I was initially interested in Brightburn because of James Gunn’s credit as a producer, and the presence of his brother Brian and cousin Mark as writers. The trailers were intriguing, but in general, I’m not big on modern horror movies. Brightburn’s premise centers around a simple question: what if Superman was evil? The film begins with a couple (Elizabeth Banks, David Denman) who are having trouble getting pregnant. They hear a crash outside their house and experience a power surge; the two head outside and find a baby boy in a spaceship. The couple, Kyle and Tori Breyer, adopt the boy and name him Brandon. They live happily together for 12 years, but as Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) hits puberty, he experiences some changes outside the realm of normal adolescent development. In addition to the manifestation of superpowers, the boy begins hearing voices and being drawn to his father’s barn, where they hide the ship he was found in. Learning of his true origins merely angers the child, and he quickly grows beyond his parents’ control. Can Tori and Kyle save their son and everyone else before it’s too late?
One thing I hear a lot about is superhero fatigue, and personally, I don’t understand the sentiment. For one thing, it’s so easy just to avoid seeing movies you’re not interested in or tired of. But even outside of that, I don’t understand claiming to be exhausted with a sub-genre that’s constantly changing and offering new flavors, and Brightburn is a perfect example of this. Man of Steel introduced a (misguided, in my opinion) taste of the potential danger inherent in a figure like Superman, but Brightburn takes the concept to its logical conclusions rather than toying with a character who we know is supposed to be good. And while Snyder’s films try more so to build up ethical dilemmas between heroes with different philosophies, Brightburn’s Brandon has no ideology. There have been Superman stories where he becomes evil, but Brightburn plays his origin story as the origin of a supervillain, which it could just as easily be. This film is a combination superhero-horror film, and I genuinely can’t think of any others that fit that description. That excites me because, as genres evolve and intertwine, more narrative possibilities are sure to make their way to cinema screens.
The acting in Brightburn is mostly okay, but Elizabeth Banks and Jackson A. Dunn are the stand-outs for sure. I know Banks from other properties like The Hunger Games, the Lego movies, and for directing films like Pitch Perfect. She’s never really wowed me before, but she excels in Brightburn at making her love for and belief in Brandon believable. Her son’s character arc isn’t surprising in the slightest, especially if you’ve seen the trailers or any of the posters. However, it is heartbreaking because of how hard his family and Tori, in particular, take it. Her denial of his guilt is understandable. if frustrating to the audience. Dunn, meanwhile, plays Brandon as a normal kid at first, but he gets weird once he comes into contact with the ship. This has to have been the most challenging role in the film for the simple fact that Brandon transitions from a regular boy to an alien psychopath. Dunn also shows a wide array of emotions, and is always believable. In spite of the increasingly evil things Brandon does throughout the film, his body language and line delivery are some of the scariest aspects of the movie.
Brightburn’s musical score by Tim Williams is extremely effective within the film, though not anything groundbreaking or terribly memorable. Williams works in plenty of creepy, atmospheric music when appropriate, and it stands in sharp contrast to warmer tones earlier in the film. The costumes are pretty basic, regular clothes, so the best thing that can be said for them is that they’re not distracting. The cinematography is great at times, such as when we see Brandon in the air or see the world from his perspective. Other than that, the camerawork is pretty standard, but given the subject matter, I don’t think that’s a problem. However, one small nitpick I do have concerns the film’s editing. Most of the time it goes without notice, meaning it’s just fine. However, I don’t like how, after the power surge at the Breyer home, it cuts right to videos and pictures of baby Brandon. I wonder if they chose not to show the couple finding the child to avoid making the movie too much like Superman. However, a small moment like that could have fleshed out the family and endeared us to them even more. This would, in turn, make Brandon’s choices even more devastating.
In fact, that ties into my largest issue with Brightburn overall. Good performances aside, I think if some more time had been spent with the family together living their normal lives, the film would have more of an emotional punch to it. Aside from Brandon and, to a lesser degree, Tori, we as the audience don’t learn very much about the film’s characters. All we get of Tori and Kyle are love scenes and discussions regarding Brandon’s state of mind. This didn’t ruin my experience with Brightburn, and you could even argue that this simply isn’t that type of film. Personally, I always look for characters and relationships to latch onto within a movie, so that is one of my main criteria. As is, the relationship between Brandon and Tori is the closest we get to a central connection, and it’s alright. As far as horror goes, as I mentioned, it isn’t exactly my favorite genre, particularly among more recent film. I don’t get scared of movies in the traditional sense, though I can and do feel disturbed by the character’s actions and ideas expressed through film. For a horror movie to really appeal to me, it needs to have interesting characters and a strong central idea(s). I think Brightburn fares particularly well in the second category, and just well enough in the first.
Overall, Brightburn is a disturbing, interesting film. It takes an idea other movies have only hinted at to its fullest extent by exploring a super-powered being who isn’t that benevolent and doesn’t have a heroic counterpart to keep him in check. The performances and visuals are above average, and more than anything, this is a tense film with a great premise. Brightburn isn’t likely to change your life, but it’s enough to supply a fun afternoon at the cinema.