After the firing (and since rehiring), of director James Gunn from Guardians of the Galaxy 3, his writer brother Brian and cousin Mark Gunn crafted this dark Superman-like origin/ spin with JG on board as producer. In many ways, Brightburn could be interpreted as a twisted manifestation of Gunn’s burnt feelings for superhero cinema after the Disney debacle. With his family writing and director David Yarovesky (The Hive) behind the mic, Brightburn sears like a great flaming bird flip: a sit, swivel and spin on superhero franchises, crafted with an energy, ironic venom and flair to make it timely, fun and electrifying.
The film starts in Brightburn, Kansas, on the farm of thirty-something married couple Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), who have been trying for a while to fall pregnant. Cue the mammoth fiery meteorite/ space capsule (conveniently carrying a baby) that comes crashing down into the forest near their farm.
Thinking “that’ll do”, the Breyers adopt the boy, name him Brandon and hide his capsule in their barn. The rest of the set-up sees Brandon grow via home movie montage/ passage of time sequences. We reconvene on his twelfth birthday as Brandon buds from smart, shy chap into an intergalactic mega-bastard who mishandles puberty, adopts a moniker, makes a scary mask then embarks on a rampage in attempt to obliterate the town.
There have been many superhero/horror hybrid films in the past (Constantine, Blade, Darkman, Swamp Thing, Ghost Rider, Hellboy and Venom), but Brightburn aims for a more mature outing. This is partly due to its setting and being a family focused drama with less synthetic CG spectacles and effects smudged set pieces. Yarovesky provides a striking side glance/ swipe at the Superman mythos with gutsy bloodshed embedding greater terror facets, but the horror is never exploited, just aptly extrapolated when the story requires.
Brightburn is a perfect genre blending, made even more terrifying thanks to a spectacular lead performance from Jackson A. Dunn, who, as Brandon, simmers a psychotic disconnection, suggesting a cleft, complex depth that’s so much more than just Damien Thorn in a cape.
Opting for story and the disassembling of its lead character over standard stunts and plastic action, the child psychosis plaiting within a superhero origin plot (the main, populist fantasy escape channel for its protagonist’s/target audience age) makes Brightburn’s horror seethe in our subconsciousness before flowering into suspense then drama over jimmied in frights and jump scares.
Despite the dynamic “what if Superman was a psychopath” concept, cleverly relayed from the point of origin, obviously Brandon is not Kal-El: a horde of super scrupulous lawyers probably saw to that. But Brightburn often feels like a fan film/ origin story about the evil son of Jor-El from Superman III. There are also enough similarities to keep fans elated at the suggested notion/realisation of their Man(iac) of Steel with an astronomical kink in his noggin.
What we learn about Brandon makes him and the film more frightening as it progresses. Even though we can understand why he has detached from those closest, Brandon’s breakdown has a basis in “reality” and is more tangible than surface circumstance. He is also a biological outsider with a physical superiority which blooms at the time his mother’s endless reassurance that he is “special”, elevates his confidence as a defence mechanism, leading to not-quite delusions of grandeur and blind, ugly violence.
The writing shines a light on the “evil” inside that manifests via puberty and his acknowledgement of how different Brandon is to family and classmates. This method of unveiling is often considered detrimental to the fear factor in horror films as it helps viewers gauge what makes the monster tick which could make them subsequently less frightening, but we are kept in the dark enough for our skin to crawl when Brandon gets angry.
Brandon’s powers are also, obviously, a metaphor for/adjacent to puberty, and what abhorrent gits adolescents can be from the grip of a preteen peeve. This is just one of many components that makes Brightburn fascinating but is vital as it ingrains the film deeper into horror, implanting links to the Bad Seed subgenre which has seen a bit of a revival this year following The Prodigy, The Hole in the Ground and Pet Sematary. The Exorcist, Salem’s Lot, Elm Street and Children of the Corn are also recalled during scenes featuring Brandon entering his demonic seeming, croaky voice breaking phase and petrifying dream scenes.
Literally jaw-dropping gore, shocks enough to keep horror fans gawping/happy and, through their uniqueness, contribute to Brightburn’s brilliance, but the real horror derives from the staggering lead performance from Dunn, who is totally convincing amongst the fantasy horseplay.
The script flits too quickly at times (it’s a brisk 90 minutes). As a result, supporting characters (including Kyle and Tori) feel slightly undercooked, but the performances are passable. Banks as Tori does the cool mom in a Ramones t-shirt thing while Denman plays Dad Kyle as generic, stern but caring yet slightly irksome. Other characters including Brandon’s classmate Caitlin, his uncle, aunt/ psychiatrist and town Sherriff seem slightly shoe-horned.
Despite the suggestion that Brightburn should do big at the box office, there is no shaking the cult connotations due to unique concept characteristics, like last year’s equally brilliant Overlord, which should have been more widely embraced. These make Brightburn more unique but may alienate the mainstream. But with the Gunns on board, those unsanctioned Superman similarities and the timeless horror draw, Brightburn could soar. It has more going for it than a zombie Nazi barnstormer so good word of mouth could boost enough clout to make Brightburn a decent sized sleeper hit.
James Gunn has subverted superhero films in the past with indie gem Super, but (as producer here) Brightburn feels like a darker retaliation of a different (but equally innovative) ilk. The Gunns and Yarovesky have crafted a sucker-punch that smacks of cult classic with the talent/ clout whack of a big franchise kick-starter. If embraced, Brightburn could pave the way for a new wave of exciting, braver, thought-provoking superhero films with depth, heart and savvy to match the budget brawn, for this is a film that feels for those who have grown up with and still love comic book movies, but have a yearning for something new.