“Brightburn,” a new superhero-horror film which hit theaters May 24, riffs on the classic origin story of the iconic American hero Superman. The film’s initial marketing was heavily centered around the involvement of its producer, James Gunn, because of his high-profile relationship to more traditional superhero media — he directed the first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies and was on board for a third at the time. Gunn’s involvement with “Brightburn” comes as no surprise, as the film was written by his brother and his cousin, Brian and Mark Gunn, although the film itself is not remensciscent of any of James Gunn’s own filmography. “Brightburn” is simply a lame horror flick not nearly worth the outsized marketing profile circumstances afforded it.
The story centers around Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), a loving married couple living with their adopted son Brandon (Jackson Dunn) on a farm in Brightburn, Kansas. When Brandon starts acting a bit strange, his classmates blow him off as a weirdo and his teachers blame it on puberty. Only Tori and Kyle know the truth — Brandon is actually an extraterrestrial they discovered as a baby in a crashed alien craft 12 years ago. As Brandon familiarizes himself with the amazing powers of his alien body, unsolvable incidents of violence begin occurring across Brightburn. Tori and Kyle must figure out what terrible things their son has decided to do with his powers — and what, if anything, they can do to stop him.
The premise of “Brightburn” is far from unprecedented. Reworking a well-established superhero origin story into a villainous or horrifying tale has long been a staple trope of alternative universe comics, and comic writers have explored the question of “What if Superman was Evil” often enough to field a decently sized Evil Supermen football team. Even in the realm of film, “Brightburn” is conceptually preceded by 1984’s “The Toxic Avenger” and the much more recent “Chronicle” (2012). What stands out most about “Brightburn” is how very targeted it is, as it references not just Superman lore in general, but also the young “Man of Steel” iteration of the character specifically.
“Brightburn” takes the dark and realistic tones of Zack Snyder’s 2013 film “Man of Steel” to their next logical step by thematically alleging that it is unreasonable to expect a child to handle the realization of great power with the steadfast maturity of an adult. The film’s goal is presumably to trace Brandon’s path from innocent schoolboy to unstoppable alien terror, but the film’s progress toward that goal is severely undermined by a bevy of flaws, mostly in the writing.
Most critically, the film never seems to have a clear grasp of what exactly Brandon is — whether that’s a well-intentioned but unstable child, an incomprehensible and unsociable alien or a genuinely malevolent and calculating villain. The experience of watching him cycle through the three modes at random intervals is neither scary nor compelling. The inconsistency of the writing combined with film’s rushed pacing reduces Brandon from a character to a mere prop, a vehicle for violence with no sense of coherent thought or relatable emotion.
The film does have some small strengths — the horror scenes are somewhat imaginative and delightfully gory at times, and the entire cast — Banks in particular — puts forward strongly emotive performances. But at the end of the day, “Brightburn” fails as a horror film by the simple virtue of not being very scary. The plot as a whole is obvious and predictable and the film lacks a sense of dimension. Never does the world of the film feel like it has been turned into a child’s sandbox upon which he can inflict destruction without care for consequence; normality has not been turned on its head by the introduction of an alien element. The dialogue is simply so minimal and serious that its attempts to treat the film’s bizarre and otherworldly events with gravity come off as downright laughable. Though it has jumpscares in abundance, they are so typical and telegraphed that they might as well be pulled from any other horror film starring any other invulnerable teleporting monster.
The idea of an Evil Superman is not without merit, but it definitely does not have enough to carry an entire film by itself. “Brightburn” is a one-note movie just competent enough to grasp the mantle of mediocrity. Anyone interested in the premise should be encouraged to explore it literally anywhere else, as “Brightburn” has no original ideas or interesting features to raise it above the abundance of comics that have come before it.