Directed by David Yarovesky
Starring Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, and Gregory Alan Williams
Reber’s Rating – B+
I truly believe that only James Gunn is the only writer/director alive who could take an iconic origin tale such as Kal-El/Superman, work with his brothers Brian and Mark to create a tense and horrific narrative that delivers on its promises, and still wake up each morning proud of his criticisms of a certain shared universe. Before you ask, yes, Brightburn is absolutely a riff on the DCEU, from the color palettes seeping from the film down to the same text used in the trailers alerting audiences that Gunn is the producer mastermind on this twisted tale. Gunn’s involvement shows, from the offbeat comical beats to the more gruesome moments that his brothers have constructed. Though Brightburn is very much taking Jerry Siegel and Jerry Shuster’s timeless hero and shoving the plot into a blender, the Gunn’s have created a movie that should open the doors to more movies woven from this very same cloth.
I can imagine Brian and Mark approaching their brother James, already propelled to success in his own right, with the simplest of ideas. What if Superman came to Earth as the story’s told, but he’s truly not the wholesome hero we come to know? How would his adoptive family treat him? Those around him in classes and society? More importantly, how would the young boy evolve as he matured into a teenager? Brightburn takes those ideas and crafts a movie that could have easily served as an Elseworlds tale for Warner Brothers. Of course, Warners would never greenlight an R-rated version of their most famous superhero next to Batman. Thus, and since we are talking about the Gunn family, the plot instead is perverted further, with the young boy not only harboring a darker side but a more violent methodology. You may know the tired and true origin, but what of a sinister scenario?
Brightburn may be a $6 million production, almost pennies on the dollar compared to the likes of Avengers: Endgame, but unfolds in such a disturbing fashion you’re pulled in from the get-go. You know how the story goes – young couple who can’t conceive find boy in a spaceship, raise him as their own as best as they can. The town has a Smallville-esque vibe to its rural setting. The dilemma lies in that children in 2019 are far different from the 1930’s. Kids today are cruel and merciless, having no concern about how their bullying can affect a classmate. Doesn’t help either that girls feel objectified and males can be perceived as stalkers, no matter the age. So what if you’re a boy who just turned 12, your classmates tease you, you’re crushing on a girl who is scared of you, and you hear a strange language in your slumber? And then you discover your invulnerability and superhuman strength and just realize you’re, well, superior?
This is where Brightburn shines most, not just in the plot execution but the raw performances from its core characters. Elizabeth Banks is typically cast in the goofy roles but this time around, imagine if Ma Kent were blinded by her love and affection for her son. So what if there’s something ominous in his actions? Do you choose to believe the boy you’ve raised his entire life or those around you with a more clear view? Unlike her boisterous characters in other films, and even more clever than Starla Grant in Gunn’s Slither, Banks here plays her role straight and narrow. She’s blinded by her emotion, even though doting husband Kyle is the more rational of the two, able to see through their son’s lies and deceitful nature. The louder the alien voice rings in Brandon’s head, the more the young boy turns on his adoptive family.
Really, Brightburn would suffer if the right lead wasn’t cast as Brandon Breyer, really the focus of the plot. If not for the powerful and phenomenal performance by young Jackson Dunn, I can’t imagine this horror film being more potent. Dunn portrays Brandon as a vengeful youth worn thin by lies and teasing, shunned into obscurity when he just wants to be liked for his intelligence. Imagine a 12-year-old Clark Kent more curious about dissection, anatomy, pain, and dominance. That’s exactly how Brandon comes across during his path of self-discovery and self-destruction, his shyness withering away into indignation and butchery. Dunn’s turn as Brandon Breyer makes Damien from The Omen look pale in comparison.
Though the carnage that Brandon carves into the town of Brightburn is more gruesome that expected too. James Gunn built his repertoire on the horror genre and, though he only serves as producer on Brightburn, talent clearly runs in the family. The movie is a slow burn to the point where Brandon dons the mask made of the quilt he arrived Earth in, but the sheer ghastly ways in which Brandon exacts revenge is more flinching than expected. If you’re expected a horror film, you’re in for a real fun time at the theater. However, if you didn’t expect the blood to flow like a flooded river and the kills to be quite inventive, then settle into your seats and prepare. I would even dare say a couple of the incidents are a staunch middle finger to Snyder’s run with the DCEU as well.
Then again, the plot overall is a major knock on the DCEU. What do audiences remember the most from Warner Brothers’ various franchise? Christopher Reeve or Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel? Michael Keaton or Ben Affleck as the Dark Knight? Is a rough-and-tough type like Jason Momoa really Aquaman? And a beaut like Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman? Now, completely warp their origins. Though the DCEU is now defunct in its current state and Warners has moved on, James Gunn has produced a film that takes the grittiness of Snyder’s vision and shape a story that is grisly perverse, a Superman who loves to see others bleed. The 91 minutes spent with Brightburn far outshine some of the genre’s newest releases, paving a blood-spattered trail that’s more gory than expected. Gunn may prove that Snyder had something with his view of Superman, but just completely mishandled and misunderstood. Brightburn‘s nefarious vision isn’t a sign of hope, yet instead is a sign of death and despair to fear.