Skip to main content

Brightburn (2019): Gothic Analysis, part 2

This is part two of a two-part article that analyzes Brightburn (2019) Gothically. Part one outlined the movie and its Gothic content; part two shall now examine the bad parenting angle. Spoilers!

Like Superman, Brandon Breyer is a space alien his parents found in the woods; unlike Superman, Brandon is being controlled by his alien "crib." This "other parent" tells him to "take the world," a premise of which bleeds Gothically into his ordinary life. To reiterate, a science lesson from earlier had Brandon comparing two species of wasps. "Wasps are predators, not pollinators like bees are," he explains. "Brood wasps are even more aggressive, and force other wasps to raise their young."

To this, the farmers from Brightburn might seem like beehive drones. As the story progresses, we'll learn otherwise. Until then, our focus is on Brandon, who is most definitely not a bee. Instead, he's a wasp, but a very special kind.

What's a boy to do?

At first, Brandon can't remember the ship's effect on him. As the story proceeds, he becomes more and more aware of what it is—what he is (this includes the lies surrounding his parentage, but this happens, later). Very early on, Brandon learns more or less what he is capable of. Burdened with this knowledge, he lies. Like father, like son.

Brandon's lies work for about two seconds, because the Breyers already know what he is. The clever part about the script, I found, is Brandon's superhuman speed. He's so fast that he can, for all intents and purposes, be in two places at once. His parents know his alien status, but not what his powers entail (nobody reads comics in this universe). Faced with strange things, they initially side with their son, but even then their allegiance is lopsided (the father's fuse shorter than the mother's).

When the dead bodies appear, however, Brandon's lack of compunction is a dead giveaway—to both the Breyers and the townsfolk. Everyone begins to suspect. The problem is Brandon's appearance. He's too small and meek, is just not the sort who could ostensibly kill anyone. He may be an alien wunderkind, but has none of the Kryptonian's stature or muscles. He also lacks Superman's altruism. Humanity is weak in Superman's eyes, so he becomes Clarke Kent to fit in; Brandon tries to fit in, but can't. He simply does what his parents did, before him. He lies.

Mr. Breyer, sheepish and guilty.

Caught in a lie, the Breyer's collective subterfuge begins to unravel, and with it, their household (eat your heart out, Poe). Meanwhile, the alien force locked inside the barn (and in Brandon) is something none of them can contain. Brandon kills and lies to his parents; they lie to him (and eventually try to kill him). Eventually both parties know the other is false. Brandon continues to kill, and there's nothing the Breyers can do about it.

Bear in mind, all of this is going on while Brandon is still growing up. More to learn, he has. His earliest years are picturesque, halcyon; his formative years implode thanks to the poisonous cradle stashed inside the barn. Locked up and kept secret, that's not on Brandon; his parents are to blame. In Frankenstein (1818), bad parenting is a key theme. So, too, in Brightburn. However, the latter shows that fuck-ups needn't be at the start. Yes, Victor is the unwilling "parent" of a superhuman monster he created; in Brightburn, the foster parents grow increasingly apprehensive towards the child they found in the woods:

"I want to kill everyone; Satan is good, Satan is our pal..."

Why the ship orders Brandon to "take the world" is never explained. "Evil aliens" is a functional reason, I suppose. It's still odd how the Breyers never really broach it. They recover the babe in the woods, and lock its ship up in their barn. Why take the ship at all? It's basically the light grenade from Mom and Dad Save the World (1992) and these two nimrods pick it up! To be fair, had they left it in the forest, the boy would've probably traced the signal, there.

For the Breyers, the irony of parenthood becomes an unspoken, Faustian bargain: In exchange for the ignominy of raising a psychotic teenager, the Breyers are granted a child they couldn't have conceived, themselves. In other words, be careful what you ask for. Conversely, should they have left the baby in the forest? In hindsight, maybe. Made in ignorance, it would have made the Breyers seem cold-hearted. Given its superhuman composition, the baby might have survived. Denied the milk of human kindness, it would have been neglected, would have subsisted on roots and berries similar to Victor Frankenstein's Creature (“It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being."). Faced with the lack of any kind of parentage, what sort of monster might that have produced?

Even though Brandon's transformation is immediate and veiled, the Breyers are still bad parents. They keep the spaceship and fail to love him as he is. It's perhaps not fair to ask them to, but that's exactly what the movie does. By the time the Breyers suspect anything, Brandon has already killed the waitress (the mother of the girl he likes). Knowing what he is, the only options the Breyers have are to kill or love him. They choose the former.

"Et tu, Brute?"

This sucks because the only connection Brandon has to humanity is through the Breyers. They found him in the forest and raised him; when the time comes, they must respond to what he is. Sadly they elect violence. Imagine the "hunting" scene in the forest, but take away Brandon's powers (under the assumption that he murdered his victims through normal, human methods). The father would not only be lying to his son; he'd be masquerading as a loving father only to shoot Brandon in the back of the head like a dog. Mr. Breyer cries when he pulls the trigger, but pull the trigger he does. Dick move, pops.

Later in the barn, Brandon's mother does the same thing when she tries to stab him. He might be a killer, but he's still a child betrayed by the only people he knows. They cry as they plot to murder him, the real irony being that Brandon barely knew them at all—in the present, and when he was a child. They've effectively been lying to him his entire life. They aren't simply bees, but wasps (the Gothic enjoys conflating terms to make the audience oscillate). As wasps, they secretly hunt him, but lack the stomach and the means to see things through.

Would having the Breyers tell Brandon the truth from the start have made all the difference? Like the speaker in Frost's poem, I'm not sure. One thing I can say is that Brandon learns to lie from his human parents, not the alien crib. His family structure is built on a lie; in trying to preserve it (while feeling and acting on murderous urges), Brandon behaves much like his parents do. Ultimately his problem is two-fold: His parents have lied to him about what he is, and his sexual urges are wholly unlike theirs. His father is entirely unequipped to handle someone who conflates dissected bodies and underwear models; his mother loves him too blindly to see her lie for what it is.

"We were wrong. We were very wrong."

To this, the mother is Brandon's strongest humanizing agent. The tragedy of it all is that her reason for trying to kill him is understandable; yet, burdened with her alien ward, her decision to kill him is ultimately destructive—not just for herself, but arguably the whole world. The Breyers are unwilling to contain Brandon, a dark god, by letting him be himself on a smaller plane. By robbing him of sacrifices (and trying to sacrifice him), they help him realize his destiny by giving him no other choice.

The tragedy continues in that Brandon is simply being himself—Blake's proverbial Tyger, "burning bright /  In the forests of the night." In that poem, the Tyger was made ("Did he who made the Lamb make thee?"). In Brightburn, the Breyers have a Tyger on their hands. Making the correct decision is much harder for them, considering their adopted child is both a godsend and an actual monster. The father is curt, short-tempered; the mother is teary-eyed and sullen. Neither has an easy time of it, and neither seems to have any clue on what to do ("Should we take him to a specialist?").

Neither Breyer thinks things through. They act rashly and out-of-joint. The father accuses Brandon to his face; the mother hides information from the police. And then, when confronted by what is clearly another species, they eventually respond with violence. This is emotionally traumatic for them, and the movie's biggest surprise. I enjoyed how the Breyer's love their boy before he went bad. As they prepare to murder him, this cheerful image torments them.

On this note, no one can say Brightburn  doesn't stick to its guns. The Breyer's actions are hopelessly futile, but also stupid. One, what are they teaching him by trying to kill him? They obviously won't succeed; Brandon will survive and take these lessons with him. Two, if Brandon were as strong and fast as his crimes suggest, then what's a bullet gonna do? It has all the speed but none of the bite. Conversely, the sliver of the ship (this movie's version of Kryptonite) has all the bite, but none of the speed.

From the off-set, the Breyer's mistimed, combined skulduggery hardly seems wise. But, as the saying goes, "nothing ventured, nothing gained," and the Breyers try their hand at infanticide. The father's bullet bounces off; the mother is slower than Brandon and cannot stab him fast enough. With the father, Brandon was aloof. With the mother, he was waiting to see what she'd do, and responds in kind.

Spare the shotgun, spoil the child?

Frankenstein's Creature was monstrous because it couldn't die; much like Brandon, it was "special," or "superior (super)" in that it lived through abuse that would have killed ordinary beings. It learns knowledge no mortal could know. So does Brandon. Without realizing it, the Breyers were teaching him the worst possible lesson, and for different reasons. One, they were showing him how to behave. Two, their "lesson" gets them killed. Had Mr Breyer not lied to his wife about the hunting trip, her attempt to stab Brandon later could have worked. Then again, it might never have come to that ("might" being the key word, here).

If only the movie had left us in suspense! Brandon is very much like a bomb waiting to go off. Even if it never does, he could explode at any minute. For once I agree with Ebert about bombs: It would've been better not to rush things, and to save the explosion for the sequel.

I understand why Brandon's stepparents wanted to kill him; I just wish they hadn't actually tried. Given perfectly good reasons to kill his foster parents, Brandon is denied a chance to spare the Breyers. The movie never allows him to make a choice isolated from immediate, attempted murder ("Don't kill me," his father pleads after shooting him in the back). Everyone is reduced to wasps, one species stinging the other. Brandon is simply superior, the stronger wasp. The screenplay doesn't let him be anything else.

Concerning the Breyers, was their only hope appeasement, raising the brood species' young? Or, once they've outlived they usefulness, were they dead meat, anyways? The movie doesn't answer this question as fully as I would've liked. Brandon is denied the ability to make his own decisions by wrestling with his inner conflict. He's basically guided by remote control. So is the script. The red lights turn on; Brandon gets to work.

The movie barely scratches its own surface.

I don't mean to sound harsh. I liked the movie's ideas. I also like its production values. It's well-shot; the sound design is deliberate and ruthless (maybe too ruthless, as it teeters into "jump scare" territory at times). The editing is somewhat brisk, but there are some solid slasher moments, and the kills are downright nasty and brutal. The suspense-junkie in me wanted more. So did the gorehound. Here, it's a rare-case of lacking quantity—not quality—that lowers the movie somewhat for me. I found this especially odd, given James Gunn's maleficent shadow looming in the background. As producer, can we expect similar results from James Cameron regarding Terminator: Dark Fate?


About me: My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!

I'm an artist and a writer. If you're interested my work and are curious about illustrated or written commissions, please refer to my website for more information. If you want to contact me about a guest article, please use this contact form or reach out to me on Discord (vanderWaardart#5394)!

If you want to make donations, you can directly support my artwork on Patreon and my writing on Ko-Fi!