Principal Cast : Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A Dunn, Abraham Clinkscales, Christian Finlayson, Jennifer Holland, Emmie Hunter, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Terence Rosemore, Gregory Alan Williams, Elizabeth Becka, Anne Humphrey, Michael Rooker, Steve Agee, Stephen Blakeheart, Mike Dunston.
Synopsis: What if a child from another world crash-landed on Earth, but instead of becoming a hero to mankind, he proved to be something far more sinister?
Finally, DC have delivered an Elseworlds story on the big scre— wait, what? This isn’t DC? This isn’t some alternative Superman story? Hmmm, well then. Although the premise for the film seemed at first to indicate a take on the Superman story – a baby rockets to Earth from another world, is found by a young couple hoping to adopt a child, baby grows up to manifest incredible superpowers and eventually become Superman – this is a darker, far more malignant take on such a hopeful and dreamlike story. Instead of becoming a hero, what if young Superman actually turned evil? Such is the concept behind Brightburn, directed by David Yarovesky (whose previous work, 2014’s The Hive, remains unseen on my must-see list) and produced by (among others) current DC and Marvel cinematic maestro James Gunn, and while you might be initially titillated by seeing a kid with Superman’s powers wreak havoc upon small-town USA, the end result is far less pleasing than the marketing might have otherwise indicated.
Rural Kansas residents Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman respectively) and their adopted son Brandon (Jackson A Dunn) live a peaceful life in the town of Brightburn. Their world is soon turned upside down, however, when Brandon soon comes to realise that he possesses superpowers; flight, strength, invulnerability, heat-vision. Years earlier, Brandon crashed to Earth in a mysterious alien craft, with Tori and Kyle raising the infant child as their own. The craft, still locked in the barn out back, “speaks” to Brandon and triggers increasingly cruel and malevolent acts in the young boy, eventually leading to deaths, and the realisation that he isn’t going to become one of the good guys soon dawns on the helpless parents.
Superpowered horror is a genre we see far to little of, in truth. Brightburn attempts to rectify that imbalance with an uneven and entirely unfocused take on what might happen were somebody with incredible powers turn bad, rather than good. The nightmare scenario plays out with pocked ferocity in David Yarovesky’s bloody yarn, featuring several instances of graphic bloody gore and more than a few moments of stomach-turning body horror, notably a shard of glass piercing one characters eyeball, and another character having his lower mandible almost shattered and entirely removed from his face. Where films such as Man of Steel might attempt to engender hope and idealism, Brightburn leans heavily into its horror roots, flagellating the audience into a supposedly gleeful abandon of superhuman hubris, yet feeling ill-manifested and really unwilling to dig deep into the potential such a story might have.
Where the breakdown of superhero films hasn’t ever trod, Brightburn flirts with us incessantly, teasing the audience with a “bigger picture” flavour despite never really venturing into intelligent territory. The screenplay by James Gunn’s brothers, Brian and Mark, take the idea and run with it purely as a horror, rather than a larger examination of superhero tropes (a breathless Elizabeth Banks at one point utters the poignant “…there is good inside you” line, something Brandon hasn’t demonstrated in the preceding 60 minutes of film time) and I think the overall movie suffers as a result. It’s a shifting target, Brightburn, wanting so badly to link into superhero mythology (a closing credit cameo has a tenuous link to Gunn’s earlier film Super) while trying desperately to hit it’s blood-soaked mandate to shock. And Brightburn does shock, notably with the use of body horror to elicit requisite moments of fear in the viewer, but it feels gratuitous, lacking weight or depth to its own sense of purpose, and this is the difference between a mediocre big-budget film and a good quality low-budget film. The dialogue is formulaic and occasionally slips into cliche, the motivations of Tori and Kyle aren’t fully fleshed out (the film seems to want a simple allegory to them as with Ma and Pa Kent for Superman, never doing enough work itself to really satisfy) and Brandon’s transition from happy-go-lucky kid into murderous superhuman being flatlines before it ever gets out of the gate.
Salvaging a lot of Brightburn’s flaws are key performances from Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, who play the parents to Jackson A Dunn’s swiftly recalcitrant supervillain role. Banks does great work as the disbelieving mother – she can’t accept that her son, whom she has raised from “birth” when they found him inside his crashed spacecraft, is using his powers for evil – and for the most part you can empathise with her when the realisation kicks in later in the movie. Denman, as the father figure, is amenable to a decent performance but for some reason he’s not in the film anywhere near enough to make his arc solidify against the bloody backdrop. And bloody it is: if you’ve ever wanted to know what Superman’s heat vision would do to a human head were he to use it poorly, Brightburn will give you some idea. Poor Jackson Dunn, however, can’t escape a fairly pedestrian role in the central character, Brandon. He’s not given enough to do in terms of an emotional investment, with the film resorting to tried-and-true cliches to turn him from benign preteen kid into brutal superstrong murderer, rather than anything uniquely interesting. It’s this element to Brightburn I felt was the biggest letdown. Instead of saying something new and exciting about the superhero genre, the film offers empty nothings, relying on the graphic violence and portentous sense of doom pervading the film’s latter half.
Sadly, if you’ve seen the trailers or various clips online for this film, then you’ve seen the best parts of this film. Brightburn is a nice little chilling horror flick for what it offers (one police officer is slain in a particularly brutal manner…) but beyond vicarious superpower fantasy themes the film’s grounded nature and realistic depiction of the events within don’t amount to a truly memorable entry into the canon. The cast do their best (with very little, sadly), and the cinematic direction by David Yarovesky is competent without ever overcooking the premise, but a lack of focus on what we’re supposed to be caring about (or who) and a lack of cohesion regarding emotional investment make for a gritty yet forgettable genre entry. Think Chronicle without the intrinsic sense of awe.
© 2019, Rodney Twelftree. All rights reserved.