What if Kal-El Was Evil? (Brightburn Movie Review)

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A Brief History

On September 2, 2019, we take a moment to review a nifty “What if?” horror film, Brightburn.  The title comes from a mythical small town in Kansas, one that is more or less analogous to Smallville in the Superman super-hero franchise.  But what if little Kal-El came to Earth and turned out to not be on our side?  Brightburn kind of addresses that question.

Digging Deeper

With a modest budget of less than $12 million, you would not expect spectacular action and gaudy scenes that show off cutting edge special effects.  And you would be right!  Although the special effects used are quite good and appropriate to the scenes they are used in, this movie is about terror, not eye candy.  Consider Brightburn a horror film, not a super-hero film.  (Coincidentally, this horror emphasis is exactly what the film makers are going for.)

Director David Yarovesky has Guardians of the Galaxy and The Hive in his resume, so he comes well equipped to direct an entertaining film featuring alien life forms and horror.  We believe he did a good job and that the cast was well chosen for their parts.  No cast member stood out as being out of place or not in line with the character they were playing.  Born in 2003, Jackson A. Dunn plays the main character, a 12 year old boy named Brandon Breyer.  As an infant, the boy arrived on Earth via a space capsule from an unknown alien planet, conveniently found by a farm couple (the Breyers) desperate to conceive a child.  Et voila!  The heavens give the couple their child and they readily claim him as their own, just like the Kents take in little Kal-El.  Of course, the Breyers do not let on that they are in possession of an alien baby, and somehow are able to pull off pretending he is their natural son.  Nor do they tell the lad he is really an extra-terrestrial being.  Elizabeth Banks (of The Hunger Games and Pitch Perfect movies) and David Denman (another seasoned actor) play Brandon’s adoptive parents.

Once the kid turns about 12, things start happening.  Bad things.  Things we will not discuss here, because we prefer to avoid spoilers that would ruin the movie for you.  As is readily discerned from the trailer, the kid is not the humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize candidate that Superboy/Superman/Kal-El is.  No, he is something else.  Clues as to his evil nature come slowly, so there is no sudden realization as to the problem at hand for the Breyers.  Other people seem to notice a problem with Brandon, but the Breyers are more or less in denial.  Until they cannot be in denial any longer!

The movie is short on action and long on terror.  The anticipation and tension make the movie work, not reliance on colorful effects, although there is indeed a certain number of spectacular things that happen.  We found ourselves playing the “What if it was us?” game.  At what point would we give up and seek help from authorities?

Brightburn was released in May of 2019 (we watched it on pay television) and it took in over $32 million at the box office,  so it is already a financial success, though a little disappointing to investors that planned on a better performance.  The aggregate critical site, Rotten Tomatoes, reports a 57% rating from its critics, but an audience approval rating of 67%.  (Audiences know what entertains them, and apparently critics do not because we often see large differences between critical acclaim and audience approval.)

Theatrical release poster for the film Brightburn.  The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, Sony Pictures Releasing, the publisher of the film, or the graphic artist

The movie is not necessarily great, but it does meet expectations and entertained us.  The running time of 90 minutes is about right for a horror movie, and there are some mid-credit scenes so make sure you keep watching through the credits.  The film is rated R, as all horror movies should be!  Pre-teens might be spooked by the tension and killing in the movie, but we believe normal teens would have no problems with this film.

Stephen Hawking, perhaps the smartest man on Earth while he lived (1942-2018) warned us shortly before he died that trying to contact extra-terrestrial beings was sort of stupid, that the odds were overwhelming that any alien life with intelligence superior to ours would likely eat us or enslave us.  Our mythical fiction universes of benevolent aliens such as Superman are most likely wishful thinking.  Brightburn addresses this trope in an arguably more realistic way than does the Superman/Kal-El story.

Even without the juxtaposition of the Kal-El story, Brightburn works even as a stand-alone cautionary tale.  If you like to be scared, be sure to take in this film while you can.  And if you discover an alien space capsule, please do not adopt the baby inside!

Question for students (and subscribers):   Are aliens likely to be friend or foe?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Hawking, Stephen. Brief Answers to the Big Questions.  Bantam, 2018.

White, Mark. Superman and Philosophy: What Would the Man of Steel Do? Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

The featured image in this article is the theatrical release poster for the film Brightburn.  The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, Sony Pictures Releasing, the publisher of the film, or the graphic artist.  It is believed that the use of scaled-down, low-resolution images of posters in an article that provides critical commentary on the film on a website intended for educational and journalistic purposes qualifies as fair use under the copyright law of the United States.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.