s genuine pathos when he pauses his rampage just long enough to whimper to his mother, “I want to do good,” just as there’s genuine satisfaction when he turns a cop into an exploding pile of guts. I just wish he had been given a bit more space to lay waste and deal with this confusion instead of turning on a dime.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What other superheroes could reverse their roles in a new movie? If Spider-Man does everything a spider can, would he ever spin a web that reads “Some Pig” to save Wilbur? Let me know!