It’s a question that has been addressed on and off in comic books almost since superheroes first came on the scene: what would happen if someone like Superman, ostensibly a godlike being sent to Earth to protect humankind, actually ended up being bad instead?
The idea has been approached in ways both direct and indirect, from an evil Superman introduced in the comics 55 years ago to a sort of drunk-and-disorderly version of Kal-El in 1983’s execrable Superman III. More recently, the 2003 comic book arc Red Son proposed what might happen if Superman landed in a field in Ukraine instead of Kansas, bringing up the question of “nature vs. nurture.” We’ve seen it with other superheroes as well, from Batman to Captain America (the upcoming Dark Phoenix also examines similar territory), but none with the terrifying implications of what could happen if a nearly omnipotent being truly didn’t have our best interests at heart.
Which brings us to Brightburn, a film that casts the same question in terms of a horror movie. Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are a young couple living on a farm in — you guessed it — Kansas (the title town, to be exact), and as the film opens they’ve been having trouble conceiving a child. They’re about to start on their next attempt when an explosion outside rocks their farmhouse and leads them to a crashed object on their land, a vessel that ends up bearing some precious and seemingly miraculous cargo.
Twelve years later, all seems hunky dory: Brandon (Jackson Dunn) is a good son, a decent student and a budding young man, the apple of his parents’ eyes even if they’ve never quite come to terms with how he came to them — and in his case, lied and told him he was adopted. But that all grinds to a halt one night when the ship that Brandon arrived in — conveniently stashed away under the floorboards of the Kents, I mean the Breyers’, barn — reawakens and plants a message in Brandon’s head that is assuredly not a call to fight for truth, justice and the American way.
Brightburn is produced by James Gunn, whose brother Mark and cousin Brian wrote the screenplay, and directed by longtime Gunn friend David Yarovesky. Sure enough, it’s got the Gunn fingerprints all over it: the movie clearly delights in twisting the Superman origin story into something darker and more malevolent, while reveling in the kind of visual splatter that was a trademark of films like James Gunn’s directorial debut, Slither.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but if you’re looking for something more from Brightburn, forget it. The film does sort of raise genuinely interesting questions about parenting, the environment a child grows up in, the nature of evil and those always difficult changes that young people go through, but it never quite fleshes them out. The question of whether Brandon was “born this way” is taken off the table early on: it’s clear that his ship is controlling him to some degree and that wherever he’s from, it’s not home to an Earth-friendly race (“Take the world” seems like a pretty on-the-nose command if you ask me).
Still, even though there’s perhaps a deeper and even more subversive superhero movie to be made out of this kind of material, Brightburn is fun in a B-movie kind of way. Dunn is creepy enough as his alien demeanor slowly shines through, and Banks and Denman manage to put more into their characters than what is on the page. They acutely convey the confusion of parents who feel that their child is destined for great things, even as the evidence piles up that the youngster is not going to fulfill those dreams.
Clearly working with a limited budget (there only seem to be around 10 or 12 people in the town of Brightburn), Yarovesky manages to pull off a number of compelling visuals, and the filmmakers really seem to relish working with the more graphic gore scenes, including one literal jawdropper of a car crash. Best of all are the scenes in which we see the kind of damage a superpower like heat vision can inflict on a human body, and it’s a lot more squirm-inducing than Christopher Reeve blasting a chunk of debris hurtled at him.
Some viewers may find Brightburn too superficial and too interested in its own heightened sense of shock value, and those are fair criticisms. It’s also fair to say, as alluded earlier, that a truly unsettling and provocative tale can be spun out of this concept. What would the geopolitical implications be? Would anyone bow down and worship such a being? Perhaps those are ideas that the Gunns and Yarovesky want to leave for a sequel, which this film clearly sets up. For now, however, go into Brightburn with somewhat lowered expectations and you might very well have a super time.
Brightburn is out in theaters tomorrow (Friday, May 24).