Brightburn (2019)

Evil Has Found Its Superhero.

‘What if Superman was evil’ isn’t just the elevator pitch for this lo-fi horror movie, it’s the whole megillah. The Gunn family (Guardians of the Galaxy’s James produces, his brother Brian co-writes with cousin Mark) and director David Yarovesky, The Hive (2014), never reach too far beyond the obvious parameters of the central concept, instead simply channeling the familiar elements of the Superman mythology (baby in a spaceship crashes to Earth, raised by loving farm couple, superpowers emerge) through a horror lens. What you can imagine in the broad strokes is pretty much what you get on the screen, although perhaps gorier than expected.

Which is fine. Brightburn (the name of the rural town where much of the narrative action takes place) works pretty well within the box it’s put around itself. Expect no more, and you’ll have a good time. Expect anything else and, well, as Bernard Black once said, expect away. You won’t find it here.

Not quite a bundle of joy.

What you will find is a capable cast who do a lot to elevate the material above its undeniably rote plot. Elizabeth Banks and David Denman are Tori and Kyle Breyer, the childless farming couple who raise young Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) to the cusp of puberty, which is when his powers begin to manifest, along with some dark desires that run the gamut from the visceral (stuffed under his bed along with the expected pictures of underwear models are gruesome anatomical photographs) to the megalomaniacal (he keeps hearing a voice in his head exhorting him to ‘take the world’).

Brandon has some of the usual teen worries heaped on his plate — a girl he’s crushing on, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), thinks he’s a creep (and for good reason), and his sharp intellect makes him a target for bullies, but Brightburn isn’t really interested in exploring how such experiences might shape a nascent supervillain. In the nature vs. nurture argument, the film is heavily weighted to the former, and while Brandon has a loving family, including not only his parents, but his aunt Merilee (Meredith Hagner) and uncle Noah (Matt Jones), it’s pretty clear that it’s his otherworldly origins that hold the most sway over him. Indeed, it’s pretty heavily implied that he’s effectively a one-man alien invasion or at least a scout-in-force.

That’s a shame, really. There’s an obvious opportunity inherent to the material to use supervillainy as a metaphor for school shootings, and you can easily imagine a much more interesting film where the forces that lead Brandon to bloodshed are not internal and unknowable (the film keeps us firmly outside of Brandon’s POV) but external, social, and all too recognizable. Instead, Brightburn sticks extremely closely to its pro-level fan-fic remit, which carries with it a hint of xenophobia — Brandon isn’t an alien driven to evil, he’s evil because he’s an alien. While there are moments where he is betrayed and lashes out (at one point his dad, quite sensibly, tries to shoot him on a hunting trip), we know that, at his core, he’s a bad ‘un — there’s no nuance here.

… not here to save the world.

There is a surprising amount of gore, though, even for a contemporary horror flick. The film relishes showing us what Brandon’s suite of powers (super-strength, flight, heat vision, etc.) can do to us mere mortals, and goes out of its way to show it hurts — more than once the camera lingers on a clearly fatally maimed victim to assure us that they’re not dead yet, but they soon will be.

All up, Brightburn is solid fun for the gore gang — if your nerdy predilections make you sit up on hearing its basic outline, you’re probably going to enjoy yourself with this one. It staunchly refuses to explore the implications of its ideas in any great detail, though, which means it’s a missed opportunity to some degree, but not so much that the whole enterprise is scuppered. If a sequel eventuates — and the opportunity for one is clearly marked — let’s hope it’s a little bolder than this first installment.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Brightburn is released through Sony Pictures Australia