Warning: Spoilers Ahead! | C/W: Abuse, Assault
Unpacking the toxic masculinity, parental enablement, and privilege in Brightburn (2019).
When I first saw trailers for David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, I was ecstatic. The superhero–horror subgenre rarely sees new entries and the premise was simple: What if Superman were evil?
Receiving mixed reviews upon it’s release in the spring of 2019, the film did not exactly live up to the hype surrounding the dark and distorted Clark Kent origin story. Many stated that while the film presented an interesting idea, the story itself fell flat.
While I walked away feeling similarly underwhelmed by Brightburn, I believed where it lacked in scares seen in a typical scary movie, it presented a different kind of horror. Brightburn stands as a piece of commentary on toxic masculinity, parents enabling their children, and social privilege.
The Dangers of Ignoring Violent Behavior in Young Boys
Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) Breyer are struggling to conceive a child until they are seemingly blessed when a UFO crash lands on their small Kansas farm. Within this alien craft is a baby boy, who the Breyer’s decide to raise as their adopted son. Enter Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn).
The movie kicks off over a decade after this incident and Brandon is a seemingly normal twelve year old. He is clearly more intelligent than his peers, answering a question in class about wasps in great detail, receiving jeers from his middle school bully. Fellow classmate and crush Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter) comforts him with what would end up being foreboding words, “Smart guys end up ruling the planet.”
Brandon seemingly begins to develop more aggressive behavior after one night he is summoned to the family barn by what turns out to be the locked away spacecraft in which he traveled to Earth as an infant. He has angry outbursts directed at his parents during his birthday dinner and shows inhumane strength when he destroys the lawnmower with his bare hands.
The audience truly begins to see Brandon’s evil side when his parents find his “pornography” stash hidden beneath his mattress. The contents of this collection include bra and underwear advertisements, as well as more disturbing material such as medical diagrams and photos of internal organs. This is a major red flag that his parents seem to simply shrug off. This young boy is equating human body parts and internal bodily structures to pleasure.
Boys Will Be
Boys Held Responsible For Their Actions
This issue is slightly addressed during a family trip when Kyle tries to have a version of “the talk” with Brandon. He talks about how Brandon is going to have feelings that are completely normal. Kyle mentions how these urges may sometimes be towards girls in his and that it’s okay to give in to them from time to time. Brandon seems to take this part to heart.
That night, Brandon uses his burgeoning super powers to travel miles to Caitlyn’s house in an attempt to woo her. He goes about this in an incredibly inappropriate way, hiding behind her curtains and watching her as she is terrified by her laptop seemingly opening and playing “Send Her to Me” by Wayne Chance on it’s own. She briefly sees him hiding before he flies back to the campsite to tell his frantic parents he was using the bathroom.
His violent tendencies grow when he slaughters the chickens on the farm. Kyle correctly assumes that Brandon is responsible for their demise, as we had seen Brandon scaring them earlier. Tori continues to deny Brandon’s aggressive and concerning behavior, refusing to confront him. She enables Brandon by refusing to distinguish how his actions are cause for concern.
Tori’s denial and enablement continues when he maims Caitlyn. During PE class, Brandon is selected for a trust fall exercise in which Caitlyn allows him to fall, having been scared of him after his stalker-like appearance in her room. She extends her arm to help him get up per the coach’s request, Brandon in return crushes and breaks her hand in one of the more memorable scenes of the film.
In the principal’s office, Caitlyn’s mother Erica (Becky Wahlstrom) expresses her rightful anger about Brandon, saying he needs to be arrested. Tori defends Brandon, stating that he apologized, as if this rids him of his crime. Brandon is dealt a tame punishment in the form of a suspension and counseling sessions from the school counselor who also happens to be his aunt Merilee (Meredith Hagner). This punishment is laughable, given the seriousness of Brandon’s actions and his lack of remorse. Brandon is given the benefit of the doubt by his mother, as well as by those in positions to genuinely correct his behavior.
When It’s Too Late
Kyle, on the other hand, expresses concern over his son’s lack of humanity – both physical and emotional. Brandon doesn’t bleed or bruise, and additionally seems to lack basic human emotion when he harms another person. This doesn’t matter to Tori, as she continues to coddle Brandon and his ego.
Brandon eventually does find his spacecraft that he landed on in the barn, and Tori does eventually tell him the truth about his arrival into their family. She tells him how different he is, praising him throughout the process. He has a violent outburst and destroys property within the house, and decides to “take the world.”
He then continues his harassment of Caitlyn by visiting her at night again in her bedroom. He brings her flowers and tells her to not be scared, though she is justifiably terrified as he shattered her hand and has shown up once again at her house. He talks about how she is the only one who knows how special she is, trying to win her back with words of affection as she tears up with fear. She tells him that her mom told her not to speak to him anymore. He vows to “take care of that”.
He then proceeds to violently kill her mother in her place of work. To seduce his middle school crush and have her be completely alone, he murders her mom. This is just the beginning of Brandon’s reign of terror. He proceeds to kill his uncle Noah (Matt L. Jones) after his first counseling session with his aunt does not go well.
During said counseling session, Brandon shows no remorse yet again for his assault on Caitlyn, and talks instead about how he is superior to everyone. Merilee talks about how she is supposed to report back on these sessions with the sheriff. When faced with this possibility of punishment, is when Brandon decides to show up at her house at night and threaten her and then proceed to kill her husband.
He comes home late after murdering Noah, without a shirt as his was covered in his uncle’s blood, to his frantic parents concerned about his whereabouts. He lies about his whereabouts, saying he was playing soccer with friends and was bullied and his shirt was torn. Both Tori and Kyle realize he’s lying and still decide, once again, to not confront him on this.
I am Your Mom, I Will Always Defend You…
Tori receives a call from Merilee, and comfort her upon learning about the demise of Noah. The next morning, Kyle and Tori talk to Brandon about Noah’s death and that they know they were at Marilee and Noah’s house the previous evening. Brandon has little to no reaction about this news, and his parents slightly suspect he may know something or have been involved. Tori asks him if he knows anything and true to her enabling self, “I am your mom, I will always defend you.”
Kyle, now recognizing his child’s violent tendencies, finally decides to stop enabling his son and confront these issues. He goes into Brandon’s room and finds the shirt he had been hiding, covered in blood. He shows this to Tori, correctly assuming that this is Noah’s blood. Tori, on the other hand, continues to ignore this stating that “it could be anything” and that she will “never turn on our son”.
Tori’s continued enablement of her son is horrifying to watch, and Kyle’s realization turns out to be to little too late. He attempts to kill Brandon during a hunting trip by shooting him in the back of the head, in response he kills Kyle with his laser vision.
The movie culminates back at the family farm, in which Tori attempts to finally end her son’s reign of terror. At this point, however, it is obvious there is no changing Brandon. He ends up killing her by flying thousands of feet in the air and letting her fall back to earth. He then decides to destroy a passenger plane. We see Brandon being cared for by EMTs at the end of the movie, with no one suspecting him of the death of his parents or his role in the plane crash.
Brandon Breyer is the perfect stand-in for the straight, white male privilege that so many American men are granted in this country. He assaulted a woman in front of numerous witnesses, and he was still given the benefit of the doubt by those in charge of punishing him, and blindly defended by his family.
It’s On the Parents
His behavior was clearly concerned, and his parents, primarily Tori, truly allowed him to grow into the monster he becomes in the end. He was never condemned for his actions, instead he was coddled and told that he would always be defended no matter what.
Additionally, his controlling, cruel, and obsessive behavior over the girl he had a crush on was perhaps the most difficult to watch. He is truly an abuser to this girl, doing anything to have her alone, and to enter him home without her consent. Brandon is a stand-in for so many fears people – primarily women – experience every single day.
Brightburn was successful in many ways, as I think Brandon Breyer is a representation of so many real monsters we face. He stands in for so many men who have committed violence or nonconsensual acts upon people, and deemed fine to return to society with little to no punishment. He is unsuspecting and propped up by his immediate family and greater society, allowing him to wreck havoc on so many people’s lives.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence or intimate partner violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1 (800) 799-7233.