A film review by Craig J. Koban June 6, 2019

BRIGHTBURN jj

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 Lived?").  The tantalizing possibilities of this series blew my pre-teen mind back in the day. 

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:  

What if 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 mythology. 

 

 

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. 

The opening 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. 

The escalating 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 him. 

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.  

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