Character motivations in Brightburn

Brightburn (2019)

Synopsis: What if a child from another world crash-landed on Earth, but instead of becoming a hero to mankind, he proved to be something far more sinister?

Runtime: 91 mins

Starring: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Emmie Hunter, Matt Jones

Writers: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn

Director: David Yarovesky

IMDb page

Superhero-as-slasher. It’s such a simple, fun idea.

Brightburn tells a dark-and-bloody story about a Kansas (of course) couple, whose farm becomes the landing site for a mysterious object from somewhere out there.

That object turns out to be a small spaceship containing a small child, who grows up to be the possessor of great strength and speed, heat vision and nigh-invulnerability, and flight.

While that all may seem familiar, Brightburn veers off the path by revealing that this particular super-being isn’t big on the whole “hero” part. There’s a deep, deep, darkness here, and soon, the town of Brightburn, Kansas is dealing with a series of grisly murders, committed by a 12-year-old serial killer with superpowers.

This was a fun one. It’s a tight, well-acted flick, with some memorable scenes, and imaginative, bloody kills. It builds an interesting world you want to see more of, touching on some compelling ideas for a sequel or two.

I do want to dive into one particular aspect of the film, however: character motivations, specifically those of our main anti-hero himself, Brandon Breyer.

Spoilers from this point forward.

Quite frankly, as much as I enjoyed the film, and honestly feel it generally works pretty well, this is one area where things get a bit muddled. Which is to say, what, exactly, are Brandon’s motivations to do the things he does? Why does he choose to be evil, and do such terrible things?

The film gives us several possible answers to those questions. They are, in no particular order:

1. Brandon thinks he’s “superior” to humans

As part of his punishment for breaking a classmate’s hand with his super-strength, Brandon attends counselling at the school (his aunt, incidentally, is the counsellor). In one particular exchange, he tells her he’s come to understand he’s different than others. Superior to them.

He tells Caitlyn, the girl who’s hand he crushed, that one day, everyone will know who he is.

Brandon also tends to leave his symbol at his crime scenes, and later, burned into the grass at the farmhouse.

2. Brandon is being programmed to act this way

When we first meet Brandon, he doesn’t know where he came from. He knows he’s been adopted. But his ship, which is hidden in the barn, calls to him, speaking in a strange, alien language, telling him to “take the world.” Whoever sent him to Earth didn’t send him there to be a superhero.

3. Brandon lashes out at people who he thinks are insulting or embarrassing him (justified as they may be)

At one point, Brandon zips off from the campsite he’s sharing with his parents to the home of Caitlyn, whom, at this point in the film, he has a crush on.

Presumably using his super-speed, he keeps playing a romantic song on Caitlyn’s laptop. This, understandably, freaks her out, and things escalate when she catches a glimpse of Brandon hovering outside her window.

Later, when Brandon is in gym class playing a sort of trust-fall game with his classmates, Caitlyn wants nothing to do with him. She reels back as Brandon falls toward her, refusing to catch him. He falls to the ground.

Brandon breaks her hand in retaliation as she helps him up.

It’s probably worth mentioning that Brandon is also bullied by a group of students in his class (Caitlyn is not among them), and they’re laughing at him during this scene, too. But it’s also worth noting that none of those bullies, specifically, get any sort of on-screen comeuppance.

4. Brandon doesn’t want to be told what to do

At his 12th birthday party, Brandon’s aunt and uncle give him a gun. Brandon’s father forbids it, and Brandon makes a scene, demanding he give the gun back, slamming his hand down on the table and causing all the tvs and other electronics to temporarily short out.

Later, Brandon visits Caitlyn again, who is terrified, and tells him her mom says she can’t speak to him. Brandon’s reaction is to go to the diner where Caitlyn’s mother works and kill her.

Brandon also lashes out at his father, throwing him into a shelf, when he accuses Brandon of lying about his uncle’s death.

5. Brandon kills for self-preservation, or to get revenge on those who betray him

This idea comes into play twice. First, Brandon kills his adoptive father after the latter attempts to shoot and kill Brandon during a hunting trip toward the end of the film. The bullet, of course, bounces off.

Second, Brandon kills his adoptive mother after she attempts to kill him with a shard of metal taken from his ship – this is the film’s version of kryptonite, as the metal on the ship is shown to be the only thing that can actually cut Brandon.

6. Brandon wants to be, essentially, left alone

Brandon kills his uncle after the latter finds Brandon in his house at night, and threatens to tell his parents about it.

Just before this, Brandon threatens his aunt, after she tells him she’ll be updating the school and sheriff on his progress.

7. Brandon is just a killer

Brandon kills a coopful of chickens for no particular reason.

At the end of the film, he causes an airliner to crash, killing hundreds of people, and over the closing credits, he’s showing to be causing some heavy destruction in the town, presumably now in full-on supervillain mode.

Brandon’s leaving his symbol around may be evidence of this, too – he doesn’t really care who knows (why would he?), and/or probably gets something of a thrill out of what he’s doing.

There’s no reason why it can’t be all of these things – I’m not saying the film doesn’t work as it stands. Just bear with me here.

All of these things are pulling Brandon in the same direction. He’s not really given much in the way of moments of humanity or regret – he does have a scene at the end of the film in which he tells his mother he wants to do good.

But by that point, he’s lied more than once, and we’ve seen him do plenty of terrible things. It seemed to me Brandon knew what she was up to – this happens just before she attempts to kill him – and was telling her what she wanted to hear. There’s no real guilt, no internal struggle, no conflict between light and dark seen in Brandon.

The interesting thing here, though, is thinking through how much the film would change if Brandon’s motivation was cleaned up.

Take, for example, the possibility that Brandon is just an amoral killer with superpowers. Assume Brandon thinks he’s superior to humans, who are the buzzing of flies to him.

What would that movie look like? A large-scale, disaster/war film, with the armies of the world uniting to fight off this nearly-invincible, superpowered teenager. Man of Steel from Zod’s point of view, and without Superman himself there helping the good guys.

What if Brandon wants to keep a low profile? Well, now we’ve got a film about a superpowered kid who’s desperate not to be found out. He kills, but he kills for a reason – someone is about to expose him, he dispatches them, dumps their body in space or at the bottom of the ocean, and goes back to living in fear of being found out.

So, who’s the opposition? Maybe it’s a small-town cop, investigating the disappearances and piecing things together. Maybe it’s a reporter on the trail of a strange figure seen in the sky, who stumbles onto a whole other story.

Maybe it’s a family member of one of the deceased, who saw something that suggests there’s more to Brandon than there seems to be.

Or maybe our Brandon is sick of being pushed around and made fun of, and we get a slapstick comedy about a kid with superpowers embarrassing a group of bullies during one wild summer at Camp Solitude.

Pulling one thread can change the entire story. In any case, I’m certainly happy with what we got from Brightburn, and I’m sincerely hopeful we’ll get to see the story continue, and the world expand.

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