Brightburn’s apparent lack of empathy for its lead character turns its intriguing concept into a gimmick.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s an overpowered, bloodthirsty alien kid!
Do note that Brightburn does not belong in the DCEU universe nor is this about the alternate evil version of Superman in the comics. The character names are different but I wouldn’t be surprised if Warner Bros. claims to have a cut in the profits due to the glaring plot similarities. In Brightburn, a childless couple, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman), finds a baby inside a space capsule that crashed outside their farm. They raise the child as their own and calls him Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) who develops a familiar array of superpowers. But instead of sharing mankind’s positive values, he displays an alarming lack of morality. This inversion of the beloved Superman tale is a killer premise to begin with, it’s a subversive take on the superhero horror genre. Only if the film sustained its imagination throughout.
The thing is, Brightburn lacks empathy for its main character to fully work. The film sets up with a montage of home videos of Brandon growing up in a loving home, and on the eve of his twelfth birthday, he begins hearing sinister voices urging him to “take the world.” With the film not fleshing out his actual growth as a child, we have to assume that Brandon is a perfectly normal kid who turns into a burgeoning psychopath overnight. Subtly reinforced by her mom who keeps saying that he’s “special,” he uses this as a defense mechanism for his superiority complex and penchant for violence. There’s a hint of internal turmoil in his behavior but it’s not enough to sympathize with his drastic descent to wickedness.
Brightburn wastes no time in taking a full turn to horror territory as Brandon tries out his powers against anyone who rubs him the wrong way. Horror fans who enjoy diabolical stuff should be delighted to witness a kid delivering audaciously grisly kills, including one memorable car crash scene. While gore can be a vital instrument for terror, the film uses it to pad a thin narrative, eventually bypassing significant themes that could have been conveyed along the way. As a result, the story becomes predictable while here I am wondering why Banks’ character is stuck on the denial stage for the most part. She’s supposed to have motherly instinct yet she’s too oblivious to see that the thing she loves becomes a thing to fear.
There isn’t much hope to be mined here. Brightburn is a movie that shows no signs of redemption in the same way that Brandon shows no signs of remorse. Don’t get me wrong, the recent Pet Sematary likewise commits to its nihilistic themes yet that one properly fleshes out its characters’ motivations so the sympathy element is never lost. Another movie that features a disturbed kid is Carrie which understands its character’s madness as a byproduct of domestic violence and bullying. In Brightburn, however, everything happens in a flick of a switch. It’s too preoccupied to scare the heck out of you by playing worst case scenarios and running wild with it. Actually, if we’re talking about evil superhero origins, 2012’s Chronicle did it better.
What lifts Brightburn above the ground is its strong and committed performances from the three principal cast plus David Yarovesky’s compelling direction as he deftly mixes horror tropes with superhero iconography. In one scene shown in the trailer, a driver turns his malfunctioning headlights on and off only to reveal something scary – the sight of a sinister Brandon levitating above ground in his DIY superhero attire. There are several unsettling imagery like this that will make you feel glad that superheroes don’t exist.
The resulting tension and terror however is not enough to overshadow the story’s apparent lack of character development. As an genre mashup, Brightburn is a bold and fascinating experiment that barely rises above the gimmick. The lead quickly turns into an adolescent version of Michael Myers (with superpowers) who’s out for a killing spree.
There’s a depressing conclusion here on the two opposing forces of nature vs. nurture: Parental bond stands weak against inherent monstrosity and despite the best efforts of decent parents, psychopathic children are simply incurable. It’s not exactly the type of insight that you would like to take home with you, especially if its a byproduct of a weak script.
2.5 out of 5 stars