David Yarovesky, 2019, USA
Writers: Brian Gunn & Mark Gunn
The ‘Superman’ and the Evil Child premise mash-up in another dissection of the superhero. This one is a family occasion, written by Brian and Mark Gunn and produced by genre favourite James Gunn.
Childless couple Tori and Kyle (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) adopt a baby from space that falls outside their homestead. The boy Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is mild and smart and, it seems, mostly ostracised/bullied by peers. We know how this goes. But when he hits puberty, the spaceship hidden in the barn starts calling to him and his burgeoning powers make him dangerous and unhinged.
There is solid work from the main actors and a no-fuss modern feel to the characters: for example, there’s a nice mature sexual warmth to Tori and Kyle’s relationship and they have no hang-ups about adoption at all. ‘Brightburn’ looks good and the script skips over the points it already assumes we know from many, many superhero and supervillain backstories (which isn’t quite the same as the underwriting I accuse it of later). This stops things from tripping up with the familiar but sometimes it just leaves lacunas.
Director David Yarovesky’s 2014 film ‘The Hive’ was an initially intriguing idea but was quickly weighed down with genre cliché. That film’s assurance and play with colour is also evident here, giving ‘Brightburn’ vivid and memorable images – it gets a lot of mileage from Brandon’s red cape and eyes against darkness – but there are just as many techniques that easily veer on the cliché: moving through flapping hanging laundry; recourse to repetitive fading to black or strobe effects: tiresome horror devices done to death by the likes of ‘Insidious’.
And although brevity serves to speed things along, there’s a suspicion that other points are underwritten. For example, when Brandon actually cuts himself it looks quite bad: wouldn’t he need stitches, and wouldn’t that mean a trip to the ER where more about his invulnerability would be revealed? And everything comes to a head before we can fully explore his burgeoning sexuality, as creepy and frightening as that might be: the sub-plot with his stalking of the girl is just dropped and there feels an important chasm between his last visit to her bedroom and the naked disembowelled woman in the barn. What about that lawnmower? Then there was the threat of a conversation with the Sheriff in the morning… but I guess the car crash put paid to that. Still, there seems a neglect in the writing of some of the finer details.
And then it launches into something like music video satire for the end credits, skipping ahead to add more story, with a tonally ill-fitting song (Billie Eilish’s wicked rendition of 'Bad Guy' - is that meant to be ironic? Celebratory?). Perhaps this is a parody of the end credits that typify modern franchises, but it’s also a mood-killer … and I don’t think so. It is also what we are now used to for indicating a franchise. It is as if at the end it isn’t self-aware of its barbed subtext.
I don’t know if “Brightburn” will be the start of a franchise, but I kind of hope so. Not that I’m necessarily rooting for this humorless little dude with a knit mask and a dumb logo to grow big muscles, acquire sidekicks and all the rest. It’s about time that someone understood superheroism as a dangerous pathology. What I mean is: It’s much too late.
Where ‘Brightburn’ is most interesting is in its intersection of superhero power fantasies with (white male?) privilege and toxic masculinity. Brandon’s constantly being told he’s "special", a dogma that seems of a particularly American flavour that trumps the individual over the collective. Commercials and brands are always hammering the message that the world centres around you and your choice. Of course, Brandon’s parents are only trying to make him feel worthy, which is admirable, but with the onset of adulthood his interpretation of “special” seems to be the privilege to do whatever he wants, which ultimately means he feels a right to kill others as he pleases. In an American context where currently school shootings seem be a monthly tragedy, where mass murder is the end-result of aggrievement and entitlement (not only, but they’re key elements), where these are means to potency and infamy, this feels like a sharp cultural criticism of the very fanbase wallowing in and taking the wrong message from the MCU and DCU (no, it’s not about how you can “Take the world” or how cool or lethal your power makes you: it’s about how you use that power to help others). It joins ‘Chronicle’ as a bad guy origin.
It’s not as obviously sharp as James Gunn’s ‘Super’, which gets engaged with the limits of power fantasies when carried over to the real world, and perhaps ‘Brightburn’ resembles the contemporary superhero format too closely for its critique to resonate clearly, but it’s there. Dunn’s performance as Brandon is sweet enough and mild at first and then, when the sociopathy sets in with the onset of puberty, he’s opaque and cold and lying, but tinged with confusion and still saying he wants to be good – maybe more accurate for a sociopath than the smirks of Kevin in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. Certainly recognisable teenage behaviour. Of course, some may just put it down to shaky acting.
In the end ‘Brightburn’ falls short of the mark. Yet as a scaled-down curiosity with some nice visuals, middling action, some cliché mixed with a little genre and social criticism, as well as some lingering jaw-gore you won’t forget, it entertains.