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SYFY WIRE opinion

Take the world: Brightburn reflects the anger of toxic young men

By Clint Worthington

The central premise of the James Gunn-produced horror film Brightburn is a simple, straightforward genre twist: What if Superman's origin story took a hard left turn, morphing him from a benevolent crusader for truth, justice, and the American Way to an unstoppably murderous psychopath? What if Clark wasn't raised by sweet Ma and Pa Kent, heard some voices in his early teens, and suddenly saw everyone around him as a threat to his self-professed superiority?

In a vacuum, it's an interesting idea, albeit one that James' brothers Mark and Brian Gunn, along with director David Yarovesky, don't quite realize with all the complexity it deserves. At its core, Brightburn is more concerned with using its premise as a vehicle to bring back the nasty, Troma-level gore of the hard-R horror movie — imagine Superman's speed, strength, and heat vision being used to tear innocent townspeople limb from limb, and you've got a good idea of Brightburn's grisly sensibilities.

But perhaps the most interesting element of Brightburn is how it couches this Clark-Kent-gone-bad narrative in very contemporary discussions about the way emotionally maladjusted young men are driven to radicalization and violence at those they deem inferior. Sure, on one level it's a genre exercise to turn Superman into a gloopy horror film. But along the way, it ends up charting a path scarily familiar to anyone who's read headlines about domestic violence, white nationalist rallies, or mass shootings.

This path comes in the form of Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn), a bullied kid suddenly burdened with mighty superpowers on his 12th birthday. Discovering his true origins as an alien fallen to Earth, he finds a different purpose for his abilities than defending the downtrodden. Wrapping himself in a makeshift mask and cape, he calls himself Brightburn and uses his gifts to visit a slow, painful death on anyone he deems "inferior."

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It's hard to watch the antics of the young, maladjusted Brandon and not think of the new, frightening school of disenfranchised young men (typically white) who fill Twitter threads with vitriol and churches with bullets. In the wake of decades of school shootings, the horror of Charlottesville, and the rise of the alt-right and white nationalism, there's something eerily familiar about the way Brandon's quick temper and petulant sense of entitlement (whether about girls or starter rifles) reflects their calm assertion that they're owed the world.

But what about the parents, you might ask? Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman), the Ma and Pa Kent analogues of Brightburn, are at once the ostensible protagonists and inadvertent causes of Brightburn's mayhem. They're sweet, nice, and innocent — certainly not the kind of people who would teach their child not to love thy neighbor — but Brightburn burdens them with an overabundance of ignorance. As Brandon goes through his many changes, they try to ignore them and chalk it all up to "puberty."

And yet we see the ways in which their particular parenting style is less than prepared for their child's sudden turn to anger. Interestingly enough, it's Kyle who figures out how dangerous Brandon is far more quickly than Tori, who only stops making excuses for him in the wake of a massive body count. Both here and in real life, "letting boys be boys" only takes you so far.

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Even well-meaning modes of masculinity can backfire in the wake of terrifying entitlement. Early in the film, Kyle takes Brandon hunting so they can have The Sex Talk. "It's okay to give in to … urges," Kyle awkwardly tries to tell him, not realizing that he's given him carte blanche to stalk a young classmate (Emmie Hunter) with whom he's obsessed. (Early in the film, she reassures him that "smart guys end up ruling the world," the second of two phrases he internalizes to deadly results.) It's a sly jab at the mindset rampant in incel culture, one in which ostracized men feel entitled to sexual attention and, in the case of people like Elliot Rodger, are willing to kill to get back at women who reject them.

This is not to say that Brightburn doesn't muddle this metaphor at times. It's implied that Brandon's turn to the dark side is borne of mysterious signals from the spaceship he crashed in (stowed away carefully in the Breyers' barn), practically possessing him with a demonic covenant to "take the world." And yet Brandon's own drives and impulses are undeniably at the center of his violence. After all, if he was truly just being puppeteered by alien forces, his murders wouldn't be so gruesome, so deliberately targeted to people who damaged Brandon's ego. He's not just taking the world; he's getting back at it.

And yet those signals also serve as a neat (if clumsy) metaphor for the ways modern boys become radicalized today: alt-right YouTube, 8chan, Trump rallies, their own households. (What else does the spaceship resemble if not a glowing red pill?) Hell, Michael Rooker even makes his obligatory Gunn family cameo in the credits as an Alex Jones type, rambling on about the end of the world in the film's grim closing. All the compassionate, patient parenting in the world can't compete with the steady drumbeat that young, angry men hear all the time on the darkest corners of the Internet: The world is yours, and they are trying to take it from you.

Granted, Brightburn seems relatively uninterested in exploring this subtext along with anything more than a surface level. In a recent interview with SYFY WIRE, Yarovesky asserts that Brandon's story was made outside of that contemporary context: "I made a movie that I wanted everyone to go to the theater and enjoy and not pull, not open political overture conversations ... I really wanted to make a movie that exists outside of those divisive lines."

But it's a subtext that was at least on the screenwriters' minds during the writing process: In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mark and Brian Gunn said they read accounts from the parents of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold when writing. Says Mark, "We hope that his rage is not glorious at all … That it's something that the audience will be sickened by." In that respect, they certainly succeeded.

In the final estimation, it's possible for Brightburn to be a stripped-down, gory horror film and invite those comparisons to the maladjusted, angry kids Brandon reflects in our own polarized political moment, regardless of intention. Amid the wince-inducing gore of Brightburn — all the glass being pulled out of peoples' eyes, the bodies mangled but not yet dead — it's the sheer unstoppability of its title character, and the entitlement he's socialized to exert, that might be the scariest element of all.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.