Movie Review: Brightburn.
This dark riff on Superman’s origin story doesn’t delve deeply into its ideas, instead focusing on its horror elements.
You don’t have to be big into comic books to know Superman’s origins: a baby from space lands on Earth and is adopted by the saintly Ma and Pa Kent. He learns to love humanity and the good old U.S. of A., becoming the iconic hero for truth and justice. Brightburn takes this premise and asks – what if Ma and Pa were just regular folks, doing the best they knew how? Would Superman grow up to be a hero…or would he be as messed up as the rest of us? How do you ground a rebellious middle-schooler who can bend iron rods and fly? Important questions.
Unfortunately, Brightburn doesn’t go for any answers deeper than “if he was evil, he’d sure kill a lot of people!” Interesting ideas are hinted at, but barely register before the next horrific murder greets the audience in all its gory glory. For those looking for depth, “Rosemary’s Baby from Krypton” this is not. For those who just want to see what carnage a pre-teen Superman having a temper tantrum could cause, Brightburn will be right up your alley.
Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) discover a baby boy crash-landed on the edge of their family farm. Long childless and desperate to start a family, they take his arrival as a gift from God and raise him. What at first seems like the answer to their prayers turns sinister as the child begins to manifest super human powers.
From Humble Origins…
Brightburn is very aware of its parentage. Much of the first half hour could have been directly swapped out for Superman’s origin story from Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. It appropriates that film’s sensibility down to the golden tint and musical cues. At first this felt like a nice homage to source material, but as the film never really builds any meaningful edifice onto the borrowed foundation, it wound up feeling trite. Yeah. He’s Superman with a different name. We get it. Do something smart with it.
Superhero Horror, Small s big H.
Beyond the set up, Brightburn really wants to get into its comfort zone, which winds up being body horror. Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is essentially possessed by the voices coming from his spaceship, leading to him to question his humanity. Dunn does a fantastic job of acting alien, like a mimic wearing a human costume who occasionally lets his impersonation slip. His interest in other people tends to the abstract and macabre. One nice little touch is his “porn” stash, which his parents find. It has the usual Sears catalog bra and panties models…and then drawings of people without their skin. Like Zack Snyder’s Clark Kent, Brandon can see through people, and we get a sense that it informs his view of us. I kinda wish the film had the budget to actually show it, but it’s a nice nod.
As Brandon goes full on Damien-mode, the kills are taut, creepy, and explicit. There are some really clever kills brought about by Brandon’s powers, and then there’s just a good horror director’s love of splattering things. Some times it felt gratuitous or unnecessary, but the film has prepped you early that the violence is going to be sudden and gory. Mostly it finds the sweet spot, eliciting both excitement and nausea.
From Another World.
Brightburn isn’t bad, as long as you know what you’re walking in to. It is a horror film with a superhero slant, not a superhero film with a horror slant. When it’s doing what it does best – show all of the delightfully awful ways a superhero could murder you – it is gangbusters. It’s well paced, keeps the tension stoked early and often, and makes a lot of hay out of its kills. Part of me was left disappointed, though, by the way nothing really comes of the premise besides its most basic element. There is one really fantastic metaphor brought up early when it talks about parasitic insects that invade other colonies of insects…but it’s not developed. It lands with a thud, as we have become trained to realize that this film is all surface level ideas by that point, and we should just take it literally.
There’s stuff in the film that hints of a wider pantheon of aliens like Brandon, and I really hope this gets a sequel. Brightburn feels like the first Cloverfield movie: an obvious riff on a genre that has some high points but never really gets the chance to develop any of them. It wasn’t until the second Cloverfield that the ideas really blossomed. I think Brightburn could be that kind of franchise. Show me another part of this world, and then let it retroactively inform the “good but not great” first film.