What if Superman, but bad?
You’ll be familiar with the origin story by now. A tale of how a superhero got their powers or came to be (how many times have you seen the Waynes get shot?), the hope of a studio to kickstart a ongoing franchise. They’re literally done to death, but while Brightburn is indeed an “origins” movie, it takes something familiar and gives it a warped “what if?” approach to a story that will be undeniably familiar to many.
In Kansas, we meet the Breyers, Kyle (David Denman) and Tori (Elizabeth Banks), who are trying to conceive, something they’ve been struggling with for a while judging by the stack of “how to get pregnant” books upon which the camera lingers for far too long. (Subtlety is not a key aspect of the film.) Mid-attempt, their farmhouse is shaken by a tremor and the electricity cuts out. A strange red glowing object has landed in the woods at the edge of their property. We then flash through a montage, seeing first a baby, then toddler, then young boy, showered with affection through his entire life, ending in present day when he is celebrating his twelfth birthday. Celebrations are cut short when the normally sweet young boy starts to exhibit a sudden shift in attitude. As his malevolence starts to impact the family, and cause concern in his school, it is only a hint of what is to come as strange abilities begin to manifest that make the lashing out of a child a deadly prospect.
The idea probably sounds familiar not just because of its darker take on the well known origins of Superman, but also how similar it is to the Mark Millar 2003 comic series Red Son, which posited ole Supe’s not landing in good-hearted Kansas, but in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. It brought up questions of environment and how that impacts the type of person a child can grow up to be. Brightburn attempts to look at the other factor in what makes a man, focusing on nature over nurture.
Produced by James Gunn (who is liberally plastered over promotional material to help sell this), written by relatives Brian and Mark Gunn, and directed by David Yarovesky (The Hive), the film crafts a lot of tension; the sense that nothing that happens is going to end well is imbued in the film from the start. Young Jackson A. Dunn as Brandon Breyer brings the right amount of creepiness to the role as an awkward child, smarter than the other kids and picked on for it. Not that the film spends too much time mulling on this or gives him much else to work with script wise. From affable kid to zoning out, talking back to his parents, having macabre pictures found under his mattress, mangling a stainless steel fork by chewing on it as he eats breakfast, the film hurtles forward, quickly imbuing him with the Superman special of strength, flying, speed, and heat vision, but used in rather twisted ways. Some decent special effects draw on these for some truly gnarly set-pieces, as well as plenty of jump scares and other tropes that will be familiar to any horror fan.
Brightburn does undermine its potentially interesting “nature vs. nurture” component by having the child be triggered into his errant behavior by his ship, rather than it be a lingering darkness that starts to emerge. The latter would provide a far more nuanced look at such things and offer avenues for exploration of these concepts, but the film is built to get down to business, so the path of least resistance is taken in this and nearly every other creative choice in the film. What the film lacks overall is present in one character. Banks is the emotional linchpin; her denial and later anguish about the reality of the situation is crucial to making the film (barely) connect, as this emotionless child just cuts a swathe through this rural landscape. There’s a conflict and complexity in her that is entirely absent in Brandon, a boy who becomes a hollow shell, instructed to do these things to protect himself and his abilities until the time is right to reveal himself and “take the world.” We have all observed cruelty, even in the acts of children; our minds contemplate such things and are unsettled by them. Creepy kids are in so many horror movies for a reason. It seems self-defeating to have that potential conflict within the child, a chance to add some genuine ambiguity to his path and the film itself, only to shun its exploration. The result is a brisk and often potent, but largely unsurprising and underdeveloped, spin on the superhero/horror genre.
On the surface, Brightburn delivers what was promised: a lean, and often mean, slice of superhero horror, with just the right amount of silliness and grisliness to help things keep firing. But is does feel like a missed opportunity to explore upbringing vs. birthright and his fall to the dark side. With a bit more complexity and depth, we could have had film that was actually interesting and not just gnarly entertainment.