Sometimes, a great hook can do a lot of heavy lifting for a film. A fantastic premise that can be summed up by a single sentence is often enough to draw in viewers and hold them until the rest of the movie can follow through with the goods. Brightburn delivers mightily on the first part with an absolutely killer setup, and while the film itself can’t sustain that high, it still manages some dark fun and a few gory beats.
Kyle (David Denman) and Tori (Elizabeth Banks) Bryer have been trying without success to have a child. Their house is littered with books on infertility and a real desire to make it happen, but their efforts are rewarded in an unexpected way. Something crash lands in the woods surrounding their farm — a metallic sphere containing a human-looking baby — and like Ma and Pa Kent before them, they adopt the little boy and raise him as their own. Bliss follows as the family grows together, but Brandon’s (Jackson A. Dunn) twelfth birthday brings a change as the space pod, now hidden in the barn’s crawlspace, begins to call to him. Soon he discovers himself capable of superhuman strength, flight, and other amazing abilities, and with those powers come the realization that the world is his for the taking.
What if Superman, but evil, is a fascinating origin story, and while the comics have entertained the idea before, Brightburn nails that premise as a genre effort by dropping viewers into the very familiar setting of Superman’s earthly beginnings and then letting the blood flow. The farm, the loving couple, the discovery of incredible powers — we know this story, and the twist here is a delicious one blending a riff on DC’s mightiest hero with Damien from The Omen (1976). The script, by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, doesn’t actually ascribe a devilish motive to young Brandon, or any motive for that matter, but it does land hard on the front end of the nature vs. nurture debate meaning there’s a dollop of We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) here too. The boy’s parents raised him right, but evil is as evil does.
Brandon’s coming of age is tied in directly with puberty and perhaps indirectly as a soft critique of male entitlement. The boy’s parents find photos of lingerie models hidden in his room, alongside pics of anatomy diagrams and animal guts, and perhaps not as concerned as they should be they decide to give him “the talk” about girls and desires. Phrasing has rarely been so important as Kyle tells his son it’s okay to act on his urges, but while he’s giving a thumbs up to masturbation, Brandon is thinking far more distressing thoughts.
As for the entitlement angle, there’s a slight theme running through the film regarding Brandon’s belief that he’s superior to those around him. Worse, he believes that he’s entitled to take whatever he wants and stop those who cross him. Common sense tells us he’s “bad” and wrong, but the film offers little in the way of argument. (Hence the “soft” critique mentioned above.) It’s hard to argue against his superiority when everyone around him stumbles and fumbles in their attempts to fight back as paper-thin characters never really given a chance to breathe. He’s bad because he can be bad, period, and no one can do a damn thing about it.
Brandon is the focus here while the rest are mere fodder — it’s a horror movie after all, so it only makes sense to have the monster be at the center of it all — but it leaves the film feeling less memorable than its premise. The script’s belief that viewers are idiots doesn’t help as it repeatedly shows mistrust that the audience will remember things from earlier. This is annoying in any movie, but in a quick ninety-minute ride with a small cast we don’t need time wasted reminding audiences who’s who or what clues are important. Time could have been better spent with Tori as it was arguably her will that brought Brandon to them and her inability to accept his evilness that slows down efforts to stop his twisted blossoming. Banks works hard to make her more compelling the page suggests, and she succeeds despite the script’s underwhelming intentions.
Still, while the film is disappointingly unambitious, it offers up some terrifically brutal gore sequences. From a cringe-inducingly long shard of glass embedded in a woman’s eyeball to a jaw-dropping gag involving a man’s face hitting a steering wheel at high speed, director David Yarovesky is clearly and fully embracing the bloody extremes of his tale. Bones are crushed, faces are melted, and chickens are choked. It’s never scary, but Yarovesky crafts some entertaining visuals and set-pieces as Brandon stalks and toys with his prey. Some have fun with POV shots while others riff on the iconic superhero images we’ve grown so used to seeing by now, and they work to fold viewers into the mindset of a boy who fancies himself an all-powerful force for, well, whatever the hell he wants.
“Smart guys end up ruling the world,” says a pre-teen girl to Brandon, unaware that she’s speaking to a budding sociopath with a creepy crush on her and a growing desire to rule the world, but like the film itself, his strength has nothing to do with smarts. He’s a force for evil doing what evil does, and he has no time for nuance. Brightburn offers an origin of evil — less the how and why than the what, but still — and while it’s small in its reach it’s also a start. Now bring on the sequel revealing Brandon’s history, introducing other super-powered monsters, and giving us the dark universe we deserve.