2019, R, 90 mins.
Elizabeth Banks as Tori Breyer / David Denman as Mr. Breyer / Jackson A. Dunn as Brandon Breyer / Christian Finlayson as Fauxhawk / Emmie Hunter as Caitlyn
Directed by David Yarovesky / Written by Brian and Mark Gunn
One of my
favorite comic books growing up was Marvel's WHAT IF, which featured
alternate take stories exploring various super heroes in its universe that
were decidedly different from the established continuity.
It just made for juicy reading, and the comic book covers for these
issues were hypnotically alluring (one of my favorites involved a
Spider-Man arc and featured the title "What if Uncle Ben had
tantalizing possibilities of this series blew my pre-teen mind back in the
The new super
hero themed horror thriller BRIGHTBURN, at least on a level of its
premise, plays out exactly like one of those classic WHAT IF comic books,
albeit with a decided DC Comics arc.
Produced by GUARDIANS OF
THE GALAXY's James Gunn, written by his brother Brian and cousin
Mark and directed by David Yarovesky, BRIGHTBURN offers up one humdinger
of storyline that asks one basic, yet far reaching question:
Superman - during his early adolescent years - became a psychopathic
murderer with a fragrant disregard for human life while having delusions
of God-like grandeur?
Now, there have
been Superman stories - both on the comic pages and on the silver screen -
that have dealt with this very premise, in one form or another.
BRIGHTBURN pushes it all a bit further in exploring the
possibilities of the Man of Steel succumbing to dark impulses while being
an impressionable and confused child.
Instead of being a future law abiding champion of humanity that
would defend it to its core, what if young Kal-El wanted to destroy
humanity and rule it like a despotic and all powerful dictator?
This is absolutely fascinating hook and the very stuff of
passionate geek debate, and BRIGHTBURN, early on, certainly seems like
it's poised to deliver a fiendishly clever subversion of Superman's
origins. That, and the film
contains some truly and thanklessly good performances and boasts
production values that make it look way, way more expensive than
it's micro budget of $6-plus million lets on.
Disappointingly, though, BRIGHTBURN really loses its way by
focusing more on being a distractingly gory slasher flick as opposed to a
fully formed and well realized alternate take on the Man of Steel's
It should be
noted that the Gunns' screenplay is not about the actual Superman
of the comics (that would be a copyright lawsuit waiting to happen), but
instead features different named characters and locations, albeit with
alarming similarities to those featured in classic Superman origin stories
(there's still an alien baby that crash lands in a farmer's field, a
kindly couple that secretly adopts him and hides the wreckage from the
world, and the extraterrestrial boy develops most of Superman's key
powers). We meet the
aforementioned farming couple of Tori and Kyle (played by Elizabeth Banks
and David Denman respectively), who have been struggling to have a baby.
But faster than you can say "LOOK, UP IN THE SKY!" a tiny
space vessel crash lands in field adjacent to their home, which contains,
to their astonishment, a human-like baby that survived the wreckage.
True to Superman
mythos, the couple secretly adopts the baby, names him Brandon, and tries
to raise him as a normal human child.
The film then flashforwards a decade-plus, and when we reunite with
the boy (Jackson A. Dunne), he seems mostly well adjusted and normal.
Raising him in the idyllic small town of Brightburn (essentially
Smallville), Tori and Kyle feel that they've been supremely blessed from
above with Brandon and never look back.
Fate, as it always does, steps in...and in some rather unnerving
ways. Brandon is shy, but
harbours some disturbing thoughts, and spends much of his free time
scribbling diamond like symbols inside of his school notebooks.
He also has a crush of a local girl (Becky Wahlstrom), but handles
her rejection of him in deeply disturbing ways and violent ways.
Then there's the awakening of his super powers, which seem to be
manifesting themselves as he approaches puberty.
Complicating things immensely is his discovery of the spaceship
that he came to Earth in, which was well hidden from him, and when faced
with the alarming revelation that he's from another world, Brandon
mentally begins to unravel, and he unleashes his anger and frustration in
hauntingly aggressive and savagely brutal ways.
sections of BRIGHTBURN are its most uniformly strong and shows the
inherent and unlimited potential of its premise.
The developing self-awareness of Brandon coming to grips with his
alien heritage and how he fits into a world that's not is own builds upon
familiar beats with anyone that's ever read a Superman comic, but with
intriguing tweaks here and there. The maturation of his powers and his discovering of them are
shown almost as accidents, like when , in an early scene, he frustratingly
throws a defective lawn mower that won't start for him several miles into
the air, or a grisly moment when he chews up a metal fork like it was
candy. Of course, Kyle seems
understandably bothered by his adopted son's ever growing and dangerous
gifts, whereas Tori seems blinded by steadfast love for Brandon that masks
any willingness on her part to accept that something could be seriously
wrong with this child. The
juxtaposition of these well meaning and loving parents trying to ensure a
normal upbringing for their child alongside him slowing becoming insane
makes BRIGHTBURN intoxicating early on.
One of the big
problems later on in the narrative occurs when Brandon starts to totally
divorce himself from reality and sanity, opting to adopt and wear a
chilling makeshift costume and starts to engage in clandestine killing
sprees of local townspeople that have wronged him, in one form or another.
It's at this point in BRIGHTBURN when the film jettisons the
Superman myth bending scripting and dissolves into pure psychopathic
horror mode, showcasing a devilishly mad Brandon murdering people with
sadistic glee. It becomes
abundantly clear at this point that Gunn and company are more fully
invested in making this film a gorefest, featuring Brandon inflicting
human pain and misery that's the stuff of graphic nightmares.
BRIGHTBURN, for all intents and purposes, becomes a stalker serial
killer effort, replete with a body count and a very unsavory focus on
Brandon's lethal brutality. This
movie is bloody and disgusting in equal measure, with a somewhat revolting
penchant for showing death in horrific detail.
The manner that the makers here confuse excessive bloodshed and
puerile violence with legitimate tension and scares is to its detriment.
logical loopholes in the basic storytelling also begin to rear their ugly
heads throughout, and sometimes off-puttingly so.
There's very little credible development of Brandon morphing into a
killer. One day he's good and
well natured boy, and within a few
days he's turned into Ted Bundy with a cape.
His transition is not given enough screentime to have an impact.
Then there's the notion that Brandon's mother in Tori is completely
incapable of accepting that her baby boy from the cosmos is, in fact, pure
evil, despite all evidence that should have tipped her off much earlier.
Banks is so damn good in this film playing a maternal figure of
obsessive commitment and unconditional love (one the whole, BRIGHTBURN is
better acted than it has any right of being), but the perpetual tunnel
vision she suffers from in regards to how dangerous her son has become
never feels authentic. And
you just know that Kyle - the one who suspects early on that his son is
going mental when no one else does - will eventually seal his fate because
of how overused and stale slasher film troupes deal with characters like
Still, BRIGHTBURN contains remarkably convincing visual effects considering its scant budgetary restrictions, and Yarovesky makes a polished looking effort. You sense that he's stretching out what few dollars he had to every possible extreme, and the results show up on screen. But, the film is such a frustrating one to endure, mostly because its writing is lacking in depth and the running time of 90 minutes also does it no favors whatsoever (the story here feels hyperactively rushed and lacks embellishment when needed). Plus, the notion of taking a Superman-like character and stripping him of all of his cheeriness and optimism and morphing him into a cynical, jaded, and troubled loner that shows great contempt for human beings has so much to potentially offer up viewers. It's a damn shame that the screenplay here places no faith in the deeper psychological underpinnings of such ideas and themes of what makes good people turn vicious and cruel. BRIGHTBURN becomes another in a long line of forgettable and interchangeable creepy kid from hell horror thrillers and not a thoroughly riveting and smart dissection of comic book iconography.
What if we got a better movie about warping Superman's well established beginnings than this?
Now that would be something.