Director: David Yarovesky
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Meredith Hagner, Matt Jones, Gregory Alan Williams, Emmie Hunter, Becky Wahlstrom
We’re currently in something of a Golden Age of superhero movies, with Marvel generally ruling the roost, DC in a not-so-close second, and all others bringing up the rear. More often that not, the superheroes win the day, albeit often suffering casualties and losses along the way. But what if someone whose destiny as a superhero didn’t play out in such a heroic way? This is the question asked through Brightburn, an alternative take on an origin story that closely resembles Superman’s. With plenty of input from comic book movie adaptation specialists™, the Gunn clan (written by Brian and Mark and produced by Brian, Mark and James), this movie was certainly in good hands, but does it deliver in the way the trailer promises: dark and somewhat foreboding, or is it not really a movie the world needs right now?
In very much the same way that Superman/Kal-El came to Earth, baby Brandon Breyers (Dunn) arrives in a small spaceship near to the farm of Tori (Banks) and Kyle (Denman) Breyers, who have been struggling to conceive and therefore gladly adopt this baby from outer space. As he grows up he becomes the outcast at school, generally for no particular reason other than how smart and quiet he is in comparison to his classmates. One girl, Caitlyn (Hunter), shows him a little kindness, and Brandon quickly becomes rather smitten. As he teeters on the edge of his teens, Brandon begins to exhibit certain powers that belie his human appearance. Despite the care and love given to him by his adoptive parents and extended family, Brandon soon becomes disillusioned with the world around him and gives in to the negative aspects of his persona, causing him to unleash his growing power on those around him, particularly when Caitlyn doesn’t return his affection. Superman this kid is not.
Wondering what would happen to someone like Superman had he taken a different, perhaps evil, path isn’t exactly an original thought. It’s been explored to an extent through stories such as Superman: Red Son, in which Kal-El arrives on Earth in Ukraine during the time of the Soviet Union rather than (fictional) Smallville, Kansas. But what matters about this concept is the way it’s played out, and Brightburn is quite successful in its endeavour to explore said concept. Although there’s something a little less threatening about an inexperienced youngster trying to take over the world, that same inexperience is an excuse for recklessness through a lack of understanding of the world, and that in itself is a terrifying thought, a strong metaphor perhaps for certain people in power who themselves lack an understanding of the world they’re in. Brightburn offers a commentary not only on the human condition, but the current state of affairs in many places around the world.
Something that was perhaps a little unexpected was the level of horror in this movie. Unexpected, but welcome. Although the kid himself doesn’t give audiences much of a fright, his actions are shocking and psychotic, a paradigm of the nature versus nurture debate. The way a lot of it plays out at night or in dark spaces in comparison to the lighter scenes in the first act eludes to the darkness growing in Brandon. Yarovesky and the Gunns have taken the initial concept and given depth to both the visuals and the dialogue, providing something more intellectual than many superhero (or antisuperhero)-based movies. There is a feeling that they could have gone further with it; if Brandon were a bit older, perhaps late-teens, he could have been more fearsome as an antagonist, as he would potentially be more aware of what he’s doing, which is all the more frightening. This route does however leave room for a sequel.
Performance-wise, Dunn does a great job of being poker-faced Brandon when he’s grilled by his parents over his involvement in certain events. He is endearing at first, before his powers start to show, but audiences will quickly lose any empathy for him as he begins to display signs of being a full-blown sociopath. As previously mentioned, an older version of Brandon would have been welcome, even if only in the third act of the film, but as Dunn isn’t necessarily the lead of the film it’s not the end of the world (ironically) to have his young Brandon as our antagonist. The real lead is Banks as matriarch Tori, a strong and loyal family woman who will do and say anything to defend her child. The journey she goes through is perhaps recognisable and even a little relatable to any mother who’s watched their child progress to adulthood, as many of Brandon’s words and actions are certainly metaphors for the change that occurs when becoming a teenager and, eventually, an adult. Although hopefully no parent has ever or will ever have to deal with the extent of Brandon’s issues. Banks is a great actor and once again proves her versatility when it comes to portraying a range of emotions that Tori experiences with her only child. Opposite Banks as Brandon’s adoptive father Kyle is Denman, who provides the more genuine side to parenting and represents what the audience is generally thinking (“come on, OBVIOUSLY your child is a murderous alien”, for example). Of all the characters he is most likely to be the one you root for, as a supportive and caring yet realistic father figure. Jones provides some comic relief every so often as Brandon’s uncle, and Hagner as Brandon’s aunt/teacher/counsellor is more of a provocative character for Brandon’s eventual demise into maliciousness.
It would be easy to go into Brightburn with slightly low expectations, due to the unoriginal story, however the directions the plot often takes make up for it. Generally, origin stories aren’t the most original and often they’re something we’ve seen or read or heard time and time again. Usually it’s what comes after that could really set the tone of the story, if it is lucky enough to get a sequel. If Brightburn were to continue, the Gunns would have to knuckle down and think of an original direction to take it in, and decide whether they will include “good” heroes to counteract the “evil” or keep it to anti-heroes (sorry, world). It would be interesting to know more about where Brandon comes from, too. Brightburn poses more questions than answers, but that’s when you know you need a sequel.