Dark takes on super-powered beings are hardly original, even outside the world of comics. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster explored the nightmarish idea of an all-powerful alien being taking over the world in 1933’s Reign of the Super-Man, long before they created Kal-El of Krypton and an entirely new genre of comic book. Brightburn is born of this earlier pulp tradition, when humanity’s natural fear of the unknown and the foreigner combined to make us look to the skies in terror, pondering what lies beyond. In this case, it stokes our fears by presenting a twisted take on the Superman mythology, where the strange visitor from another world is not a refugee seeking shelter but a cuckoo bird fouling the nest.
When the first trailer for Brightburn came out, it was immediately assumed by some to be an attack on the films of Zack Snyder, David Goyer, Christopher Nolan and every other person in Hollywood responsible for attempting a dark and gritty reimagining of the DC Comics mythology over the past two decades. It made for a great story, certainly – the clown prince of Marvel Studios, James Gunn, poking fun at the “why so serious?” DCEU by filming a horror movie about an evil tween Superboy, shot as a stylistic satire of Snyder’s work. (The fact that Gunn was only a producer on this film was handily ignored.) Unfortunately, Brightburn doesn’t quite work as a satire of Snyder’s movies for one simple reason – it is far too subdued in its execution for that.
The music by Maxwell Stone evokes Hans Zimmer’s score for Man Of Steel during the quieter moments, such as when Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks) desperately tries to reach whatever remains of the child she raised (Jackson A. Dunn) and convince him it is not too late to do good. Were Brightburn truly trying to parody Snyder’s aesthetic and Goyer’s screenwriting, we’d have Brandon Breyer being read Atlas Shrugged as a bedtime story by his father instead of having an awkwardly amusing scene in which Pa Beyer (David Denman) attempts to talk to his son about girls. There would also be a lot more heavy-handed Christ imagery instead of the subtle parallels to the story of Moses that Brightburn delivers.
However, Brightburn is a brilliant piece of work when taken as a straight-forward horror movie. The old trappings from the classic slasher films are in play – jump scares, mysteriously disappearing killers and the like. Yet the superheroic setting adds a new level to these tricks, as the extent of Brandon’s powers are revealed. He even gets a few abilities Clark Kent never had!
Writers Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn masterfully twist expectations and continually find ways to surprise the audience. The only real weakness to the script is that it doesn’t really explore Brandon’s early horror as to what he is becoming, though it does a great job building up the parents’ fears regarding their child becoming something beyond their control and the town of Brightburn, Kansas’ reactions as they realize something strange is going on. And kudos to the Gunns for writing one of the few horror movies I’ve ever seen where the cops aren’t complete idiots!
David Yarovesky (who previously directed and co-wrote 2014’s The Hive) does a fantastic job of bringing everything together and it is unfortunate that he’s been overshadowed by James Gunn’s connection to the movie. The cast are all fantastic, particular Elizabeth Banks and Jackson A. Dunn. Banks sells Tori Breyer’s conflict between her logically knowing what her son is and her unbreakable mother’s love pushing her to deny it. Dunn slowly develops into a convincingly creepy menace as Brandon Breyer, but it still feels like more could have been done with the script regarding the nature/nurture angle and Brandon’s conflict over what he feels he must do versus what he wants to be.
One final note and a warning. Brightburn has some of the most amazing and disturbing practical make-up effects I’ve ever seen in a horror film. People with weak stomachs would do well to have an empty popcorn bucket handy or to not eat before seeing this movie. Horror aficionados and superhero fans looking for a dark twist on a classic formula, however, should see Brightburn as soon as possible.