Dir: David Yarovesky
‘What if Superman was evil?’ That’s the central question at the heart of Brightburn. 12-year-old Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) knows he’s adopted, what his parents (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) haven’t told him is that they didn’t go through an agency, but that they found him in the woods in a crashed spacecraft. As he hits his 12th birthday, Brandon realises he has superpowers. He is drawn to the ship and begins to exhibit violent and otherwise disturbing behaviour.
Brightburn has an interesting idea at its heart, the implications of an entity as powerful as Brandon using their powers for vengeance or in maliciously violent ways are terrifying. Buried somewhere in the film are ideas of interrogating nature vs nurture and psychopathy in children, unfortunately, screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn and director David Yarovesky seem content to take a very route one approach to the material and opt instead for a broad 90 minutes that simply depict Brandon’s turn towards evil in the bloodiest ways possible (cuts were needed for the 15 certificate). The only time it seems likely to explore what is driving this child’s sudden and extreme violence is minutes before the end, and ends up being a throwaway line when it could have given the whole film a disturbing sense of push and pull.
For that depth to be injected, the film needs more space to develop its ideas and its characters. The performances are solid enough all round, with Elizabeth Banks as the mother in denial and David Denman as the father who can see the danger earlier on but they and, after the first act, Jackson A Dunn are stuck with fairly one-note figures to play. Had the film taken the time to slow down, to develop the turn in Bradon more patiently and with a greater degree of creeping menace, it might have greater impact.
Superman has never been an especially interesting character to me, his near invulnerability lessening the stakes of almost any fight he has. What he does have is a moral dimension. That’s another thing missing in Brightburn. As Brandon is drawn to his ship it seem that it, or some force emanating from it, is altering his behaviour. Clark Kent is raised well, by loving parents, and we see his choice to be moral and do good with his gifts. Brandon has similar guidance, but it would be much more interesting to get the sense of him making an affirmative choice in his actions. The script fudges and fumbles this question, never making it entirely clear to what degree Brandon chooses the direction he takes.
Brightburn isn’t a total loss. It fashions some memorable imagery; the way Bradon hangs in the air, often mere inches above the ground, has an inherent creepiness to it and his mask (by costume designer Autumn Steed, who appears to be drawing on Batman villain Scarecrow) looks authentically homemade and horrifying. The violence is brutal. Cuts are visible in one scene of eye trauma, which remains skin-crawlingly nasty but the practical effects deliver the red meat for gore fans. Overall though, the idea here is better than the execution. I get the sense there is a better film somewhere in Brightburn, perhaps an extended cut could find it by digging further into the moral questions and motivations at its heart. It may not work, but I’ll take this; an interesting failure, over another cookie cutter franchise entry.★★