Director: David Yarovesky
Screenwriters: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn
Starring: Elizabeth Banks, Davis Denman, Jackson A. Dunn
I’ve waited so long for a great superhero-horror film, yet while Brightburn hooked me with its villainous Superman premise, it failed to deliver enough on the “superhero” portion; the film is structured and paced more like a contemporary possession or haunted house movie than any Superman iteration.
Tori and Kyle Breyer find a crashed alien ship near their Kansas farm, and they find a baby in the wreckage. Naturally, they adopt him because they want a kid. They name him Brandon, and Brandon grows up to be a genius middle schooler. Around his twelfth birthday, he begins to have alien dreams and becomes an evil version of Superman; his powers include invulnerability, super strength, super speed, laser vision and flight. Unlike in the cinematic iterations of Superman’s story, this film shows the obvious danger of taking kids from space wreckages when Brandon goes on a rampage; one that is almost entirely shown in the trailer.
While we know the bare minimum about our horrifying Superman’s species to make it through the movie, Brightburn could (and should) have taught us so much more. There’s an early scene in a science class that hints at their nature – Brandon describes the habits of cuckoo wasps, a (generally) kleptoparasitic wasp family that lays their eggs in a host’s nest. They use camouflage to infiltrate the host hive, and the larvae will feed on the eggs and larvae of the colony – hinting at a cannibalistic edge that is disappointingly not revisited. The film never gets into whether this human shell is Brandon’s true physical form either, and his personal attempts at camouflage (ie, lying) are incredibly obvious to both us and the characters, leaving the question of: just how successful (and therefore dangerous) is this alien species at all?
Something we do learn is that this enigmatic species can pass information to their isolated spawn, but we don’t know if it’s through technology related to the spaceship or telepathy from a collective intelligence. We know he’s attracted to a girl, but the film doesn’t explain if he reproduces sexually and never mentions the girl again after Brandon kills her mom (pretty early on) for the explicit purpose of dating her. We don’t know the true source of Brandon’s power, but we do know he’s had it all along when his parents mention that he has never bled or been hurt (which is around the thirty minute mark, and wasn’t shown in any of the baby/toddler footage). These tidbits of information were genuinely fascinating regarding the film’s concept but left a feeling of disappointment as they were held back for the big reveal which came in a final scene infused with ideas for a wider cinematic universe clearly inspired by the DC heroes we are all familiar with.
The wasp analogy and adoptive parents bring “nature versus nurture” to the thematic forefront. Brandon’s parents raised him to be “good” and chastise him when he’s angsty, or when he crushes a classmate’s hand. However, Brandon seems to have a “switch flipped” when he communes with his parents/overlords/hive mind, and never actually struggles with his “good” nurture and “evil” nature. The ambiguity leaves us wondering if what he’s doing is conscious or not. In fact, he’s shown to be emotionless and callous, demolishing any reason for the audience to think otherwise.
There’s so much potential for a character study exploring Brandon as an antithesis to Superman. “What if Superman was bullied and retaliated?” Or; “what if Superman hadn’t been taken in by a family from a Norman Rockwell painting?” Both are interesting questions that could lead to an examination of external forces that compete with the idea of “good” nurturing or an innate “evil” nature. The film could also address the moral justification Brandon uses to “take the world” and kill people he’s known all his life. Any of these changes could have added depth that would make the horror elements more impactful.
But this is all indicative of Brightburn’s primary issue: the structure.
The film starts with a sweet and normal kid that becomes overtaken by an evil force akin to the demon in a possession horror or haunted house film. It starts with the standard first act scenes, where weird things are happening at night. In the Conjuring movies, there are mysterious sounds or objects moving; in Paranormal Activity the demon is messing with lights and doors while the characters sleep; in Brightburn, Brandon gets out of bed to walk into the barn and stares creepily into the distance. He starts acting out like Regan in The Exorcist, but they never take him to a doctor; just the school counsellor who happens to be Brandon’s aunt.
As the film goes on, the protracted, “tension-building” jump scare scenes keep coming. A waitress hears noises in her diner, then glass shatters into her eye (leading to first-person shots obfuscated with bloody vision so we have trouble seeing Brandon), and she runs into the walk-in freezer for the final jump scare. Another scene is basically lifted from Lights Out; Brandon’s uncle can see Brandon in his headlights, then they go out and come back on and Brandon is flying, this repeats but the 2nd time Brandon is gone… cue jump scare. The only notable difference I can attribute to Brightburn that separates it from other such films is the gore, but I can’t help but see most of it as a device to shock audiences. The only strong gory moment is when Brandon flies into the sheriff and he explodes, a realistic result of a super strong being flying into a human that is noticeably absent in ordinary superhero films, Superman specifically.
The scenes around the jump scares serve to show the characters learning about what’s happening and slowly figuring out that Brandon is evil. This brings the questionable dialogue and unimaginative narrative progression to the fore as they make laughably obvious connections like a sheriff seeing Brandon’s symbol at one crime scene, then seeing it in a photo from another crime scene, only to hold the two photos up to prove that it is, in fact, the same symbol. We spend a lot of time watching those dots connect, but we don’t see how he finds out it’s actually Brandon. He just shows up at the end and knows… somehow. Tori and Kyle have a full volume conversation about whether their son is a murderer after Kyle accuses Brandon of killing the uncle because… he’s acting creepy? Because he might have killed some chickens? Because a waitress died? Because Brandon isn’t sad about his uncle’s death? They make the connection, but they never earn it through rational or empirical means. It’s all intuition and circumstantial “evidence”.
The best scene in the movie is when Kyle tries to shoot Brandon. Regardless of him getting there via plot contrivance, Kyle’s decision to kill Brandon makes sense. David Denman’s performance evokes a genuine sadness derived from the situation (father killing son) and the inevitable futility of the action. The bullet fails to kill Brandon, and Brandon uses his laser vision to blast through Kyle’s head. In Man of Steel and “Superman: Braniac”, Jonathan Kent dies in a moment where Clark can’t save him (his father forbids him in MoS, and Superman is occupied in “Braniac”, thus arriving too late). Brandon killing his dad is a great contrast to this, but unfortunately the scene is affected by the lack of clarity on whether Brandon’s rejection of his “goodness” is conscious or not. If we knew Brandon was trying to spare his parents it would make it much more tragic, but Brandon just demonstrated that he’s emotionless and that he doesn’t mind hurting his dad in a previous scene. If you remove most of the movie’s context, it’s exactly the kind of scene that would work in an evil Superman movie.
Brightburn would be much more effective if we spent more time viewing the world from Brandon’s perspective. Early school scenes and the moments in which he is alone are from his perspective, but once we start getting into the spooky and scary, everything is exclusively from a human’s perspective. Framing the jump scare scenes from the victim’s perspective may boost the audience’s level of fear, as evidenced in his early murder of his crush’s mom, but it leaves Brandon a one-dimensional villain no different from Toby, Captain Howdy, or the Darth Maul guy from Insidious.
Brightburn is a disappointment. It’s disappointing because it’s a horror film with a Superman skin rather than a Superman movie with a tragic horror twist to it. There should have been way more by means of character building as well as dialogue that explores the unique and unfamiliar elements of this world, and it needed a shift in perspective to help us empathize with Brandon. If you’ve seen any “bump in the night” demon movies, you’ll notice that this one does almost nothing to differentiate itself from the abundance of content in that genre despite its promising premise.