Whatever happened to the Superman that developed a superiority complex and started killing for funsies? Director David Yarovesky’s answer to that much-asked question is Brightburn, the superhero film produced by James Gunn (of Guardians of the Galaxy and questionable tweeting fame) that plunges headfirst into the horror genre. You know the gist of Superman’s origin; Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are a farm couple in Kansas that are struggling to conceive. One day, a spaceship falls from the sky with a baby boy inside, who they adopt and raise as their own child, Brandon. However, whereas young Clark learns the values of truth and justice, Brandon takes a sharp left turn, quickly descending into violence.
As a deconstruction on a very famous origin story, not even just within the superhero genre, Brightburn definitely has a lot of potential. Unfortunately, it largely squanders this potential, instead choosing to emphasise its gory, violent set pieces over greater character development or even, frankly, more innovative horror. This is not, however, to say that I didn’t enjoy the film, but rather, that I was disappointed it didn’t have more to say or offer. As a story, this is a fascinating angle from which to deconstruct the character of Superman, and by extension, any fictional character with unbelievable, superhuman abilities. Once the film presents its premise to you, it does highlight just how easy it is to believe that a character, an alien, with this level of power could fall off the deep end. This exploration of the old adage, “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is an interesting one, and framing this around the iconic superhero at a time when the genre is dominating popular culture is definitely well-timed. The problem though, is that despite this fascinating material, the film does not feel the need to scratch below the surface. This could be due budgetary constraints – the film was shot for a very impressive $6-12 million – or a determination to keep the film’s runtime to its lean 90 minutes. The runtime, here, works to both the film’s benefit and detriment, keeping the story tight and focused, whilst also not allowing the room for character development.
The film does a decent job of emphasising Brandon’s increasing sense of alienation, emphasising little moments that add to the character’s growing distrust and dismissal of those around him. The key problem with Brandon’s development though, is that we do not spend enough time with him as he was, before he starts hearing alien voices, developing superpowers and getting ever so slightly psychotic. This lack of development early on in the film extends out to his relationship with his parents, Tori and Kyle. Because we don’t get to experience this “good” Brandon, it becomes very difficult to believe he’s going through an internal moral struggle, which the film rather weakly claims. Conversely, the relationship between Tori and Kyle is elevated beyond the script, with the actors bring subtle nuances that make their relationship that bit more believable. Elizabeth Banks, in particular, puts in some solid work to sell Tori’s love for her son, even when it’s working against her and fuelling her initial denial of Brandon’s increasingly strange activities. Meanwhile, the supporting cast are fit for purpose, and I did get to enjoy a “hey, I know that guy” with Steve Agee and Matt Jones. Unfortunately, due to the structure of the story, these characters are mostly there to serve the plot more than anything else.
After seeing Brightburn, I’m looking forward to seeing more of this exploration of superheroes via the horror genre, and this film is a strong step into this spin on a genre that’s showing its saturation. In terms of how director David Yarovesky’s handling of the horror to be strong, if not overly innovative. Although I’m hardly a horror buff, I’ve been enjoying the trend of more dread-oriented horror films like The Witch and Hereditary, and seeing yet another film that relies on jump scares (particularly where the camera pans back and for the between a character and something appearing and disappearing ahead of them) is somewhat frustrating. That said, the set pieces did put in the work to show the carnage that can be inflicted on our weak, fleshy selves, should a superhuman being take issue without existence. The gore and violence on display are well put-together and considering this is, to my knowledge, Yarovesky’s second feature film, I commend him. This, in combination with the sheer extent of what Yarovesky and co. have achieved with this film’s surprisingly low budget make me excited to see what they can achieve in any (possible) future instalments.
Although it was a shame that it didn’t manage to get too far below the surface of its fascinating premise, Brightburn delivers on focused, gory, and violent anti-superhero narrative. Overall, if you’re interested in either superhero or horror films, then this is the film for you.