When it comes to filmmaking trends dominating box office and cultural conversation, you couldn’t pick a more potent combination that superheroes and horror. Both genres are insanely popular at creatively charged at the moment, and filmmakers are more eager than ever to push the boundaries of genre labels, making our year of the lord 2019 the perfect time for Brightburn.
Produced by James Gunn and directed by David Yarovesky (The Hive), Brightburn delivers the Superman origin story by way of slasher — what if the most powerful being in the universe didn’t want to save the world, but destroy it? Scripted by Mark Gunn and Brian Gunn, Brightburn introduces us to an edgier amalgam of the Kent family; Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Bryer (David Denman), a young married couple struggling to get pregnant. We meet them during their latest round of baby-making attempts when suddenly the walls begin to shake, the night air fills up with light, and crash, bang, time jump — they finally have a son. But young Brendan Bryers (Jackson A. Dunn) isn’t your average adoptee, and he definitely isn’t Clark Kent either.
What if Superman broke bad? It’s not a new question, long pondered in comic history through Red Kryptonite, mind control, and alt-universe stories, but it’s never been approached with such a heavy slant towards outright horror stylings, and it’s never been this outrageously bloody. Make no mistake, Brightburn is a hard-R horror film and Yarovesky absolutely savors the viscera-splattered freedom that gives him to imagine all the hideous and horrific ways superpowers could be turned against us feeble humans.
As a gory, pulpy superhero horror story, Brightburn delivers exactly what it’s selling, so if you like what’s on the menu, you’ll probably enjoy the meal. That said, the story and character work is undeniably thin in ways that, at best, harken back to the shallow splatterfests of the 80s slasher heyday, and at worst, prevent the audience from fully investing.
There are ample opportunities to dive deeper into perspective, especially Tori’s, and while Banks brings a lot of charm to the table, there’s no denying her characters seemingly willful ignorance to her situation draws plenty of ire as the runtime wears on. But Brightburn never strives to be the We Need to Talk About Kevin of superhero origin stories, it’s content to be more of a Friday the 13th, committed to an old-school slasher vibe where characters only get a clue when doom is already certain, the law is never quite capable of saving the day, and the killer’s motivation boils down to a simplified impulse to kill.
In Brightburn, Brandon Breyer is our Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees/Freddy Krueger avatar; a killer who creeps in and out of shadows in a chilling costume, moving impossibly fast and delivering carnage with a signature flair. From a set-piece perspective, that’s where Brightburn thrives. But from a story perspective, it’s also where Brightburn makes its biggest misstep because it first introduces us to Brandon as a sweet, if alarmingly intelligent (a surefire sign of an Evil Child in the horror genre) young boy who loves his family. Then it asks us to accept his transformation into a supervillain with near-absent attention to how it happens.
Sure, there’s a compulsive force stemming from the pod he crash-landed in, and a few understandable but critical parenting errors that send him down the wrong path, including a “cool dad” birds and the bees speech about occasionally indulging your impulses, which obviously ends in horrific violence. Ultimately Brightburn’s script doesn’t give us enough of Brandon before his transformation to invest in him as a character, but it also doesn’t give us quite enough motivation for his sudden serial killing spree to totally buy it.
Regardless of how you feel about Brandon’s transformation, the film’s gnarly-as-hell kill scenes will definitely have your stomach turning. Brightburn never succeeds at conjuring genuine fear or dread, and Yarovesky shows some growing pains when it comes to building tension, but his eye for getting the shot is on-point and his eye for gory set-pieces is even stronger. Whether Brandon’s victims are plucking a shard of glass from their eye or literally picking their jaw up off the ground, Yarovesky demonstrates a keen passion for making his audience squirm in their seats and delivers some of the most brutal horror kills in recent memory.
That’s definitely not for everyone, but if you can dig it (and you probably already know if that’s you or not) and if you can take Brightburn on its own terms, there’s plenty of fun to be had with this extra-dark spin on superhero lore. Whether its Superman or Captain America, our golden boy heroes are so enduring because their greatest power is their innate goodness. Brightburn asks what might happen if those all-powerful creatures were as vain, covetous, and flawed as we are, without any human limitations.
In perhaps the biggest testament to what the film gets right, I walked out eager to see a sequel. If Yarovesky and Gunn want to keep riffing on superhero myths, I’d love to see the Brightburn universe, where new heroes and villains spring up to battle and aide Brendan’s quest to “take the world.” It’s not a perfect origin story, but it’s a perfectly fun and fucked up one that ultimately sticks the landing and tees up a deranged superhero franchise that’s a welcome counterpoint to the increasingly Marvel and DC-dominated super-cinema landscape.