Puberty never comes subtly.
For some, the first sign is an unwanted zit right on the tip of the nose. For others, it’s an embarrassing voice crack when talking with that cute girl in algebra.
For Brandon Breyer, it was when he hurled a lawn mower a couple hundred yards though the air.
His parents never asked why he didn’t cut the grass. And you’d think they would’ve at least wondered what happened to the mower. But no matter: Soon they had other worries.
At first, Tori and Kyle Breyer tried to keep the changes they saw in Brandon in perspective. They knew adolescence could be tough. They didn’t want to panic when the kid started getting a little moodier. And when they found a stash of suggestive pictures under his bed, Mom and Dad were reassured that it was all perfectly normal. Why, every red-blooded American boy looks at bikini shots, right? Sure, the pics of bloody, exposed organs were a little unusual, but still. Just normal adolescent weirdness for a normal adolescent boy.
Admittedly, Brandon’s new habit of sleepwalking concerned Tori a bit—especially when he would sleepwalk straight to that padlocked trap door in the barn and chant in an unknown language.
But even so, she didn’t tell Kyle. He’d probably just overreact. He’d fly off the handle and assume the kid was somehow drawn to the weird space capsule they’d hid down there—the very same capsule, in fact, that they pulled Brandon from 12 years before.
Nope, Tori was pretty sure (or, at least, hopeful) that Brandon was just sleepwalking—just like lots of other non-extraterrestrial boys his age. Everything’s normal. Fine. Juuuuust Fine.
Once the lawn gets cut, I’m sure she’ll feel much better about everything.
Brightburn could be seen as the very worst-case adoption scenario. But for this section’s purposes, let’s look at it as more of an endorsement of how adoption works: For, while the process can feel extraordinarily long and unnecessarily bureaucratic, these safeguards do minimize the possibility of welcoming non-human psychopathic entities into your family. Better to go through the correct procedures than to secretly pluck babies from alien spacecraft.
It also strongly suggests that, if parents do pick up stray extra-terrestrial infants they might find on their property, it’s good to be mindful of the fact that they might not always be quite what they seem. Also, communicate with friends and neighbors about the true nature of your child—and your struggles as parents. It really does take a village to raise a kid up right, especially a kid who gets urges to vaporize said village with his heat-ray eyes.
The movie offers one final cautionary note. It’s important to love your kids unconditionally, no matter what they’ve done. But you do need to set reasonable behavioral expectations for them, too, and enforce strong-but-fair punishments when necessary at an early age. Because if you start too late, and you feel the need to kill your super-strong, homicidal extraterrestrial child for the sake of all humanity, things tend to get worse.
Brightburn is an extraordinarily dark reworking of the Superman story: The Man of Steel also came from a distant planet, crash-landed on a farm as an infant and was raised by kindly humans. And because Superman himself has often been interpreted as sort of a pop-culture reworking of the Christian Messiah, Brandon might be viewed as something of a superhero antichrist.
We’re given an explicit nod to that possibility. When Tori tells Brandon about the rather outlandish way he came to live with them, she describes how she and Kyle “prayed and prayed” for a child of their own—to God, to the universe, to whoever or whatever would listen to them. “One night—one perfect night—someone answered,” she says.
She tells Brandon that he’s a gift, and she continues to believe that when most folks think otherwise. That said, Brandon’s creepy connection with his extraterrestrial origins feels, especially early on, very much like possession.
We also get indications that Tori and Kyle are religious, though not deeply so. At one point, we learn that they haven’t gone to church in a while.
That above remark about church comes when Kyle’s making the moves on his wife—suggesting what else they haven’t done for a while. They kiss and cuddle a bit before the camera discretely leaves, with Tori warning Kyle to be quiet lest they wake Brandon.
In a flashback, we see the two engaged in foreplay: Both are fully clothed, but Tori straddles Kyle as they discuss how they’re going to try to make a baby. (Books on how to combat infertility are seen in the foreground.) They reminisce about their own adolescent days, when they’d fool around in their parents’ basement.
Kyle has “the talk” with Brandon during a camping trip, telling him that it’s OK to “play with himself” and act on the “urges” he’s having. “Right now?” Brandon asks. Kyle says that “right now” is probably not that appropriate. But that night, Brandon sneaks into the bedroom of a pretty classmate of his: She sees him and is (naturally) horrified, calling him a “pervert” in front of their gym class the next day. (He later tries to make amends by invading her room again and leaving her flowers.)
In addition to the bloody organ pictures Tori finds under Brandon’s bed, we see more traditional bikini-clad girlie images, too. Later, we see one naked female body, though in a context so violently horrific that there’s nothing titilating about it. Read on.
Ugh. Just … ugh.
Among the many shots of visceral violence here, we see the disemboweled corpse of a naked woman apparently nailed to a wall.
Brandon kills his uncle, Noah, by lifting the vehicle that he’s driving up in the air and then dropping it to the road below. We see Noah’s face smash into the steering wheel, breaking off his jaw and sending his head through the windshield. The dying man holds his jaw to his face as best as he can while gurgling out his last breaths, and Brandon sticks a finger in the spurting blood to mark his own personal symbol beside the carnage.
Another person suffers terrible facial injuries after a fluorescent bulb shatters while she’s looking at it. One shard sticks in her eyeball, and the movie dedicates what seems like an eternity watching her grotesquely pull it out.
Someone else gets sent flying through a roof and rises higher and higher, only to be dropped from thousands of feet in the air. A guy has his eyes, brains and the back of his skull burned clean through by Brandon’s heat-ray vision. Another victim is completely and grotesquely obliterated, leaving just splotches of blood and gore behind. Still another unfortunate is bashed against walls and windows and left bloody and mutilated but still somehow, horrifically, alive—until that person, too, mercifully expires several moments later.
Brandon freaks out the family chickens, much to Kyle’s consternation. That night, Kyle hears a commotion in the chicken pen and finds all the birds grotesquely killed and mutilated.
Brandon crushes the hand of a classmate in his superhuman grip. He causes planes to crash (killing more than 200 people), office buildings to fall and forest fires to rage (in news footage that we see). He also deals plenty of nonlethal damage to folks, leaving them bloodied and momentarily terrified before performing the coup de grâce. Brandon pushes his father into a built-in shelf cabinet, breaking not just the cabinet, but the wall on the other side. (He does lots of damage to property throughout, by the way.)
Brandon draws pictures of much of the carnage he creates, by the way—startling and graphic line drawings that someone finally stumbles across.
Brandon sticks his hand in a whirring lawnmower blade—breaking the blade but leaving his own hand unscathed. (Kyle later reminds Tori that the kid has never bled in his entire life.) We’re later given the opportunity to see that bullets don’t do much to him, either. But Brandon does suffer a bloody wound on his hand when he comes into contact with some of the metal from his old spacecraft.
In a dream, Kyle sees an infant Brandon wrapped in a blanket, blood pouring out of the bundle of joy.
Nearly 20 f-words and about 15 s-words. We also hear “a–,” “d–n” and “h—.” God’s name is misused about five times, twice with the word “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused three times, including one combination with an f-word.
Noah drives home from a bar after having a few drinks, even though Kyle offers a couple of times to drive him. After Noah is killed by Brandon, some assume that the accident was caused by the man’s inebriation. Other characters drink beer on occasion.
Brandon clearly has a lot of faults, but he also lies like crazy—mostly to keep his parents from finding out about all the murders he’s committing. But both Tori and Kyle lie to their son on occasion, too.
When Brandon goes missing during a camping trip, he later pops out of the woods and says he just needed to urinate.
Sometimes hard movies tell hard truths. Sometimes films filled with difficult, wincing levels of content can contain some semblance of goodness or meaning or morality down at their core.
Brightburn is not one of those movies. Like the disturbed alien child at its center, this movie feels bad to its very marrow.
Sometimes the story suggests that there is some spark of goodness in Brandon. But any real effort at fleshing out his character’s complexity or inner conflicts ultimately falls flat. The film has one explicit moral: If you find a stray child near an alien spacecraft, you might want to tell the authorities instead of pocketing the kid as your own.
If you’re trying to extrapolate a wider message from the movie, it’s that you should never, ever be too kind to anyone; and you should never decide to adopt or care for someone who might need it.
Brightburn isn’t just grotesque and horrific (as R-rated horror movies tend to be). It’s cynical and depressing and utterly, horribly gratuitous. It’s almost as if its creators (including executive producer James Gunn, who makes a disappointing left turn from his much lighter Guardians of the Galaxy movies) were interested, like Brandon, in seeing how much pain and anguish they could inflict upon moviegoers.
Brightburn takes the milk of human kindness and curdles it. It subverts the superhero narrative into something infinitely darker. I hated every single minute I spent watching Brightburn. Every. Single. Minute.
And guess what? If the closing footage is to be believed, and if the box-office returns merit it, it looks like they want to make Brightburn the cornerstone of a new franchise.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.