Brightburn re-imagines one of biggest superhero mythologies in the world in much darker and twisted horror fashion, and it proves to be an interesting genre-blend experiment that yields thin results. While somewhat entertaining, and competently crafted, Brightburn is an indulgence piece built on a conceptual skeleton that never gets the heart and organs needed to make it truly come alive. What we get instead is violent theoretical fiction given B-movie form.
The story begins in 2006 Brightburn, Kansas, where couple Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, respectively) are struggling to conceive a child of their own. Fate intervenes in the form of a strange alien ship that comes crashing into the Breyer farm, carrying the kind of baby that Tori and Kyle have always dreamed of having. Flash forward years later, and young Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is turning 12, suddenly lost in the jungle of adolescence. As Brandon comes knocking on puberty's door, the ship that carried him to Earth suddenly awakens and begins broadcasting into Brandon's mind, revealing the boy's true heritage and power. Instead of a becoming a hero, though, Brandon Breyer turns out to be the type who finds a much more terrible use for godlike power.
Director David Yarovesky has directed one previous horror feature (the 2014 film The Hive), but with Brightburn, he's definitely taking a much bigger bite of some pulpy genre storytelling in reference to the most revered superhero mythology of all. Unfortunately, the story by writers Brian and Mark Gunn (as in James Gunn's brother and cousin, respectively) turns out to be a hollow concept -- a pastiche of "wouldn't it be cool..." hypotheticals about an evil Clark Kent in his pre-teen years which are never fully earned or explained, both in terms of the internal logic of the story and the larger thematic point it's attempting to make.
Brightburn starts off plodding along well enough, tracking Brandon Breyer's slow devolution from all-American boy into superpowered killer. Where things fall apart is in the sudden shift in the boy's character come act two, and the film's trouble and stumbles following that psychological thread. On the one hand, Brandon is presented as being almost possessed by whatever entity is inside his spaceship; on the other hand, Brandon is constantly shown to be a Ted Bundy-style creep, with or without his powers. It makes the film's violence and horror moments often confusing to interpret, and thoroughly muddles the themes the filmmakers are trying to convey. At best, Brightburn is an interesting deconstruction of the Superman mythos, and commentary on why the all-American hero's strength of character really is his greatest asset. At worst, Brightburn's story leaves a lot of room for some gross misinterpretation, as it arguably can be skewed toward certain charged sociopolitical issues and views (say... the danger of taking in undocumented foreigners and refugees, or the pitfalls of modern progressive parenting). In short, this half-cooked narrative was pushed out of the concept phase in its nascent form, never fully maturing into the meaningful comic book-horror mix it so hopes to be.
The story may be a misfire, but that doesn't mean David Yarovesky and his cast don't do the most with it. Brightburn is, visually speaking, a very effective blending of the superhero and horror genres, and at least the film succeeds in its primary goal: conveying the idea of Superman's powers being put to nightmarish use in spectacular form. Brightburn's kill sequences are uniquely creepy and/or brutal in their execution, and the movie has some truly memorable visuals and well-staged scenes, which suggest Yarovesky could actually direct a pretty thrilling superhero blockbuster, or a really scary horror film.
A lot of what makes Brightburn work comes from young Jackson A. Dunn, who walks that line between vulnerable youth and deranged killer unnervingly well. Pitch Perfect's Elizabeth Banks and The Office's David Deman also carry a lot of water as Brandon's parents. Their relationship feels natural and well-formed, making you care not only for the physical safety of the characters, but the well-being of the Breyer family as a unit. Of course, this was never going to be a "happy ending" movie, but the principal trio of actors make you care enough to wish for that outcome, regardless.
In the end, Brightburn is a fine matinee viewing for hardcore fans of superheroes, horror, or both. It's good spectacle, and just that -- especially if you haven't seen the spoiler-filled trailers.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Brightburn is now in theaters. It is rated R for horror violence/bloody images, and language.