Studio: Screen Gems
Director: David Yarovesky
Writer: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn
Producer: James Gunn, Kenneth Huang
Stars: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Emmie Hunter, Gregory Alan Williams, Annie Humphrey
A Kansas couple discovers the alien boy they’ve raised since infancy developed superpowers, but is using them to kill people.
DC Comics has published a number of “what if?” stories, called ‘Elseworlds’ in their vernacular, exploring what might have happened had Superman’s well known origin gone a different way. Mark Millar’s “Superman: Red Son” saw Kal-El growing up to become a Soviet superhero after his rocket landed in the Ukraine instead of the US. Monty Python alum John Cleese did something similar in “Superman: True Brit,” except with England as the Big Blue Boy Scout’s adopted country. Other alternate tales have imagined Superman raised by Tarzan’s apes, Batman’s parents, even intergalactic nemesis Darkseid.
“Brightburn” brings that last concept back to Earth by simply asking, “what if Superman grew up to be bad instead of good?”
A common theme in his comics contends Clark Kent grew into a morally conscious person thanks to the wholesome Midwestern values instilled by Ma and Pa Kent. Elseworlds stories solidify this notion by showing how different influences, ideals, and agendas reshape his superpowers in sometimes radical ways.
Unlike Elseworlds, when it comes to questioning what makes a (Super)man, “Brightburn” throws nurture out a window by suggesting only inherent nature matters. 12-year-old Brandon Breyer’s foster parents Tori and Kyle are a contemporary Ma and Pa Kent. Doing everything right, they lovingly dote on the boy, encourage studiousness at school, and have him help with chores on the family farm. The pulsing red light coming from the spaceship hidden in their barn however, drives Brandon toward a destructive destiny. No matter how hopeful Tori and Kyle are about his humanity, nothing can overpower the will of an antagonistic alien determined to dominate the world.
“Brightburn” takes place in a same-named fictional Kansas farm town. You know it’s small because everyone knows everyone else. Brandon’s aunt doubles as his school’s guidance counselor. The diner waitress tending to Brandon’s birthday party is also the mother of his classmate crush Caitlyn.
Come to think of it, maybe Brightburn’s size is irrelevant. In its eagerness to be engineered for simplicity, maybe Brian and Mark Gunn’s script didn’t see an incentive to invent separate characters when single entities are much more convenient.
The Gunn cousins’ streamlined screenplay, in tandem with David Yarovesky’s to-the-point directing of it, has little patience for subtlety. The second shot of the film pans across a bookshelf with no less than four thick texts bearing “Pregnancy” and/or “Infertility” in their titles. Framed photos of caring couple Tori and Kyle conspicuously don’t include children. Then their awkward attempt at intercourse finds itself interrupted by the arrival of a comet-like spacecraft crashing outside. For better as well as for worse, “Brightburn” cuts to each chase with as few development detours as possible.
Playing my own Devil’s Advocate regarding “Brightburn’s” creative brevity, it’s a minor relief that the film follows up with an infancy montage and jumps to Brandon’s adolescence after just three minutes. Only a unicorn unfamiliar with Superman’s origin requires more setup than that. In beats down the line on the other hand, the movie could stand to pause and take in storytelling scenery once in a while.
Jackson A. Dunn certainly looks the part of preteen Brandon. His sleepy eyes, tightly pursed lips, and budding mop-top amalgamate every physical characteristic one can think of for a cinema bully’s typical target. Such sad qualities make Brandon vaguely sympathetic at the outset, but an immediate magnet for animosity when he starts creeping around Caitlyn’s bedroom uninvited or sinisterly smirking from upturned eyes.
Audiences have a harder task in front of them by being asked to buy Tori’s willful blindness toward her son’s villain turn. In all of her films, Elizabeth Banks carries a sense of slickness that usually translates into sharp sarcasm or cleverness. That’s why it’s difficult to accept her as dim when she repeatedly ignores red flags like terrorized classmates, mutilated chickens, and finally dead bodies. I get a mother not wanting to think ill of her child. Yet when she and her husband have a shouting match over what to do about their son possibly being a murderer, then her husband proposes taking Brandon hunting alone in the woods, it’s impossible to believe Banks as Tori somehow doesn’t see the attempted execution being plotted.
Contentedly, “Brightburn” basically becomes a familiar killer kid flick, just with a comic book twist. As an alien lifeform undergoing puberty, Brandon discovers that in addition to super strength and invulnerability, he can now levitate and shoot energy blasts from his eyes. Minor transgressions like dad refusing to let him have a BB gun and Caitlyn calling him a pervert eventually unleash a monster. Brandon’s subsequent tantrums terrorize the town, leaving death and debris along a trail whose last stop includes Tori and Kyle’s home.
If you need a motivation more menacing than “because I can,” answers to questions like “how?” and “why?” don’t get their due. “Brightburn” instead looks intently at the visceral aftermath of a person with great power wielding it with no responsibility.
From severed jaws to exploding heads, “Brightburn’s” spectacular gore becomes its centerpiece strength. Even amid all the bursts of bloodiness, the standout squirm-inducer is an extended moment of ocular trauma certain to be an all-timer. If you’re someone who recoils with a hand to the face whenever you see an eyeball about to be pierced, “Brightburn” will make you lose your lunch.
To the detriment of its underserved drama, the problem with the film fighting so hard to be a formulaic thriller is that suspense setups come from Brandon disappearing and then attacking in a blur. We lose sight of his emotional devolution as a consequence of him being offscreen so often. When he does wreak havoc, Brandon wears a homemade mask too. Occasional asides exist where Brandon basks in his handiwork. But we don’t really get to see his arc illustrated since so much of his latter characterization hibernates inside a CGI whirlwind. “Brightburn” increasingly becomes less about Brandon and more of a showy carnage carnival.
More melodrama exists in this material than can be mined in 90 minutes of stage setting and sporadic mayhem. It would have been intriguing to truly see Brandon’s parents deeply torn over how to handle an unprecedented nightmare. Ditto seeing small town denizens coping with helplessness against unimaginable evil. “Brightburn” seems satiated getting its juice from slow creeps into sudden shocks, three of which feature Elizabeth Banks tiptoeing through her barn toward a scare. When three separate scenes in the same script start with “Tori cautiously enters the barn,” redundancy is inarguably an issue.
“Brightburn” stays sadistically entertaining for its explosive horror show, but by and large feels substantially hollow. Come for the concept, stay for the slaughter, I guess.
Undoubtedly eyeing sequel potential given how much it plays like a prologue, “Brightburn” leaves a lot of obvious questions unanswered. Where did Brandon come from? Who sent him? Most importantly, can a follow-up use this character more intriguingly, rather than as a mere conduit for killing?
Review Score: 60