“Maybe There Is Something Wrong With Brandon. He May Look Like Us, but He’s Not Like Us!” – Kyle Breyer
An inversion of the illustrious Superman origin story, Brightburn, released in 2019, is a film with an aggressively simple pitch, essentially boiling down to; “What if the Man of Steel was Humanity’s Oppressor Rather Than its Saviour?” And even though the film doesn’t fully follow through on that enthralling premise, predominantly due to its sketchy screenplay and an often botched sense of dread, Brightburn crossbreeds horror tropes with superhero staples in an effective enough fashion to at least offer something unique for enthusiasts of both genres in the face of its many defects.
Plot Summary: After a difficult struggle with fertility, Tori Breyer’s dreams of motherhood become a reality when a child from another world crash-lands on her farm, later naming the boy; Brandon Breyer. But, years later, as Brandon nears puberty, a darkness begins to manifest within him, leading Tori, and her husband, Kyle, to become overwhelmed with terrible doubts concerning their son, doubts that soon put them in grave danger…
Directed by David Yarovesky (The Hive, Nightbooks) and written by James Gunn’s brother and cousin, Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, respectively. Brightburn certainly succeeds in its primary goal: setting up an almost identical scenario to Superman’s origin story before taking the narrative in a far darker direction. And the film clearly has no pretences with what it’s drawing from, as Brightburn actually shares many similarities to Superman’s comic book run beyond just its story. From Brandon Breyer’s name following the comic book convention of superheroes with alliterative first and last names, such as Clark Kent, Peter Parker and Bruce Banner, to the story being set in Kansas, the same state where Kal-El first touched down and later grew up to become Superman. The film’s connections to the Caped Wonder are ever-present, even extending to the costume design in certain scenes as Brandon wears combinations of blue, red and yellow, the principal colours of Superman’s iconic outfit. Still, all this association doesn’t fix what is Brightburn‘s most substantial problem; its runtime. With the plot being squeezed into a very brief ninety-one minutes, the film is unable to waste any time, jumping straight into Brandon discovering his abilities and embracing his detrimental side. Thus, the story allows for little emotional investment, with much of the first act being nothing but scene after scene of what seems like trailer-made moments.
When it comes to the cast, Elizabeth Banks and David Denman share most of the film’s character-related scenes as the pair portray concerned parents starting to suspect that their blessing from the stars might, in actuality, be a scourge. However, whilst this is an acceptable start for writing your central characters, Tori and Kyle have little nuance and barely any development outside of the love (and eventual doubt) they share for their son. Then there is Brandon Breyer himself, portrayed by the young actor Jackson A. Dunn, who does a great job not only considering his age, but also a similar lack of characterisation, as once Brandon’s twelfth birthday arrives, his psychopathic behaviour suddenly arises, morphing him from an innocent child to a homicidal supervillain so swiftly it appears absurdly forced, even if Dunn’s performance does help to make the transition feel slightly more believable through his complete absence of emotion during the latter half of the film.
Aside from some pleasant visual nods to further associate itself with the character of Superman, including a sweeping rural setting and accompanying farmhouse, interchangeable with that of Clark Kent’s humble abode. The cinematography by Michael Dallatorre is fairly unremarkable, usually just displaying shots without much thought or creativity put into them. With that said, many of the film’s CG effects are solid, especially when taking into account the film’s budget, which was considerably smaller than most modern superhero blockbusters.
Despite being described as a merging of superhero and horror soundtracks, make no mistake that the bulk of the original score for Brightburn, composed by Tim Williams, is firmly entrenched in the horror genre, with tracks usually starting out slow and composed before warping into something far more nightmarish, likely symbolising Brandon’s gradual corruption from the evil that dwells within him. This idea is further illustrated by the unnerving sound design as the more Brandon falls into the abyss of immorality, the more distorted voices he begins to hear, each speaking an uncanny extraterrestrial language.
Unfortunately, between the two previously mentioned genres that Brightburn attempts to represent, the film undoubtedly appears underbaked on the horror side of things as Brightburn lazily relies on clichéd horror concepts like flickering lights and jolting curtains. Meaning that it’s a rarity the film actually tries to build tension or have any frightening occurrences outside of loud jump-scares or the admittedly gruesome ways Brandon disposes of his victims.
In summary, between the red cape and blazing heat-vision, Brightburn is a film that knows exactly what it is; an immoral retelling of an established superhero’s beginnings, complete with plenty of violence and an abundance of horror trickery. Yet, all of the film’s spectacle ultimately feels meaningless when compared to its deficiency of strong characterisation and emotional depth. As such, a majority of the film’s most entertaining moments come at the expense of understanding any of the characters on a deeper level, consequently leaving Brightburn a film that never manages to strive past the subversive elevator pitch it was initially conceived as. Rating: high 5/10.