Reviewing «Brightburn»: what if Superman was a bloodthirsty monster?
You can't help but be intrigued by «Brightburn»'s premise: what if there was a horror movie with an evil version of a Superman-type character as the antagonist? The talented director David Yarovesky took control of the movie, doing two noteworthy things. One of them worked, the other less so.
Superman... with a twist!
Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is no ordinary child. He has superpowers and comes from another world. Another planet. As a baby, he crash-landed on Earth in a spaceship. He was found by Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), a young couple trying for a child in vain. Grateful for this «gift», they adopt the child and raise it as if it were their own.
Until Brandon's twelfth birthday, he and his foster parents live a normal life on a farm near the small village of Brightburn, Kansas. Then Brandon discovers his superpowers. But he doesn't use them for good. The opposite, in fact. Soon Tori and Kyle realize that their adopted child is a ruthless predator.
Done well: the sheer brutality of it all
Yarovesky is right in not shying away from anything. In simpler terms: «Brightburn» is brutal. Really brutal. For example, the scene – already hinted at in the trailer – in which a waitress is hit in the eye by a shard of glass during an attack by Brandon. The camera relentlessly holds on the poor woman, screaming as she pulls out the horrifying shard, while blood spurts out of her ever-growing wound and her white eyeball turns red.
The whole movie's like this. Hanging, torn bodies. Bloody guts everywhere. Anyone who feared «Brightburn» might be a bit too tame in order to avoid an MA rating and thus be accessible to a larger audience can breathe a sigh of relief. Or not – some deaths are merciless and disturbing.
But brutality isn't the only thing «Brightburn» has to offer. Yarovesky and James Gunn – the «Guardians of the Galaxy» director acting as producer for this movie – know how to mix the superhero and horror genres in a way no other film has done before.
They've understood that superpowers are super from the hero's point of view, but that they can be quite frightening from an outside perspective. Admittedly, we saw that in Zack Snyder's «Man of Steel», but not to the same effect. Not in the context of a disturbing horror film. Such as when Brandon flies around with his blood-red cape and a creepy home-made mask. That's not heroic, that's horrifying. Laser eyes suddenly appear demonic, superhuman powers seem raw and brutal.
Done badly: a one-dimensional antagonist
Where director Yarovesky fails is with his antagonist. «Brightburn» is never interested in giving Brandon any kind of motivation or even the slightest justification for his actions. At first, he's a lovely boy. Then... something happens. Suddenly he's a raging murderer. This seems one-dimensional, sometimes even contradictory. As every so often, Brandon mentions wanting to do good with his powers. But it's not really visible in any of his actions. He's just a cold-hearted, demonic kid.
This is so striking, ironically, as Brandon's flat character is opposed by the wonderfully talented Elizabeth Banks and David Denman. They play the young couple that found and adopted Brandon. The chemistry between them is perfect. They love each other truly and deeply. They want to be good parents. They are grateful for the chance. They give it their all. And still, the child they call «son» becomes a terrifying murderer. A beast. Something they slowly but surely realise throughout the movie. And it threatens to tear them apart.
Surprisingly, they – and not the existence of an evil superman – carry the film on their backs. For where Brandon's cruelty is shown by blood-curdling brutality, it's Banks and Denman who feel or at least hint at an emotional aspect to their suffering. That's great, on the one hand. On the other hand, this doesn't really fit into a horror movie with an antagonist who's lack of character rivals only the nothingness that is Michael Myers.
Finally, the exciting premise surrounding evil Superman and the whole superhero genre is never really cleverly or surprisingly deconstructed. The movie, with a runtime of 87 minutes, would have benefitted from an extra half hour. Instead, «Brightburn» is a simple horror movie. A missed chance. Shame.
Verdict: worth watching despite weaknesses
Is «Brightburn» as good as the premise promises? Almost. In fact, it's not the mix of the superhero and horror genres that carries the film – even though it makes up much of its appeal – but the convincing acting from Elizabeth Banks and David Denman.
What a pity then that «Brightburn» isn't at all interested in giving its antagonist anything resembling motivation or a motive: Brandon as a character remains completely unexplored and the superhero genre remains intact. Someone simply had a good idea and took the path of least resistance when writing the script. Brian and Mark Gunn, in this case.
Despite not exploiting the premise: director David Yarovesky and producer James Gunn make «Brightburn» one of the more exciting horror films of the year. «Brightburn» can hardly be accused of any mistakes in terms of craftsmanship. The shocking moments are impactful, the atmosphere is creepily tense and the special effects look fantastic – despite a pretty marginal 7-million dollar budget according to the movie database IMDb. Anyone just looking for some scares will love «Brightburn». If you expected a little more cleverness – skip this one.