The basic outlines of the superhero genre are now so familiar to movie audiences that it was probably inevitable that we’d start seeing them get stirred into other genres as seasoning. It’s an extension of how prior trends gave us horror romantic comedies like Love at First Bite or sci-fi buddy cop movies like Alien Nation or I Come in Peace. Brightburn, a project from the brothers of recently reinstated Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, has a killer hook for a genre-crossing film. It mashes up the outline of a killer kid horror flick with the familiar trappings of a superhero origin story. More succinctly it asks “What if Superman was Michael Myers?”
It’s a good gimmick and one that couldn’t have come along at a more appropriate time. A whole swath of superhero cinema is in the midst of a fascinating public course correction in the wake of audiences widely rejecting a recent stab at taking Superman in a bleak direction via Zack Snyder’s poorly received Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which were meant to launch the now aborted DC Extended Universe. Plus, after a decade of the happy-go-lucky Marvel movies lording over the box office, surely it’s time for a bleak, nihilistic dressing down of the genre?
Those hoping or even dreading Brightburn would deliver some kind of statement on revisionist Superman takes or the superhero genre will find the actual film lacking such depth. It’s a grim, nasty, dark affair clearly assembled by people with a keen grasp of the tropes they’re playing with, but it’s not really angling to do much more than confirm that you can combine the plot beats of a “my kid is a psychopath” thriller and the Clark Kent story into the same screenplay and get a clever feature-length punchline out of it. The film is entertaining, but it’s hard to shake the sense that it’s punching a bit below its weight.
Elizabeth Banks and David Denman play Tori and Kyle Breyer, an infertile couple living on a Midwestern farm who find a human-looking baby in a crashed spaceship and decide to raise him as their own. On his 12th birthday, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) begins to exhibit signs of superhuman abilities. More problematically, he also begins to exhibit some signs of being very creepy. He’s obsessive, introverted, narcissistic, abusive and prone to violence. Once he figures out what his true origins are, the film sets the stage for a brutal show of power that needs to be stopped.
The closest Brightburn comes to having anything resembling a point or bigger theme is demonstrating an extreme variation on the sadly familiar fact of just how far middle class white kids can go wrong before the system takes notice or mom and dad are willing to admit their little angel is anything but perfect. Off-brand Superman serves as a stand in for the real-life evil kid superpower of getting away with everything via privilege. But that comes with the territory of evil kid movies like The Bad Seed, We Need To Talk About Kevin or the Rob Zombie Halloween remake and nothing is gained by mixing the Superman story in here.
What Brightburn lacks in surprises, it mostly makes up for in solid horror movie craftsmanship, deftly executed shock scenes, and winning performances.
It’s odd to have the film invest so much in the “What if Superman had been evil?” setup as a big idea hypothetical when the answer turns out to be “That would be bad.” Brightburn squanders possibly it’s biggest opportunity to hit greater depths with an early wink in the direction of Dragon Ball Z’s own Superman inversion, implying that the child visitor was always intended to be destructive. That makes for economical storytelling but robs Brightburn of the much scarier thematic notion that the same cultural forces that churn out serial killers and school shooters among “normal” American kids could work just as insidiously on an ersatz Clark Kent.
What Brightburn lacks in surprises, it mostly makes up for in solid horror movie craftsmanship, deftly executed shock scenes, and winning performances. Banks has more-or-less the lead and audience POV role, and sells the difficult characterization of someone who’s sympathetic even as we know she’s making terrible stupid decisions because Brandon’s her kid and she loves him. Denman is a winning presence as a guy who knows something is up but really isn’t equipped to handle it the way he might want to. Dunn, who also had a cameo in Avengers: Endgame does compelling work as the killer kid at the center of things.
Framed as a possible franchise-starter for its own dark superhero mini-universe, complete with an Easter Egg confirming it shares continuity with James Gunn’s earlier comic satire Super and a post-credits scene suggesting twisted versions of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, Brightburn has more promise than payoff. It’s an agreeably naughty bit of finger-in-the-eye bleakness that succeeds in its own minor terms.
Bottom line: It’s worth the time, if you’ve got the time.