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Movie review: 'Brightburn' is an origin story that should be strangled in its crib

Jackson A. Dunn stars as an alien who crash-landed on Earth, but grows up to have very un-Supermanlike intentions, in "Brightburn."

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By GARY THOMPSON | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: May 24, 2019

In a Kansas farmhouse, a young couple is engaged in romantic intimacy when the woman feels the earth move.

It’s the tremors from an alien spaceship (not a spoiler, it’s in the synopsis), which has deposited a humanoid baby nearby. The woman (Elizabeth Banks) has struggled with fertility problems and takes it as a sign from heaven, so she keeps it and raises it as her own.

Cut to 12 years later, when alien bundle Brandon is on the cusp of puberty. As the other kids gain age-appropriate strength, Brandon starts to exhibit superhuman strength. And super creepy behavior. At school he talks about bees and wasps, lauding the wasps for their predatory instincts. He draws disemboweled women. He frightens the chickens just by standing next to them.

Yes, it’s an inversion of the Superman myth, with a dash of "The Omen," built around a pale, emotionless boy with a bad haircut, whose eerie stoicism in the face of increasingly bloody slaughter is meant to creep us out.

The only creepy thing about "Brightburn," though, is its labored, derivative narrative, its giddy sadism -- it gets off on Brandon’s adolescent power trip and expects its audience to do the same -- and cynical built-in branding. The kid creates his own costume, writes his own tag line and designs his own logo (He’s from another world -- maybe it’s Madison Avenue).

You may be wondering, as I was, what a talent like Banks is doing in this movie, other than wishing she were directing "Pitch Perfect 4" (actually she’s doing "Charlie’s Angels," but still). Perhaps in reading the script she saw her character Tory has the only halfway serious emotional/psychological story arc -- she has an adamant and ferocious maternal instinct to protect the boy, even as evidence mounts that he’s not the gentle soul she raised.

That would be easier to accept if the movie were not so enthusiastic about the torture of women. As it happens, the other mother in the movie who acts in defense of her child gets singled out for abuse. That child, a 12-year-old girl, is terrorized (once in her bedroom) and assaulted on multiple occasions by bad Superman.

Is this fan service? If so, for whom? Hannibal Lecter? Charles Manson?

The filmmakers -- it’s written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, directed by David Yarovesky -- like grisly spectacle, and they like alliteration. Brightburn is the name of the Kansas town. The boy’s name is Brandon Breyer. His signature symbol is formed of conjoined Bs.

Boy oh boy. I’m suddenly homesick for Bilbo Baggins.

"Brightburn" is rated R for violence, gore and language. Running time: 91 minutes.

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