If you’ve ever wondered what a psychotic, prepubescent Superman would be like on screen, Brightburn successfully captures the sort of carnage you would imagine in what is an entertaining opening for a new-ish genre of superheroes gone bad…
…While Marvel and DC crowd the theaters with do-gooders and quippy one-liners (relax, I like those movies too), Brightburn has flown in to give horror fans some much needed relief with one of the darkest, goriest superhero films to date. Directed by David Yarovesky (The Hive), and written by Brian Gunn & Mark Gunn (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), the James Gunn produced Brightburn centers on Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), an alien, 12-year-old boy discovered when he was just a baby after falling from the sky by the only parents he has ever known, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman). Brandon has spent his whole life believing he was just a normal (albeit strange) kid, but when the spaceship he arrived in begins calling to him from a locked room in the barn out back, it awakens something powerful in Brandon, a desire for evil which cannot be contained.
Brightburn is one of those concepts that’s so good, it’s a wonder we haven’t seen much of anything like it before. Sure, there are films like Chronicle or, to a lesser degree of “terror”, The Crow, but never have we seen this sort of visceral mayhem and pure evil from a superhero film. Yarovesky capitalizes on the what-if outcome of how much trouble Lois Lane would be in if Superman ever lost his damn mind in a domestic dispute, or if Aquaman suddenly got pissed at one of his fish friends and tossed it a thousand miles into the air. You laugh, but that’s what makes Brightburn such a unique horror film, because everyone around little Brandon is on the level of that tiny fish when compared to the indestructible, murderous pre-teen.
The advertising has been clever in hiding just how truly horrific Brightburn is. Yarovesky and his team understand the opportunity they have with the film, and have delivered on the sort of gory carnage you’d expect with this evil Superman story. For me, this is everything Venom should’ve been. We’re witness to ripped off jaws, glass shards being pulled out of squishy eyeballs, and the unimaginable amount of blood splatter that occurs when a character moving at the speed of light rams someone into a wall. Yarovesky refuses to take our eyes away from the horror, instead forcing us to embrace-with giddy, sometimes queasy delight-the pure power of Brandon and what he can do. And as a bonus, Dunn is perfectly eerie in the role as an emotional child who hates the world around him, and has been given the power to destroy it. Dunn has the ability to make you shudder in your seat with the occasional, ultra-threatening bit of dialogue, made all the more chilling by the fact that it’s coming from a small child. And people wonder why I don’t want to have kids.
Speaking of having kids, the Gunn’s employ some interesting themes in Brightburn which, unfortunately, don’t always feel genuine and fleshed out. As parents who struggled and prayed for a baby (and largely thanks to a devastating performance from Banks), we are able to accept that the Breyers would look past some of the stranger qualities of their alien child. But from very early on, the script comes off a bit mishandled, in that they are being confronted with, and ignoring, so many red flags that it becomes frustrating for an audience which finds themselves ten steps ahead. Never mind the fact that the Breyer’s are aware Brandon hasn’t bled his entire life (weird enough on its own), but once he starts bending forks with his teeth, showing up at home with bloody clothes, and levitating in the damn air, it begins to be pretty dumbfounding that the Breyers are ignoring it.
Of course, that all plays into the recurring theme of Brightburn, which deals with the fears of parenthood and being unable to accept when there is something inherently wrong with the child you love, but audiences aren’t stupid, and we have our limits with just how much ignorance we’ll buy before we start screaming at the screen. To be fair though, Denman and especially Banks nail their performances, and so we can occasionally forgive their stupidity in the situation. Brightburn also toys a lot with an oedipal relationship between mother and son with Tori and Brandon, dropping small hints like the fact that a younger Tori had purple streaks in her hair, as does the little girl, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), an unwilling Lois Lane who Brandon forms a fucked up, abusive relationship with. Yes, Brightburn is unflinching in its darkness, even when it comes to children.
But outside of the un-believability of many of the Breyer’s choices, and underdeveloped plots like Brandon’s attraction to Caitlyn, which is given all of ten minutes or so of screen time at best, where Brightburn really falters for me is in creating genuine atmosphere. Yarovesky succeeds at creating some tension with the aid of some awe-inspiring, spine-rattling imagery from cinematographer Michael Dallatorre, but these moments are consistently undercut by what feels like the film’s need to see how many different ways it can use Brandon’s ability to have him disappear and appear out of nowhere for a jump scare, which is done so often that I became completely numb to it. We get it, he can move fast. It’s a cheap, effective way to startle the audience, but does nothing to create actual dread. It also doesn’t help that some of the dialogue is so beyond absurd and unnatural, often resulting in unintentionally funny moments that detract from the tension. It’s pretty bad when the entire theater is laughing at what is supposed to be an emotional moment, but to its credit, that’s just part of the entertainment value with Brightburn.
All in all, Brightburn is the highly entertaining superhero film which horror fans have been clamoring for. It isn’t perfect, but it does enough to make us hungry for more superhero gone bad films soaked in blood and terror. And based off of an end credit sequence featuring a fantastic cameo by frequent Gunn collaborator Michael Rooker, we just might get our wish. Go see Brightburn expecting nothing more than a dumb, dark gorefest, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Brightburn is now playing in theaters nationwide.
By Matt Konopka