Superhero movies are a dime a dozen these days with DC, Marvel and other studios churning out multiple pictures a year. So, it’s nice when once in a while someone tries to take on the genre with a more original approach. While clearly inspired by comic book heroes, “Brightburn” is one film that attempts to take on the superhero genre with more subversive flair. A horror picture that explores what it might be like if a Superman-esque being were to land on Earth and NOT become the hero, this film has had my eye for some time and with James Gunn producing and his cousin Mark and brother Brian writing the film it had some big names with superhero experience behind it. With a promise of turning the superhero origin story on its head, one can only wonder if this mix of genres pays off in the end. Let’s find out. This is my review of “Brightburn”.
“Brightburn” takes place in the fictional titular town in Kansas and follows a married couple Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) who adopted a young boy named Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) after his ship crashed on Earth. Ten years after his arrival Brandon is still ignorant of his origins and abilities but strange voices emanating from his ship start to influence him to test his strength. Brandon’s personality begins to change as he becomes disrespectful and violent the more he learns of his abilities and embraces the voices in his head. Despite warning signs, Tori continues to have faith that her son has good inside him but when people start missing and bodies begin to turn up Tori and Kyle must decide how they want to handle Brandon’s increased aggression or if there may be no saving their adoptive son from a path of villainy and destruction.
I give “Brightburn” a lot of credit for at least trying something new and acting as a fun melding of genres that are both extremely popular in the medium today. Superhero movies and horror flicks are both continuously successful money-making machines and seeing them put together makes for an oddly appropriate pairing especially when you consider the threat a superhuman could present to the world if they weren’t actually the hero. For a movie I was really looking forward to experiencing, “Brightburn” offered a lot that pleased me and also failed to meet some of my expectations. On the plus side, I thought the acting was well done. Elizabeth Banks is awesome in this movie and by far the best and most committed performer while Jackson A. Dunn proves to be sufficiently creepy in his portrayal of a villainous pre-teen with superhuman abilities who is finally realizing his potential in a world where he doesn’t belong. David Denman doesn’t shine as bright as his on-screen wife, but still plays a believably frustrated father to Brandon who is clearly less committed to his parental role than Banks’ character making him the perfect contract to Banks when Brandon starts to spread his chaos and the couple has to decide what to do.
Of the two genres that “Brightburn” tackles it’s definitely a much better horror movie than superhero story. This is one of the most shamelessly bloody and gory movies I’ve seen in some time and the cool part is there’s actually not a lot of deaths in the film, they’re just all extremely graphic. In fact only three people die on screen while another character’s hand is crushed in full visibility of the audience. I can’t remember the last time a film made me cringe to the point of looking away from the screen or covering my mouth in delightful disgust, but that’s exactly the kind of reaction I had watching “Brightburn” and I enjoyed every minute of it. Even at its most graphic though “Brightburn” feels tasteful as it serves as a showcase of the meticulous planning and epic power that a superhuman could unleash on his victims, especially one with a youthful edge. Everything Brandon does feels like it’s performed with the resulting injuries in mind making him more than just a masked killer. He’s a legitimately threatening and scary character in both presentation and concept, a predator who likes to play with his pray. It’s with these horror elements that “Brightburns” premise feels the most realized.
However, there’s a second side to the premise that is not as impressive and that the superhero origin story. Brandon’s origins are clearly directly ripped out of the “Superman” comics to the point where the synopsis for the film even name drop’s DC’s legendary hero. So, from that perspective it’s nothing we haven’t seen before and that’s mostly by design to play into the subversion. But where “Brightburn” fails is with Brandon’s journey. What drew me into this film was the possibility that the story could explore how the culture of humanity and life on Earth could push a young alien superhuman to villainy instead of heroism. Maybe he was picked on at school. Maybe he saw how the world was turning out and wanted to stop humanity from destroying itself. Maybe people simply feared him and prevented him from feeling welcome. Some of these ideas are actually touched on in “Brightburn” but none of them end up being the actual reason for Brandon’s transformation.
Instead his turn to the dark side is more programmed. It’s his ship and the influence from it that leads Brandon to turn to evil which plants the seeds for potential future plot points but leaves audiences underwhelmed with this specific film’s use of the superhero theme as a major source of the drama. Sure, the way people react to Brandon’s powers and villainy help push him further over the edge, but by then he’s already taken a turn for the worst and he simply embraces everything else that gives him an excuse to be who he seems destined to be. There’s also little development of his finer personality traits or anything that makes him, well, human. I remember knowing very little about Brandon watching the film and by the time the credits rolled I still didn’t understand just how different his new, evil persona was from where he started. Tying that all together, let’s readdress the Superman comparison. Clark Kent turned out to be good because of his upbringing and respect for humanity. Imagine how much better this movie could have been if Brandon grew up with parents who disowned him or if he found a reason to hate humanity and THAT is what inspired his evil ways? Sadly, that’s not what we get here, and it feels like a HUGE wasted opportunity to delve into the deeper aspects of the superhero psyche and maybe even explore how a villain is born in the process. I would have loved more attention been given to what makes Brandon tick.
That’s really all I’ve got for this one. A simple review for a simple yet entertaining movie that delivers on one hand but misses the mark on another. “Brightburn” was a lot of fun and as a horror feature I highly recommend it. It offers plenty of cringe-worthy moments to sink your teeth into and approaches its horror elements with a keen sense of timing and control that keeps things from going too far over the top. As a superhero movie though it leans a little too much on Clark Kent’s origins without really taking advantage of a great opportunity to challenge how society or upbringing could influence a superpowered alien’s perspective on humanity and our world. Thankfully it’s meant to be more horror than superhero story and does just enough to provide a fun and subversive take on the expectations we’ve come to embrace for superhero films. It just could have done so much more. All the same, it’s a solid horror film, a decent at worst superhero story and an entertaining duel-genre picture that I highly recommend.