Brightburn is a creepy, bloody genre mashup that fails to fully explore the fascinating questions it raises about the dark side of being a superhero.
Brightburn is a original, self-described "superhero horror" movie that was developed by James Gunn and his family. The film was initially scheduled to hit theaters back in November, but ended up being delayed after Gunn was fired by Disney from the third Guardians of the Galaxy, and cancelled his plans to promote the project at last year's San Diego Comic-Con. There's certainly something intriguing about the way the movie tries to (essentially) re-envision Superman's origin story, but it ends up being one of those ideas that's more interesting in theory than motion. Brightburn is a creepy, bloody genre mashup that fails to fully explore the fascinating questions it raises about the dark side of being a superhero.
The film's story takes place in the small town of Brightburn, Kansas, where married couple Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) have been trying, but failing to have a child. One night, a mysterious pod carrying an infant crash-lands near their home and the pair decide to adopt the alien as their son, naming him Brandon. Ten years later, the other-worldly boy (Jackson A. Dunn) has developed into a highly intelligent, but also kind and gentle kid. Hoever, everything changes around his twelfth birthday, as Brandon discovers he has super-human abilities and begans to act out in unpredictable and even violent ways. And while his human parents try and guide him back towards the light, it gradually becomes clear that Brandon's destined for other things.
Written by Gunn's brother Brian and cousin Mark, and directed by David Yarovesky (The Hive), Brightburn succeeds in calling attention to just how scary a superhero like Superman could be, if his sense of identity and purpose for being on earth had been given a push in the wrong direction when he was young. Problem is, the film doesn't really explore the implications of this setup much further than that, and consequently falls short of being a satisfying dark superhero or supervillain origin story. It also struggles to examine its themes about the horror of parenting in fresh or innovative ways, even with the twist of their child having super-powers. In fact, Brightburn ends up hitting many of the same general plot beats as this past February's own evil kid horror movie, The Prodigy, and comes off feeling all the more formulaic (and less subversive) for it.
Most of these issues stem from the script, which doesn't provide Brandon with much in the way of agency. Brightburn shows the character being compelled to turn evil by voices emenating from his spaceship (voices only he can hear) and hints at his inherently predatorial nature in an early scene where Brandon talks about the difference between wasps and bees, but it rarely depicts him choosing to be bad over good without the influence of an exterior force. The moments where Tori and Kyle attempt to counsel their son don't really help in this regard; the advice they give him is so terribly worded that it feels like the film is simply trying to cheat at demonstrating how Brandon could inadvertently misunderstand the lessons they're passing on in the worst way possible. That said, the movie's three leads are all strong in their roles, especially Banks as a mother who (because of her own troubled past) is absolutely determined not to give up on her adopted son, no matter what he does.
Narrative flaws aside, however, Brightburn is pretty effective when it comes to serving up thrills and genuinely disturbing graphic violence. The movie takes advantage of the fact that Brandon has super-powers to show him hunting his victims in exciting and visually dynamic ways, before ultimately kiling them in some brutally gory fashion. Yarovesky and his DP Michael Dallatorre also do a nice job of using tight camera angles and careful framing to create some truly suspenseful sequences, as they build-up to Brandon revealing his capacity for mass destuction in the film's third act. Brightburn's visual effects are similarly sound in their design, and are especially impressive in light of the production's low budget.
In the end, Brightburn combines the superhero and horror genres to overall mixed success, in spite of its thought-provoking premise. It's hard to say if things might've turned out differently, had James Gunn actually written and/or directed the film himself; after all, the last horror-thriller he wrote, The Belko Experiment, was similarly criticized for its middling execution of a fascinating setup. Either way, fans of either the filmmaker (who, yes, is now working on Guardians of the Galaxy 3 again), horror, and/or superhero movies may want to give this one a look at some point, though not necessarily in theaters. After all, with Brandon's origin story out of the way, a Brightburn sequel (which is a real possibiilty) could end up being far more captivating than its predecessor.
Brightburn is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 90 minutes long and is rated R for horror violence/bloody images, and language.
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- Brightburn (2019) release date: May 24, 2019