BRIGHTBURN (2019) – Predictable Horror Superhero Tale

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What if Superman didn’t turn out to be a nice guy? If his powers made him a monster instead of a superhero?

That’s basically the premise behind BRIGHTBURN (2019), the new horror superhero movie—is there even such a thing? I guess there is now— that asks the question: if you discovered the baby you always wanted in the woods, how long would you turn a blind eye on his murderous shenanigans in the name of love? In this movie, a bit too long.

Now, this movie is not about Superman. The Man of Steel is not in this film, but the two origin stories share obvious similarities.

Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) are struggling to have a baby, but one night, their prayers are answered, as something crash lands outside their farmhouse, and there they discover a baby boy which they decide to adopt as their own. The story jumps to a decade later where young Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is celebrating his 12th birthday.

These are unsettling times for Brandon. He’s in middle school, going through puberty, and he’s hearing voices in his head from the ship hidden beneath his parents’ barn telling him to take on the world. In short, he’s an angry little tyke, and in this film he unleashes his anger by hurting people he deems as threat in horrific ways that include glass shards to the eye, breaking a young girl’s hand, and dropping a car to the ground in order to shatter the driver’s face. Yup, it’s a horror movie.

Brandon’s parents want to love their son, but eventually they realize they had better do something about him— you think???— but by the time they decide to take action, it may be too late.

I enjoyed BRIGHTBURN well enough, but not as much as I wanted to. The two main knocks for me against this film are that 1) it’s very predictable, and 2) there’s not a whole lot of imagination behind it.

Once the story is introduced, it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen. You know that Brandon is bad news, and the plot unfolds in ways that offer no surprises. The screenplay by Brian and Mark Gunn offers little in the way of imagination, which is too bad because there were a lot of creative directions this one could have taken, but it doesn’t.

A scene early on in the movie where Brandon is in a science class features a discussion of bees and wasps in which it’s said that wasps are so ruthlessly busy they enslave others to raise their young, hinting of course that this may be the rationale behind Brandon’s real otherworldly parents. This notion had the potential to be something really sinister, but the film never returns to it. We learn absolutely nothing about Brandon’s real parents or where he came from.

When Brandon gives in to his evil ways, he wears a mask. Why? It’s not clearly explained and seems to be a thin excuse to tie this tale in to the superhero motif.

It also takes his parents forever to do anything about their son. They wait so long it strains credulity.

BRIGHTBURN is also another of those origin stories that gives its audience 85 minutes of mundane storytelling, only to offer much more imaginative ideas in the final 5 minutes, as if to say, this is what we have in store for you in the sequel. BRIGHTBURN would have been a better movie if some of what is shown in the last five minutes had happened midway through the film.

Director David Yarovesky tries hard to have the film earn its R rating with some graphic shots of facial mutilation, but sadly, this doesn’t really make much of an impact. There really aren’t a whole lot of memorable scenes or images in BRIGHTBURN. It’s all rather flat.

Elizabeth Banks is fine as mommy Tori Breyer. She’s hell-bent on defending her son to the last, and at times it almost seems as though she’d be okay with her son being an evil monster, but the film doesn’t take things that far.

Likewise David Denman is okay as daddy Kyle. And his big dramatic scene where he decides that enough is enough, and he takes Brandon deep into the woods to hunt, where he plans to shoot his son, is symptomatic of what’s wrong with BRIGHTBURN. On its surface, it’s a fairly dramatic and watchable sequence, but it’s not riveting, we don’t see Kyle in anguish over this decision, nor do we see him in impassioned rage that he has to save the world from his son. Nope. It’s just sort of there.

That’s how the whole movie is. It’s watchable, but it’s just sort of there.

Jackson A. Dunn is sufficiently creepy as Brandon, but that’s about it. We never really learn what Brandon is really about, nor do we know what’s going through his mind in most of his scenes.

Matt Jones, who played Badger on BREAKING BAD (2008-2013), enjoys a few lively and humorous moments in a small role as Brandon’s uncle Noah.

For a brief while, BRIGHTBURN was almost the perfect metaphor for middle school angst, both for the student and the student’s parents, but the film simply isn’t creative enough to sustain such symbolism.

BRIGHTBURN is an okay movie. It’s a horror movie because its main character can and does kill people with ease and in horrific ways, but it’s not scary nor even suspenseful. It’s a superhero movie in appearance only, as Brandon dons a mask and flies around, and of courses possesses super powers. But there’s no depth here, no conversations about the responsibilities that go with great power, no human interactions which shape Brandon’s world outlook. There’s just anger, aggression, and murder, and from a protagonist we know little about.

And we know nothing of Brandon’s otherworldly parents, but based on his actions in this movie, I’m guessing they’re more like the Predator species than Jor El.

There’ll be no inspirational daddy videos at the Fortress of Solitude here.

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Wonder Woman Leads the Way as Superheroes Save JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

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As a kid, I slightly preferred the Marvel superhero comics to DC, but I pretty much enjoyed them both.

But in the past decade, in the movie world, Marvel’s movies have been far superior to what DC has churned out.  The DC films have been largely problematic. That changed a bit earlier this year with the release of WONDER WOMAN (2017),  the best DC film to hit the big screen since THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

The upward trend continues with the release of JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017), the tale of a group of DC superheroes working together for the first time.  While not as good as Marvel’s AVENGERS movies, JUSTICE LEAGUE is another step forward, helped immensely by the presence of Wonder Woman, played once again by the astonishing Gal Gadot.

When a JUSTICE LEAGUE opens, Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead, but as every superhero fan knows, the Man of Steel is never gone forever.  Movie fans will know as well, as soon as they see Henry Cavill’s name listed prominently in the opening credits.

With Superman gone, the door is open for the powers of darkness to make Earth their own, because frankly, while other superheroes may be tough, it seems only Superman can keep the truly heinous baddies from strutting their stuff.  In this case, it’s Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) who centuries ago was banished by an alliance between the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and the humans.  With Superman dead, Steppenwolf returns to finish the job he set out to do eons before, namely, to destroy the world.

Realizing that Steppenwolf is a superior foe, Batman (Ben Affleck) assembles a team of heroes, including Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).  But even their combined strength isn’t enough to take Steppenwolf down, leading Batman to suggest the outlandish plan of resurrecting Superman from the dead, even if his newfound superfriends warn him against doing so. The young Flash nervously worries that such a plan could lead to Pet Sematary-like results.

I really enjoyed JUSTICE LEAGUE.  The script by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon works mostly because it keeps things simple.  The story is not overly ambitious and therefore avoids being overdone and complicated, as was the case with the recent BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) which try as it might failed to establish a convincing relationship between Batman and Superman.  You could actually argue that the story here is rather stupid, but in this case, that doesn’t really matter because the strength of JUSTICE LEAGUE is its superhero characters, and the actors playings these roles all acquit themselves rather nicely.

Joss Whedon of course both wrote and directed THE AVENGERS movies, and his influence is apparent in this movie when the superfriends bicker and take jabs at each other.  And while Christ Terrio wrote BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, a movie I didn’t like, he also wrote ARGO (2012), a film I definitely did like.  There is a lot of smart dialogue in this film, which helps lift it above its very standard plot, like when Batman criticizes Wonder Woman for not having ever taking a leadership role.  He correctly points out that Superman has been a beacon for the world, but he had never even heard of Wonder Woman until recently, and he accuses of her hiding in the shadows during the past century.

It’s safe to say that after the success of WONDER WOMAN, one of the biggest draws of JUSTICE LEAGUE is not Batman or Superman, but Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Gadot does not disappoint.  She was clearly my favorite part of this movie, and when she is on-screen, the film is at its best.  She possesses such a strong screen presence, she’s astonishingly beautiful, and is completely believable as an unstoppable warrior princess.

But Wonder Woman alone wouldn’t be enough to save a movie called JUSTICE LEAGUE, and thankfully, her superhero counterparts are also quite good.

While I didn’t really like the look of Batman’s cowl and costume, Ben Affleck is quite effective as the caped crusader.  It’s a convincing performance, and I liked Affleck even better here as Batman than in BATMAN V SUPERMAN.  There are also plenty of potshots made by his friends at his lack of super powers.  At one point, he’s asked just what his superpowers are, and he answers, “I’m rich.”

Strangely, when Affleck appears as Bruce Wayne, he seemed a bit fleshy in the face which works against the idea that Batman is a fit fighting machine.  There’s also a neat nod to the Michael Keaton BATMAN movies here, as composer Danny Elfman incorporates his original BATMAN theme from that 1989 flick into some of the Batman scenes.

Likewise, Henry Cavill scores high as Superman.  In fact, it’s probably my favorite Cavill performance as the Man of Steel.  He comes off as sincere and is far less troubled than in previous films with concerns over how the world views him.  It seems death has been a good thing for Superman, as while he was gone, the world seemed to have missed him.

Ezra Miller is fun as the Flash, although at times the humor seemed a bit forced.  I also enjoyed Ray Fisher as Cyborg, and really enjoyed Jason Momoa as Aquaman, who gets some of the better lines in the movie.

The film is also helped by a strong supporting cast, led by Amy Adams as Lois Lane.  Adams isn’t in the movie much, but to have Adams in a cast as a supporting player can only add to a movie, and her few scenes are all nicely done.  Jeremy Irons gets a decent amount of screen time as Alfred, and he makes the most of his scenes.

Diane Lane is effective as Clark Kent’s mother Martha Kent, and Connie Nielson reprises her role from WONDER WOMAN as Queen Hippolyta. J.K. Simmons appears briefly as Commissioner Gordon, and Amber Heard is seen all too fleetingly as one of Aquaman’s associates, Mera.

Director Zack Snyder achieved better results here than he did with both BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and MAN OF STEEL (2013). One of the ways that JUSTICE LEAGUE is superior is Snyder controlled himself here and didn’t film action scenes that went on for too long.  They are generally quick, efficient, and well done.

I thought the pacing was especially good.  The film runs for just about two hours, but it flew by for me and felt more like 90 minutes.

Like its Marvel counterparts, there are a couple of after credit scenes.  The first one is well worth the wait, but the second at the very end involves a certain villain played by a certain actor who I really don’t want to see again.  Oh well.

The film also opens with a curious bit featuring Superman, which was enjoyable enough, but I thought at some point in the movie the story would return to this moment, but it never does.

JUSTICE LEAGUE features a straightforward and rather simple if not predictable story, but in this case it seems to be just what these DC films have needed.  The DC films that haven’t worked have been bogged down with plot points that didn’t work and action scenes that went on for far too long.  It truly seemed as if they were struggling to find their identity.

WONDER WOMAN established its identity right away, and while JUSTICE LEAGUE isn’t quite as successful as WONDER WOMAN, it too establishes itself right away.  It sacrifices plot for characterization, using most of the screen time to establish its Justice League personalities, and the film is better for it.

The superheroes here not only save the world, but the movie.

As such, JUSTICE LEAGUE is highly recommended.

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