If there’s one good thing to find in the critical dismissal of recent Superman films, it’s in the strengthening of the ideas found in Brightburn. Whether or not you were a fan of the look and tone of Man of Steel, for instance, here’s a film that not only openly evokes Zack Snyder’s small-town Americana visuals, but takes that superhero origin story concept to an even darker place. The resulting film doesn’t manage to fully realize such an intriguing idea (and I have some suspicions as to why), but enough is working for it to entertain as both a horror movie and a satire.
Not unlike Kal El’s origins, the film opens with a farm couple, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), taking in a newborn baby that happened to come from a meteor that fell from the sky. They name him Brandon and raise him as they would a normal child, without explaining his otherworldly origins. On his 12th birthday, Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) discovers he has superhuman powers. What separates Brandon from Clark Kent, however, is the desire to go against truth, justice, and the American way, in favor of violence, destruction, and possibly world enslavement.
As far as high concepts go, it doesn’t get much better in this day and age than a superhero-horror movie mash-up. At least, that’s what I thought a studio would believe. Coming from the Screen Gems division of Sony Pictures (among others), this low-budget film has a target audience. That’s understandable. This is an R-rated grindhouse type of horror film where even the superhero element won’t be enough to attract a bigger audience. Whether or not Brightburn is a cult film in the making, it has the kind of cynical attitude fit for those ready to take a night off from super heroics in favor of something grimier.
That’s why it’s not surprising to see it come from producer James Gunn, the man behind Super and Slither, genre films that didn’t pull their punches when it came to going all in on their premise. Written by other members of the Gunn clan, Mark and Brian Gunn, and directed by one of Gunn’s frequent collaborators, David Yarovesky, Brightburn gets a lot of mileage out of slowly pushing further into completely wild territory. If you’ve ever questioned what it would look like to see Superman use his powers for evil in an R-rated movie, this film visualizes those answers quite graphically.
For all the talk about Snyder’s Man of Steel that I began with, it only fits to see how much Brightburn feels like a combination of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie and his previous film, The Omen. That comes from how the film frames this story. Brightburn provides Brandon with two parents who are good people and would ideally see their son bring something wonderful to the world, but the movie twists around the ideal result of nature vs. nurture. Instead, Brandon is the product of evil. The film shows us it was never about whether or not his Earth parents treated him well.
As a result, Brightburn uses turns in the story as a means to allow Brandon his chance to enact varying forms of carnage, whether it comes from rejection or payback. The film doesn’t hold back in this display of power, and the gore we see places Brightburn up with the slasher films it was at least partially inspired by. I only wish Yarovesky had more of a handle on how to set up some of these shocking moments. As powerful as Brandon is, he’s still confined to a film, which misses a few chances to deliver on the scares to a maximum degree.
That’s part of the rub. A film with a premise this good means it can set itself up for a level of disappointment. Brightburn has the potential to do a lot with this twisted take on a superhero, but be it budget or the strength of the writing, it mostly feels like a film setting the stage for an even bigger movie that I can’t see realistically happening. I have another suspicion that, at 90 minutes, this film has been cut down considerably, but that’s purely speculation. As it stands, Brightburn feels like a film that is putting a lot of good ideas forward, without much breathing room to deliver a more significant impact.
Fortunately, strong elements do standout. I’m always down for a solid, creepy kid movie, as it generally lets me see some fun performances from the parents who are either oblivious to the truth or working overtime to prove it to all who don’t believe them. In this instance, both Banks and Denman provide excellent work. Banks excels as a mother who wants to love her miracle baby, while Denman’s more pragmatic role means looking exasperated to a fitting degree. Young Jackson A. Dunn has a look needed to play innocent and menacing in a given moment, though we’re also supposed to be projecting a lot onto him, so being a bit of a blank is helpful.
While not out and out great, Brightburn manages to do a lot with a low-budget and a truncated runtime. It has some great visuals and music as far as emulating the films it so openly wants to mock, yet holds back from adding caustic wit into the screenplay. Instead, we have a film that leans into horror, despite having an earnest attitude. That comes from solid character performances, which is what I can stand behind as far as understanding how the film gets around not being a $100 million superhero spectacular with a twist. Brightburn may not become spectacular, mighty, or astonishing in the eyes of many, but those looking for something different, he just may be the “hero” you need.