What if Superman didn’t stand for the elusive ideals of truth, justice, and the American way? That’s the central premise of Brightburn, the superhero horror film from director David Yarovesky. Instead of a superpowered savior that will strive to uphold the ideals that our nation often fails to live up to, Brightburn has an all-powerful alien who embodies the dark side of the American identity – violent, misogynistic, and an overwhelming sense of superiority. Brightburn may not always carry the thematic weight of its premise, but it does turn out to be a rather entertaining exercise in the potential horrors of superheroes.
Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) have been trying to conceive a child with little success. This is made evident in the film’s opening shot of various books on fertility that line their bookshelves. Then an alien spacecraft crash lands on their small Kansas farm (sound familiar?) carrying with it an alien infant whom the couple will raise as their adopted son. Years later, Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is a prodigal student but a social outcast in the Kansas town of Brightburn. This young outcast struggles to figure out how he fits into the world, and soon he digs into the mystery of his origins. As Brandon becomes connected to the immense power of his true self – super strength, flight, and laser eyes – he becomes a vengeful, brutal teen who only believes in his own superiority.
Brandon’s unsettling behavior slowly escalates over the first half of Brightburn. At a birthday dinner, the rather meek pre-teen talks back to his father in front of his stunned aunt (Meredith Hagner) and uncle (Matt Jones). It’s at school that Brandon finds the most terrifying outlet for his brewing rage in his fellow student Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), whose simple gesture of kindness is misconstrued as some kind of romantic interest. This is some of the most fascinating thematic elements of Brightburn, one that sees the superpowered child take on the rage and entitlement that marks a lot of internet subcultures, most namely the incel movement. Even after she’s seen the brute force of his rage, Brandon still believes he’s entitled to Caitlyn’s affection even though his very presence (rightfully) terrifies her.
As Brandon’s behavior becomes more and more troubling, it places his adoptive parents in a precarious situation. No parent wants to believe their child is bad, let alone an immensely powerful force of evil, and this is where director David Yarovesky is able to coax some strong performances from Elizabeth Banks and David Denman. As the patriarch, Denman is much more open to the possibility that the son he raised is capable of horrific actions and possesses the powers to pull off these acts of incredible cruelty. On the other hand, Banks’ Tori is much more reluctant to see the horrors her son is capable of perpetrating. Banks delivers a strong performance here, one that balances the tenderness of maternal love with the reluctance of facing the terrifying truth.
The screenplay for Brightburn by Brian and Mark Gunn (brothers of producer James Gunn) doesn’t fully hit on all of the thematic elements it touches upon. There’s not much depth to Brandon’s alienation and his descent into violent outrage, which is a big missed opportunity considering just how much we’re seeing of alienated subcultures fostering violent extremism. However, though the film doesn’t bring the most thematic depth to the link of alienation and radicalization, it never asks the audience to sympathize with young Brandon. That means that David Yarovesky’s film is much more interested in the idea of Superman as a horror film slasher, and those elements really work well in Brightburn. The violence of the film slowly escalates until it reaches the apex of its horror in the form of ghastly violent outbursts punctuated by some truly shocking displays of gore. Even if the film underwhelms on the thematic front more often than not, there’s enough verve in the execution of the film’s horror elements to ensure that you’re never bored.
What if Superman wasn’t an all-powerful benevolent savior? That’s the premise of director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, which may not always hit on all of the themes it touches on but it does deliver an effectively gory, horrific take on superheroes.