What if Superman was inherently evil? If, despite his righteous upbringing with his loving, Earthbound foster parents, his alien heritage was less benevolent and more threatening? If his “superiority” got the better of him? If his in-built MO was to “take the world?”
That’s the fun, high-concept hypothesis at the centre of Brightburn – a diverting, comics-influenced horror that leans heavily into the well-known Man of Steel mythos. The trouble is, the answers never quite live up to the questions. Intrigue soon gives way to overfamiliarity, in a film that entertains but never really surprises.
The set-up, for example, hews so close to Superman’s origin story, it’s a wonder DC’s lawyers weren’t all over this from the start. An alien pod with a baby on board lands in the rural town of Brightburn, Kansas, next to the farm of young couple Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman). They hide the ship, take the boy in and raise him as their own son.
Twelve years later, an almost adolescent Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) starts hearing voices from the pod and realises he has some very special gifts. Trouble is, his sinister alien heritage and raging pubescent hormones are not a good mix – no matter how supportive his good-hearted folks are. Instead of using his gifts to help people, he quickly becomes a super-powered wrong ’un. Talk about the terrible (pre)teens…
Brandon is literally the anti-Superman – an interesting, subversive spin on a pop-culture icon, even if the film does take a long time to establish it. But that’s really where the subversion begins and ends. Once Brandon stitches together his – admittedly disturbing – red cape and mask combo, the film becomes a fairly generic creepy kid thriller/stalk-and-slash mash-up. Think a young Michael Myers with laser eyes instead of a kitchen knife (you’ll believe a kid can fry…).
In fact, there are so many horror tropes mined here that for all its promise of something special, there’s not much that’s particularly new or inventive on show. No genre cliché is left undeployed in pursuit of the requisite jump scares: lights flicker on and off, patio doors are left open, supposedly empty corridors are panned around, and mirrors are looked into and then away from and then into again.
Still, just because you will have seen many of these techniques before, it doesn’t mean they aren’t used effectively by director David Yarovesky. Slow start aside, once Brandon takes the leash off his powers and embarks on his small-town killing spree, Brightburn moves at a cracking pace (it’s mercifully efficient, clocking in at a lean 90 minutes).
And despite some dodgy budget CG towards the end, the film ratchets up some impressively creative and nasty takedowns. It’s schlocky in all the right ways, recalling producer James Gunn’s earlier work (even if it is missing some of his trademark quirkiness).
Cast-wise, Banks and Denman are both great, elevating the script and ultimately managing to do much more with their incredulous parent characters than is first suggested, while the majority of their supporting players fall into the standard genre archetype/fodder category. Dunn, meanwhile, is suitably cold and unnerving as the little monster at the film’s heart, but the one-note role doesn’t offer much in the way of nuance.
As a clever twist on established lore then, or even as a heightened take on nature vs nurture, the film doesn’t quite deliver on its potential. But as a pacey, gruesome horror romp that’ll have you wincing in all the right places, Brightburn just about takes flight.
Brightburn is out in UK cinemas now.