This review first appeared on TVMovieFix.
Who would have thought that an Elseworlds take on Superman would turn out horrifically? That’s exactly what Brightburn wanted to do. Although it tried its best to come up with a unique spin to it, one could not simply veer away from the Superman narrative even with all the horror and suspenseful elements at bay.
Try as it might, Brightburn couldn’t emit a blinding light as what we all thought it would. Even with James Gunn’s name plastered all over the film’s marketing, it proved to be too much of a reach.
Brightburn follows the story of 12-year-old Clark Ke—sorry—Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) as he slowly discovers the scope of his powers after waking up in the middle of the night, strange voices tearing up his psyche. His parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) aren’t exactly the Jonathan-and-Martha-Kent type of people but chose to treat Brandon as their own. There’s the customary infant spaceship from god knows where, and a possible weakness similar to that of Kryptonite. And because Brandon is a kid who feels out of place, his urges have him following the alien voices to “take the world” and decimate everything in his path.
Where ‘Brightburn’ loses its light
On the surface, the plot seems plausible enough, provided that you’d come into the theater with zero knowledge of Superman’s origins and expecting to see some type of Cronenberg-ish blood and bile antic. It has the elements of a good superhero flick and the scares + gore that don’t usually come with it. The best thing to do if you are a Superman fan is to dump everything behind and eat up what’s served in front of you with no questions asked. But here’s the thing—even if you try to block it out of your system, Brightburn will always be a blatant excuse for making a “remix” of a beloved character. A rip-off, to be fairly blunt.
As the Breyer family course through their life as the archetypal farm bunch, Brandon realizes that he’s special (and often reiterates that to everyone he encounters following his discovery). And because of the typical tropes of a kid being bullied for being intelligent (didn’t know that that is still a thing in 2019) and not fully understood, Brandon chooses the dark side to exact revenge on people who would not see things the way he wants them to. In short, Brandon suffers a massive trip and goes full 180 on his predestined path—making it the perfect pathway to becoming the evil Superman.
With that, Brandon goes on a rampage, injuring his crush’s hand, killing his crush’s mother (after said crush told Brandon that she couldn’t talk to him on mom’s orders), and brutally maiming his uncle. It’s precisely what humans would fear if a real-life superhuman with extraordinary strength bonds his abilities with relentless anger and thirst for blood.
There’s nothing to expect from Brightburn’s writing other than the fact that it’s a distinct mirror of Superman’s origin story with a twist. If Supes went the honorable road, Brandon took the dark and terror-filled dirt road to chaos and mayhem. It could have been a believable feat, given the stakes that director David Yarovesky is trying to pull off. Instead, all we ever got in its 90-minute runtime was the sight of a kid acting out on his teenage angst albeit violently. My future romance won’t get with me, so let’s kill her mom! My uncle threatens to tell my parents about my powers, so let’s bludgeon him with a van! Oh, look at that, my mom’s calling the police on me, so let’s destroy the family house as I zoom in and out of the frame! Things could have worked for Brightburn had it only added elements that are far from the common bad superhero narrative.
Adding to that is the eye-straining first act where the cameraperson seems to have shot this without knowing that stabilizers are a real thing. Things could be better seen if the camera movements were smooth and cohesive. There’s no fight scene in the first few minutes of the film, but the way the camerawork was done almost gave me a doozy. It’s a minor detail, but something that I couldn’t get my head off of.
Brandon’s anger is blown out of proportion here. It’s almost as if Yarovesky was aiming for a gun-blazing cinematic spectacle that the first thing in his mind for Brightburn is to turn the emotional gauge to a hundred. I get it, Brandon feels left out, but his sinister actions don’t make up for such a small problem as not being able to talk to your crush or being scolded by your father. It’s the ultimate rebellious boy’s angsty boner—if the world fucks with me, I will fuck them back harder. His actions don’t merit the trivial “problems” that he’s going through. It just doesn’t match like that—even evil is not that dumb.
The problem with kid-led horror movies is the complicated task justifying the anger and feelings towards their actions. Brightburn tries to give the trope justice but misses on all levels of logic and consequence. It tries hard to be Children of the Corn but ends up tumbling down like Hancock. If anything, you could sleep through a couple of minutes of the film and wake up with the same damn situation with no moral conflict whatsoever.
Possible Hits and Counter-duds
But in all fairness, Brightburn is not purely a mess. You’ve got to hand it over to Dunn as he portrays Brandon’s character in a meaningful light, almost on the verge of developing unwarranted empathy towards his actions. Dunn does a solid job of playing a demented kid who only wants to capitalize on his special abilities and for the world to leave him alone. If you marry Dunn’s acting to an ambitious plan of creating a cross between the superhero and horror genre, you’ve got yourself a solid storyline in Brightburn (discounting the Superman account, of course).
The movie nails all the scares and suspense that builds up to the finale—something that’s never been done in this kind of storytelling before. Had New Mutants been released earlier, though, Brightburn wouldn’t be the predecessor to the growing hype surrounding superhero-horror films. If you would take out the elements of DC’s flagship hero from the premise, Brightburn could work as a compelling genre-smasher. All elements of horror aside, the movie realizes the potential of creating a mad experiment between to unlikely genres and have all the ammo to make it go out with a bang.
Brightburn is a well-paced story that coincides with the tight horror elements, and ultimately succeeds in making the audience feel the gravity of living in a world where bad superheroes are the norm. And with this kind of execution, the ending sets up possible stories all set within the Brightburn universe—there are reports of a half-human, half-sea creature destroying ships and a demented woman who has the power to choke people with a rope and forcing them to tell the truth.
But with all these possible counter-duds, it’s not enough to save Brightburn from languishing in its own blood.
‘Brightburn’ Overall Verdict
Brightburn had the potential to become a compelling supervillain origin story, but it missed the mark entirely. With writing duties handed over to Gunn’s cousins’ Mark and Brian, the only thing they were able to cook up was an exaggerated gore-fest that didn’t support its premise enough to make it believable. The story feels as if it was more of a duty than passionate storytelling.
The movie leaves a bad taste in the mouth despite initially chomping on it with flavor and essence. It had a big chance of being a unique superhero take and all the right notes to hit for it to have a resonating premise. The evil Superman trope could have worked for Brightburn. Sadly, it’s not the best treatment for a film with dreams to spur a universe of interconnected stories.
That being said, all that Brightburn could ever be is an ambitious gore-fest but a dull rip-off.