It’s rather ironic that Brightburn (dir. David Yarovesky, 2019) makes clear cinematographic references throughout to The Omen (1976) and Superman: The Movie (1978), two films directed, one after the other, by outspoken progressive Richard Donner, who peppered his works with nods to causes he ardently supported, whether it was second-wave feminism and abortion rights, opposition to animal cruelty, or the South African anti-apartheid movement. Though the overt shade of Donner is muted here, mention is merited because of the obvious synthesis being suggested by Yarovesky and writers Mark and Brian Gunn, whose brother James is producer here and the director of the two Guardians of the Galaxy pictures from the gargantuan Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Besides the obvious aforementioned reason, there is another aspect that comes into the foreground. We’ve been living for 19 years now in the age of superhero box-office smashes, ever since X-Men (incidentally produced by Richard’s wife Lauren Shuler Donner) became a surprise hit in 2000 and was quickly followed by Tobey Maguire’s run as Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Over the past two decades, with the exceptions of low-budget outliers like Kick-Ass (2010), teen-aged television serial dramas like Smallville (2001-2011), and the postmodern extravaganza Deadpool productions, comic book movies have been reliably operating within the action-adventure genre, loaded to the brim with explosions and stunt sequences that attempt to out-do their predecessors.
Brightburn not only is trying to plow new ground by fusing the superhero genre with supernatural/psychological horror films that were popular during a high point of American cinema during the last century, it also has a very subtle critique of its predecessors from the 21st century that many critics are missing.
The Nolan Batman films had as a moral the idea that a benighted, blighted society could only be saved by the philanthropic, titanic billionaire who would swoop down from on high to battle forces of evil that were embodied by a populist democratic upsurge in the form of a violent rabble.
The Marvel MCU films were a gigantic propaganda hurrah for the axis of American-Western Europe-NATO militarism on a multi-national level, with the Avengers program run by SHIELD as a variation on the international military forces that first materialized with the Clinton administration’s siege of socialist Yugoslavia. Premiering in the aftermath of the Bush administration’s catastrophic invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and continuing through Obama’s horrendous expansion of these wars across the Global South and his equally-grotesque domestic resuscitation of Wall Street’s deregulated cowboy capitalism, each picture had a liberal sheen covering a Reagan-style notion of American exceptionalism. Most grotesque was the reactionary finale of Black Panther, which criminalized the ideology of international pan-African liberation espoused by villain Killmonger while newly-crowned Wakandan king Ta-Chala ends the film sharing his groundbreaking vibranium technology with the CIA (the agency responsible for the murder of Patrice Lumumba) and endowing low-income Black residents of South Central Los Angeles with paternalistic top-down NGO charitable foundation pittances.
But while the Marvel films were Clinton/Obama neoliberals with capes, their crosstown rivals at DC and the new string of films beginning with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) and continuing with Justice League (2017) are even more right wing.
Snyder, undeniable leader of the DC Extended Universe film franchise, subscribes to Ayn Rand’s insane Objectivism “philosophy” (he’s even begun planning a new film adaptation of Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead), which sees greed as virtuous and free market capitalism as divine. The most notable and important Objectivist in contemporary times of course is Alan Greenspan, whose tenure at the Federal Reserve allowed for the destruction of New Deal regulations of America’s economy, which in turn was the catalyst of the 2007-2008 financial crash.
While Donner used Christopher Reeve as a vehicle to promote the ideological gains of the 1960s and ‘70s, mocking Norman Rockwell Americana with a Clark Kent that was a nebbish dweeb and directing Margot Kidder to act as though she’d been birthed by Betty Friedan, recent Superman pictures are the exact opposite message. Heroes from both Marvel and DC project a mildly fascistic ideology that is light on the explicit racism but just as militaristic and wed to finance capitalism.
This is what Brightburn is actually about. While most critics have been saying the story is asking “what would happen if Superman had been evil rather than good when he developed his superpowers?,” instead the film is actually saying “what would happen if Superman followed the ideology of his recent film incarnations to their philosophical conclusion?” The Clark Kent/Superboy stand-in is named Brandon, a one letter difference from Rand’s onetime collaborators Barbara and Nathaniel Branden. The motto taken up by the lad, beamed into his mind telepathically by the rocket that he crash-landed to earth in, is an Objectivist-flavored paen, “Take the world.” The boy’s behavior is not so much satanic a la Damian in the Omen films as it is descended from the noble Randian titans of capital in Atlas Shrugged.
There are aspects to the film that are weak. In terms of characterization, the script is recycling verbatim elements from both Donner antecedents. The story is not so much a linear plot as a string of scenes featuring a creepy tween using his superpowers for bad. Gory set pieces are thrown at the audience in a way that seems like a lousy substitution for the quality screenwriting seen in M. Night Shyamalan’s recently-completed Unbreakable trilogy, another effort to blend superheroics with psychological thriller conventions.
But as a parable about out own insane political landscape, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see the frightful super-tyke as diminutive personification of the forces that have brought us to a moment where our federal government is kidnapping children from their undocumented parents and covering up when the children die.
And that is the real horror of the entire affair.