Brightburn: Exploring The Superman Antithesis

Superhero stories have the robust potential for exploring philosophical quandaries — only when they're done well
Brightburn: Exploring The Superman Antithesis

With Marvel's What If…? gaining popularity, many of us have thought of alternate fates for our beloved superheroes. Brightburn did that a couple of years ago with the DC heroes. An Eeyorish edition of the Superman mythos, the premise of the show has incredible promise. What if Superman broke bad? What if evil ensued in him when he realised his powers? What if instead of liking the world he grew up in and wanting to protect it, he wanted to take it over? Brightburn puts forth the version of Superman that Batman feared he was in Dawn of Justice. Although the lack of imagination on the creators' part took away the promise of the plot, the story stays with you.

The plot sounds very familiar. A childless couple on a rural farm in Kansas finds a newborn who crash-landed in their backyard, in a spaceship. They take him in and name him Brandon and find their life complete for almost a decade. But then the child starts showing some unearthly abilities and after a series of incredibly perturbing behaviour showing his penchant for being evil, they see this kid turn into a full-blown supervillain.

But that is not to say the movie does not have its shining moments. We see Brandon being picked on at school for being smart and for his skinny frame. But he knows he is smarter and more powerful than any of them. The film tackles the expanding superiority complex in Brandon very well. Incorporating a bit of the 'nature versus nurture' debate, the story also shows how despite being adored and cherished by loved ones, his predatory instincts ensue in him an inner conflict. With no real friends and increasing recognition of his latent extraterrestrial power, he starts to act on his violent calling. While the Superman story presupposes that a loving upbringing can outweigh a child's innate nature, Brightburn posits, and quite vacantly, that it cannot.

His parents were his only link to humanity, and we see him wanting and working for their approval. Despite his violent acts, he admits to wanting to be good, for them. It is only after feeling betrayed by his parents that we see Brandon completely give in to his genetically ingrained predatory instinct; reach the point past return. However, this is also the part where the movie misses out on a major opportunity. Before the alien spacecraft started speaking to Brandon, he was a fairly decent kid. But once that begins, we see him give in pretty easily. The potential of showing the inner conflict is wasted and it is neither explored nor explained why evil wins over good. It is assumed to win because it is otherworldly. As the audience, you are unable to root for this character because he shows no redeeming traits. While the story does toy a bit with his violence being righteous, that angle was forgotten soon enough as well.

Though the movie gives no backstory to Brandon, neither telling us where he came from nor why he came to earth, the alien calling he receives suggests that he was sent as a one-man invasion to earth, to Take The World. A sequence where Brandon talks about the difference between wasps and bees, stating that "… wasps are more aggressive, more dangerous. One species […] is called a brood parasite, they've lost the ability to make nests, so they use brute force to make other wasp species to raise their young," hints at his own reason for being. But with no real insight into his backstory or his motivations for world domination, he becomes more of a foot soldier carrying out his orders than a character you could invest in.

Albeit slated as a horror film, it fails to scare. While some of the killings are well-shot, even catching you off guard, the story starts feeling hackneyed too soon. While movies that are hard-pressed for time don't generally go for slow boiling mysteries, the incredibly rushed and blunt narrative build-up of Brightburn does not allow you to relate to or invest in most of the characters. The three leads do, however, give a great performance, luring you into the story and making it seem believable. But overall, it fails to deliver on its promise.

A mid-credit scene shows alternate versions of Aquaman and Wonder Woman, capsizing ships and choking people with ropes, hinting at the existence of alternate versions of the entire Justice League and the horror they would be capable of unleashing together. While that idea sounds incredibly fascinating, its delivery remains dubious, given the lapses in the creation of Brightburn. Superhero stories have always had the robust potential for exploring philosophical quandaries. They are much more than just action sequences — they're hard-hitting moral conundrums that give us a lot to think about. If only done the right way.

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