I tend to enjoy superhero movies that are a bit darker. I like to actually get inside a hero’s head, especially those whose chief motivation to be heroic is borne out of some kind of PTSD. It’s one of the main reasons I adore Batman as much as I do. And it’s why I love some of the darker DC movies – even if, objectively, they’re not exactly well-written movies (Batman v Superman, Watchmen, etc.). So, naturally, Brightburn should be right up my alley. It takes one of my least favorite superheroes – Superman, disliked by me due to his eternal blandness – and puts a similar character in a scenario where he becomes evil as he learns of his superpowers instead of becoming a good guy. Brightburn is not a Superman movie, but it’s clearly inspired by the Superman story (alien baby crashes to earth, is adopted by parents who live on a farm, discovers his powers as he hits puberty, etc). Unfortunately, Brightburn is every bit as bland as most Superman stories are. (Spoilers ahead!)
Brightburn (Written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn and directed by David Yarovesky)
What if a child from another world crash-landed on Earth, but instead of becoming a hero to mankind, he proved to be something far more sinister?
Brightburn is barely a film. When I say this film is just “Superman, but he became evil as a teenager”, I’m not kidding. That is literally all there is to this film. It’s just the Superman story, but Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), the Superman stand-in, randomly becomes evil the moment he discovers he has powers. This transition really happens completely out of nowhere – but that’s mostly down to the total lack of any kind of meaningful script. The movie starts with Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) trying – and failing – to have a baby as a mysterious meteor crashes outside their house. Upon investigating, they discover a baby inside the crashed spaceship. After a very short montage showing tiny clips of that baby – Brandon – growing up, we cut to eleven years later as Brandon turns twelve and starts hearing weird voices that lead him to the family’s barn – where he discovers the crashed spaceship hidden under the floor. From there, the film is just a collection of scenes loosely assembled in the shape of a narrative as Brandon very quickly goes from a boring, seemingly good boy into a total supervillain with very-little prodding and exactly zero exploration of why he might do that. From there, the plot plays out exactly how you’d expect. Brandon gets more and more evil, his parents get more and more suspicious, and it all ends with him just going full supervillain. And, as all movies of this ilk tend to go, he ends up winning in the end, completing his transformation into a full-fledged villain.
When making a character who becomes a supervillain the main character of a film, the film needs to establish that character prior to turning that character into a monster – or, at a bare minimum, needs to just say that the character was born evil or some kind of copout like that. Having this twelve-year-old boy appear totally normal in once scene and then completely evil the next without any real event that’s brought this out of him just feels like lazy writing. The whole point of this film appears to be an attempt at an examination of what would happen if a Superman-like character turned evil instead of good. The problem is that this film never gives Brandon a reason to turn evil. He was raised in exactly the same way Superman was raised, so why did Superman turn out good while Brandon turned out evil? He goes from super kind kid to total psychopath for literally no reason. Nothing pushes him over the edge, nothing happens, he just does it. The film tries to wave it away by establishing that the crashed spaceship but it never really commits to that or offers any exploration as to where that ship is from or why it would be trying to make Brandon evil and he gets angry when he finds out his parents have hidden said ship from him, but still. Brandon is given no character arc whatsoever. The movie is purportedly a story about him, but he is given no emotional arc. He changes as the “plot” needs him to change and, as a result, it makes for a poor character study.
It’s clear the script isn’t particularly interested in offering a character study on Brandon’s transformation into a supervillain, nor is it interested in offering a character study into his parents as they cope with their beloved son becoming a psychopath – the film is so short that there’s no time to really deal with anything like that. Everything happens so quickly and scenes just end as soon as humanly possible, that the parents somehow end up being even less interesting than Brandon. Elizabeth Banks clearly knows what kind of movie she’s in as she doesn’t even seem to be trying to give any kind of a believable performance; she starts off motherly enough but devolves into total hysterics by the end of the film. The same is true for David Deman. Neither actor is given anything to do in this film and, subsequently, they’re just kind of there. The movie is far more interested in indulging itself in a bunch of jump-scares and gross-out gore, but it can’t even manage to do those well. You can see the jump-scares coming from a mile away and the gore is clearly there to make the film more interesting than it is. Nothing about the direction or the writing of this film is remotely remarkable at all. The gore effects are, mostly, well done but they can’t save uninspired writing and directing, nor can these fairly talented actors rise above a dreadful script.
Not only is this film barely a film, not at all interesting exploring its characters with any real nuance, and terrible at being a horror film, it’s also filled with gratuitous, graphic violence. I am not one of those people who are inherently against violence in films – I mean, I often give superhero movies a pass, usually, even with how violent they are, because that violence isn’t particularly graphic and even when it is, it’s usually grounded in narrative reasons (Logan) or intentionally over the top for comedic purposes (Deadpool). But when it’s this level of violence (a glass shard stuck in a woman’s eye) – and violence primarily inflicted upon women – and filmed in such a way that seems to be fetishizing it rather than saying anything about it, it does feel distasteful. I get that a story about a Superman-like character going evil would ultimately feature a fair amount of violence, but a well-executed version of that story would also have the writing to back up that decision, to explain why said character might be inflicting all of that violence – instead of this’s films total nonchalant attitude toward the horrors Brandon commits. This film never really takes the stance that Brandon is doing anything wrong because it never allies itself with any character besides him and doesn’t expand on just what’s messed him up to this point. Then, factor in the near porn-levels of fetishization the camera films the violence and you can see why it doesn’t sit well with a lot of people. The way the violence is done is this film just goes to show how uninterested the filmmakers were in telling an actual story – they just wanted to make some shockingly horrific film that made people uncomfy and didn’t actually say anything about the horrors contained within. It’s graphic violence for the sake of graphic violence and nothing else – and I don’t dig that. Violence isn’t inherently bad, but violence this graphic shouldn’t be used in such a fetishized manner. If you’re gonna use it, make sure the audience understands this isn’t something to root for. Most horror films make sure the audience doesn’t sympathize with the horror villain, so we get the idea that their actions are reprehensible. This film fails at that. If that was their goal, then congrats guys, mission accomplished.
All in all, Brightburn is a total waste of time. It’s ineffectual as a character study of what might make a Superman-like character turn evil. It’s equally ineffectual as a character study of two parents trying to deal with their child turning into a total monster. And it’s even more ineffectual as a horror film – the clear goal the film was trying to hit. It does a terrible job at establishing any kind of scary atmosphere and the jump-scares are laughably bad. The makeup and other gore effects are relatively good, but they’re nowhere near enough to save this movie from such a dreadful, uninspired, bare-bones script. There was definitely an interesting story here, but this creative team wasn’t actually interested in telling that story. Instead, they just wanted to make a run-of-the-mill horror movie about a teenaged supervillain. It’s a shame that wasn’t even done well. I can’t really recommend this to anyone. It’s not bad enough to be enjoyable, it’s not scary enough to be fun, and it’s not good enough to devote any energy into. Just skip it.
1.5 out of 5 wands. (The .5 is because there are a few interesting visual touches, but this movie is just not worth anyone’s time and I can’t in good faith give it anything higher than this, even though I’m sure a lot of people worked very hard on this. It’s barely a movie and so much of it is just stuff I really don’t like and I can’t see why anyone would really enjoy this.)