Such is the dominance of superhero cinema in twenty-first century Hollywood – over a decade on from Iron Man and we’re clearly beyond phase territory – the genre has begun to spawn. Now, alongside bravura three act, computer generated blockbusters, we have black and white westerns, space operas and coming of age school flicks all under the bruce banner. Joining these offshoot quasi-comic book features, Brightburn subverts expectations with influence from the dark bite of horror. A smart move, given that genres parallel mainstream resurgence in recent years. In execution, Brightburn never quite achieves the potential of this promised fusion but does enough to just about equal the sum of its parts.
Born of a Gunn family triumvirate – Brian, Mark and Guardians of the Galaxy’s James produce and write – Brightburn sets out its stall from the off. No secret is made of the original story that inspired this one and it doesn’t take all that much geekery to recognise the crash landing of an extraterrestrial baby in the back yard of a childless couple from Kansas as being pure Superman. Of course, Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) take in the tot and raise him as their own. Naturally, twelve years later teen Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) hits puberty with the revelation that he has superhuman strength and is nigh on invincible. Cinematographer Michael Dallatorre even goes so far as to aesthetically reference Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, via wide arid vistas and the occasional lens flare, to labour the point.
And yet, that’s when things diverge. The legend of Superman tells that Clark Kent will go on to harness his powers for the good of humanity. Brightburn toys with an alternative. When a succession of somnambulant nights lead Brandon to the spaceship he arrived in, now beneath the family barn, uncomfortable truths arise. If it is perfectly human to respond to the revelation that your so-called parents have lied to you all your life with anger, it is Brandon’s realisation that he is anything but human that causes the problems: ‘I know I’m something else, something superior’. All of a sudden – too suddenly to be truly satisfying – Brandon is a cutlery chewing, obnoxious, sex pest from hell. The Omen resonates as an influence here but so do We Need To Talk About Kevin and even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Be warned, things do get rather grisly.
A pinch at just ninety minutes in length, Brightburn feels too zippy to channel a tangible sense of dread but lacks the fist pumps necessary for superior superhero fare. No matter how compelling his conceit, director David Yarovesky’s delivery lacks finesse and struggles with pacing. Dunn, Banks and Denman are strong in their respective roles but there’s little by way of emotional depth and it’s almost hard to buy that the interim years between prologue and centre really happened. These faults would matter less were the production not so seriously minded. On balance, the straight face pays off – particularly in elevating the atmosphere and allowing the violence to count – but that can’t stave off the desire for a film more able to explore its deeper ideas.
Where Brightburn does hit, at least it does so memorably. Aside from shocking visuals involving exploding hands and shards of glass – impressive on this budget – a final act woodland sequence achieves the powerful resonance missing elsewhere. Unrelenting to the end, Brightburn has no qualms in concluding on the bleakest of notes, whilst hinting at possible sequels with Brandon and dark alternatives to the likes of Wonder Woman and Aquaman too. Given that the prospect excites, clearly something works here.