Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) find a crashed spaceship in the woods – with a baby boy inside. They consider him a gift from the universe. But while Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) looks human, his twelfth birthday comes with him developing superhuman powers – which he begins using for sinister purposes.
The premise of Brightburn is simple – what if a superhuman alien adopted on Earth turned out to be nasty? It’s not a stretch of the imagination – we’ve seen what bullying does to kids in other horror movies (never thought I’d compare this to Carrie, but there we go). So, what if this troubled youth could also fire laser beams out of their eyes and toss a car like a frisbee? The answer is bloody carnage, and a welcome tonic to the glut of superhero movies in recent years.
In an age where Marvel dominates mainstream movies, a superhero-turned-villain story is an easy route to curious fans’ money. Attaching Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn to the film is enough to get most fanboys through the door – but a Kansas setting and origin story identical to Superman’s is the cherry on top. And with superhero fans comfortably in their seats, Brightburn quickly starts subverting the genre stereotypes. Brandon doesn’t want to be better than those who bullied him – he wants to rip them in half. He doesn’t want to help humanity – he wants total control. He isn’t afraid of his powers. And, most interestingly, he isn’t shaped my inspirational quotes from his loving and supportive parents.
The most compelling subplot in the film is how Brandon’s parents play a part in his growing menace. Yes, they are loving and supportive to begin with – but their parenting is also crucial to forming Brandon into a monster. Brandon’s ‘birds-and-the-bees’ talk is one of the film’s most uncomfortable moments, with Kyle making a mess of explaining how consent works. This kicks off Brandon’s creepy behaviour and forges his superiority complex. I wasn’t expecting any subtext from ‘Superman gone bad’, but it worked well with the major horror beats in a solid, if forgettable, plot. In fact, Brightburn was rushed if anything – 10 more minutes of character development would have made a difference.
As it stands, acting was the weak link in the film. Elizabeth Banks is an excellent comic actress but was forgettable as Tori Beyer. David Denham did a little better as Kyle, but his character had more interesting moments to work with. Jackson A. Dunn does an excellent job in channelling total creepiness as Brandon, but otherwise there weren’t many other characters to sink your teeth into. This isn’t normally a problem in gorefest films – victims are normally just meat for the grinder. But that meant Brightburn was banking a lot on its gory moments to keep the audience hooked.
If Brightburn was going to hang its hat on being anti-Superman, the gore needed to hit lofty heights. While there was some questionable CGI (horror movies often seem uncertain where to draw the line with shit effects), there were some truly gruesome scenes. One death had my jaw on the floor, it was so shakingly vile. These moments helped drag the plot kicking and screaming from a superhero story to true horror.
Brightburn, despite grisly gore and some interesting social rumination, doesn’t deliver on a tantalising premise. Less burning bright, more not-quite-right. 5.5/10.