Written by: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn
Directed by: David Yarovesky
Starring: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, and Jackson A. Dunn
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Maybe there is something wrong with Brandon. He may look like us. He's not like us!"
A well-worn staple of comic books is the in-universe speculative fiction that has long fascinated readers. Mostly popularized by the likes of Marvel’s What If...? and DC’s Elseworlds series, these tales re-imagine pivotal points in the lore’s history and envision alternate paths. And while Brightburn isn’t based on any pre-existing character, it’s an obvious take-off of this sort of thing, with a premise DC itself has explored several times within its own pages: “what if Superman actually became a bad guy?” It’s an immediately compelling hook, ripe for all sorts of interesting subtext and commentary. Unfortunately, this isn’t that version of the story since Brightburn only has enough vision and ambition to be a solid splatter movie. Obviously, we’re not going to be too mad about that around these parts, but it still feels like a bit of a disappointment all the same.
Our stand-in for the Kents in this story are Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks & David Denman), a young Kansas couple desperately trying to have a child. Their prayers are answered in unconventional fashion when a spacecraft lands on their farm harboring an infant child, which they secretly adopt and raise. For over a decade years, everything is fine: Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is a completely normal, well-adjusted boy who shows no signs of any extraordinary abilities. Upon his 12th birthday, however, the craft powers back on, awakening not only Brandon’s latent superhuman powers but also a mile-wide mean streak that compels him to go on a rampage.
That’s the script’s first—and most crucial—misstep: it turns out that this isn’t a story about a young man with extraordinary abilities wrestling with his responsibilities or any complex moral quandaries. Instead, it’s not all that much different from a run-of-the-mill creepy kid picture featuring a mysteriously demented or possessed bad seed. Such an approach essentially absolves the filmmakers of having to do anything interesting or remotely psychological with this concept: Brandon is basically the vessel for the mysterious signals emanating from the ship that carried him to earth, garbled transmissions urging him to “take the world.” It becomes his twisted birthright rather than a compelling fall from grace.
Quite frankly, this is the easiest, emptiest, and most obvious approach for this sort of thing, especially since Brightburn is perched at a pivotal moment in time to explore adolescent male entitlement and the rage that often accompanies it. A much more potent, relevant take on this story might depict Brandon’s corruption as something much more tragic and maybe even a little banal in a human sort of way: imagining how Clark Kent might have grown warped after being exposed to toxic, edgelord masculinity seems much more interesting than a tale where he’s simply exposed to Red Kryptonite. Brandon’s evil because, well, that’s the story, and the script can’t be fussed to probe deeper and allow this story to be anything more than twisted pulp.
The closest Brightburn ever comes to doing so is an early scene, before Brandon has fully assumed the mantle of a masked, superpowered psychopath. After he exuberantly answers a teacher’s question—which also doubles as a heavy-handed foreshadowing and symbolism of his own eventual fate—some other boys begin to mock him. A girl (Emmie Hunter) offers some support, insisting that “smart boys” eventually rule the world, a small exchange that Brandon inflates in his mind and leads him to a presumption of a connection. One of his first orders of superpowered business is to stalk the girl until she roundly rejects and insults him in class, which in turn causes Brandon to lash out at her violently.
The subtext is obvious enough: here’s a textbook example of a “nice guy” feeling entitled to a girl’s affection and resorting to violence when it doesn’t go his way, an all too common occurrence that deserves a sobering critique. Instead, Brightburn sees it as a routine part of this villainous origin story; there’s no critique or much engagement at all in its rush to get to the part where Brandon starts eviscerating everyone surrounding him. It’s too preoccupied with establishing its genre credentials through blood, gore, and uncomfortably tense moments to really be about anything, much less offer any sort of genre subversion beyond “Superman—but bad.”
But I suppose that’s fine, especially since it delivers these goods with aplomb. From a strictly splatter movie standpoint, Brightburn features multiple show-stopping gore effects, including an eyeball gag that would make Lucio Fulci proud. Given Brandon’s supernatural skillset, it should come as no surprise that he absolutely mangles his victims, often reducing them to barely recognizable clumps of viscera, which gives the effects crew plenty of opportunities to show off disembodied corpses and dislodged jaws. Director David Yarovesky sometimes does aspire beyond these base ambitions with some genuinely intense, creepy moments (Dunn does his share of the legwork here with a disconcerting, dead-eyed turn) and some nice jolts: Brightburn might not completely realize its potential, but it is a promising introduction of sorts for Yarovesky, who certainly has the filmmaking chops and visual acumen to be a vital force within this genre. With a stronger script, Brightburn could have been a truly bold revelation of an exciting new talent.
I hate to keep harping on what Brightburn isn’t, but I only do so because that missed potential is lurking right there, just below the surface, and its flashes of potential only make it more frustrating. Both Yarovesky and the cast are clearly invested in making this a tragic, affecting tale, only to see the script and a brisk runtime thwart them at nearly every turn. Banks and Denman are a solid emotional bedrock as two parents desperately watching their beloved son slip into darkness; they begin the story as Martha and Johnathan Kent, doing their best to instill their alien son with basic decency and dignity; by the end, however, they’ve assumed the mantle of parents trapped in the nightmare of a killer kid movie.
Their son is no longer their son, which leads to some naturally tense moments where the Breyers must reckon with what he’s become. Like so many films out of this mold, it features some truly uncomfortable moments that no parent really wants to imagine when Tori and Kyle are pushed to the logical breaking point of dealing with the fallout, leading to an unearned climax where Brandon insists he wishes he could be good, a ludicrous assertion considering he’s shown no signs of internal conflict. He's a good kid for a handful of scenes before becoming evil incarnate for the rest of the movie.
As such, Brightburn isn’t as affecting or as sharp as it should be since the script treats everything as a secondary concern to all the bloodshed. It’s quite clear that this deeper, more resonant version of this film is possible, but, for whatever reason, nobody involved quite had the vision or desire to pursue this as a smart, subversive allegory for adolescent male rage or as a clever takedown of a genre that’s spawned a toxic fanbase. Instead, it essentially rubber stamps the convictions of the would-be Brandon Breyers out there by pandering to their desires to see a kewl, dark, gritty superhero riff; to grasp its true ambitions, look no further than its (admittedly fun) end credits, which tease an entire universe of these gods and monsters.
Such a playful note diffuses whatever genuine horror might linger, leaving the audience with little more than a dark B-side to the usual Marvel and DC fare. Ultimately, Brightburn is less “what if Superman were evil?” and more “what if Michael Myers had Superman’s abilities?”, a premise that obviously has some appeal but appropriately leaves you with more speculation: "what if Brightburn lived up to its potential?"
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