09 December 2018

BrightBurn Trailer Analysis

Brightburn looks like something I may have stumbled across on Netflix or seen as a demo reel on IndyMogul. I'm not saying that to knock it, but I can't help but feel if James Gunn's name wasn't plastered all over this trailer in light of his unfair and widely-publicized dismissal by Disney from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this might be regarded as a novelty, a mostly good idea that may or may not be enough to sustain a 90-minute runtime. 

I've got not problem with superhero movies that aren't directly adapting any existing material, and plenty of superheroes share origins along with powers that anybody yelling "rip-off" is a bit late to the party. Superman is a little bit of an odd duck because the "alien orphan" origin has only even been repeated for the sake of parody (Megamind). On that note, to anyone who thinks, "What if Superman were evil?" is in any way edgy or compelling or unsettling as a concept, I lean in and whisper in response, "That's what General Zod is for." Look, the Man of Steel has been around for over 70 years. The lore around him has become a multiverse unto itself, with every possible scenario regarding his morality played out in some way, shape, or form. He's been cloned/weaponized, brainwashed, hypnotized, driven insane, and that's not even putting the General Zod issue in perspective by bringing up all the other extraordinarily powerful adversaries Supes has had to fight off. The Evil Kryptonian is a weak enough proposition on its own merits that even stripping away the other superhero trappings to use as framework for a monster movie isn't blazing any trails. 

That said, on the subject of superhero horror: I'm there. I am so there. It's the only part of that Fant4stic Four reboot which really worked for the narrative and delivered on some genuine tension, even if it had to come at the expense of some pretty egregious character assassination. Seriously, why do villains in these movies have to become so cookie-cutter compared to their source material? We might as well give them all top hats and handlebar mustaches. 

Speaking of motivation (or lack thereof), the trailer implies a revenge angle (a la Carrie), the downtrodden kid getting back at the bullies who mocked him. However, we don't see anything like that. We see him scrawling an emblem over and over again in a notebook along with some voiceover exposition from Elizabeth Banks' character about general life hardships, but we don't have any obvious setup for a motivation. I could call this a flaw, but I actually think it might be a kind of subtle genius; there is no motivation for our menace. In fact, trying to force us to view a movie monster through the lens of a comic book superhero is humbly disarming, the terror bordering on existential. 

I can't find any exact figures on the budget, but horror doesn't lend itself to outlandish production values as their appeal and lasting qualities often have more to do with what you don't see than what you do. They also work best when they're as down-to-earth as possible, at least as a setup before all the terror sets in and disrupts your idyllic Americana-infused backdrop. Much of the psychology of horror is taking something mundane and ordinary to the point of inconsequential and making it into something that can hurt or kill you... or worse. On that front, this is hitting all the right notes: a quiet kid in an anonymous midwestern town is suddenly an uncontrollable force of nature bent on destruction and no one is equipped to handle the situation. 

Speaking of handling the situation, even if this is what could called a "medium budget" horror film with an emphasis on spectacle, it does limit the narrative in terms of resolution. Kevin Smith (in)famously scaled back the original, apocalyptic ending for Red State as it would have quadrupled the budget. Chronicle, another early example of superheroes played up as monsters, had a similarly more grandiose ending scrapped in favor of something more nuanced and ambiguous. Based on that, as well as this trailer, I'm going to throw down a spoiler warning and speculate on how Brightburn may end. Place your bets, cats and kittens; we can't let sports have all the fun. 

Much of the tension in the trailer not concerned with him discovering his powers comes from a scene of him being uncontrollably drawn to the spaceship that brought him to earth (kept a secret from him by Ma and Pa Not The Kents From Smallville). If I were asked to write a superhero horror movie but keep it simple (read: cheap) I could foresee two possible endings, the first of which involves that spaceship. If we're using it as some kind of narrative Macguffin for the plot to hinge upon, the obvious ending would be for his cradle to be his grave, so to speak. There's a writer's device known as Chekov's Gun, named for the playwright. It goes: If there's a gun on the mantle in the first act, someone had better be dead from it by the third. The inherent advice offered in this quip is to remove any unnecessary detail from your script. The other side of the coin spins it into a workaround for Deus Ex Machina, an ending that comes out of left field with no precedent set. As an example, I'm going to bring up Event Horizon, as I'm often wont to do in any discussion of horror movies. In that film, it's mentioned early on that the midsection of the ship is lined with explosive charges, meant as a last resort safety measure to separate the front of the ship from its engine. It is mentioned in the alpha, thus it becomes our omega. That's an oversimplification, but the point remains that it doesn't come out of left field because we pointed in its direction and said, "Hey, left field's that way and it packs a wallop." If Brightburn is Superman, then maybe his ship was powered by Kryptonite, or is lined with the stuff, or has a manual for how to make it, or what have you. If it is what gives him his powers, maybe it holds what may also take them away. It waxes a tad myopic, but for my money I would call them solid enough nuts and bolts to hold a narrative together. I wouldn't love it, but I would appreciate what it had to do given its circumstances. 

The cast list reveals two names for our super, one labeled as "young" and the other as "adult." Barring any accelerated aging (say, as part of his powers developing), this mostly throws a wrench in the works as to the Chekov's Gun idea for a resolution. This leads me to the ending I would personally prefer, one that ends with the start of a reign of terror. Something people often don't realize about the Alien franchise is that across all of them, the alien always wins. No, really, the alien always wins. Even when it's defeated, it's not only temporary, but such a costly defeat that our survivors end up in worse situations than when they started. Some argue what kind of narrative that is, to have their investment in our heroes overcoming impossible odds not pan out. It's a fair point, but I would ask then where it's written that horror movies need happy endings with all the toys put back in the box? I mean, does anyone watch an adaptation of a Shakespearean tragedy thinking maybe this time no one has to die? 

Going back to Chekov's Kryptonite, there is a third possible outcome, one presented by our voiceover from Not Ma Kent, about there being good in our Little Orphan Anarchy. He may well see the light, recognize he can use his powers for good, and shed his villain persona. Maybe they'll even cheekily end it on the arrival of a true and proper adversary, complete with a "THE END?" card before the credits roll. 

I would hate such an ending. That is the bar I would set for betrayal, a desperate attempt to unring the bell and make some point about redemption to go along with our messiah tropes. That kind of character psychology and pondering is wasted on spine-tingling chills and thrills, however effectively those sensations are delivered. 

I want the superhero horror sub-genre to persist, and I certainly don't want The New Mutants to bear that burden all by itself, but I wonder if Brightburn will deliver the super strength needed to make that happen.