Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nah, its just Superman’s bratty psychopathic younger brother.
A struggling couple, living in Brightburn, Kansas, decide to raise a baby who falls to Earth from the stars… although, as the child grows into adolescence, his discovery of superhuman abilities leads him on a path of violence and chaos.
Remember Man of Steel? Did you like that movie? Well, this is kind of the same thing, but instead of Superman knocking down buildings and indirectly killing people, in this movie he just straight up murders people, left, right and centre. Brightburn is the new original project from James Gunn, his brother, Mark, cousin, Brian, and long time collaborator, director David Yarovesky. An obvious satirical approach to the Superman mythos, Brightburn undertakes a right hand turn into horror cinema that… kind of pays off? But it also doesn’t. I wouldn’t go so far to say that Brightburn was a failed attempt at being original. I would more-or-less just say that this movie fell really flat… on its face… as if it couldn’t fly as high as Superman… and just fell… midair … and again, landed on its face… hard… and it looked like it hurt…
Now I really like James Gunn as a creator. In my opinion, the Guardians of the Galaxy films are the best series to come from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, full stop (and I am so keen for Vol. 3). Before his collaborations with Marvel though, Gunn had invested a lot of his time into either low-budget horror flicks or satire films, like the thriller Slither but also, most importantly, his Rainn Wilson-led meta take on the superhero genre – Super. So its not outside the realms of imagination that Gunn identified promise in Brightburn, a mash-up production of both the horror and satire genres… it also would have helped that the cast and crew for the film are full of Gunn’s family, friends and collaborators.
So yeah, I think its safe for me to say that Gunn is a talented guy with a keen eye for the absurdly different and profoundly wonderful. What Gunn may have seen from the pages of the Brightburn script could have honestly been the most appealing thing for a man of his stature to invest in. In fact, how could anyone not like the idea of an evil child version of Superman running amok? Its like DC Elseworlds comic book… but a movie! Yet as much as this film impressed in concept, it equally failed itself in execution.
I was mildly excited for Brightburn, but more appropriately intrigued in what this film had to offer. What I got from the end product was certainly not what I expected. Brightburn was a devilishly gory, clunky and ultimately messy formation of storytelling and poorly judged character work. I really wanted to like this film and give it a chance, but Brightburn never gave me much reason to “quote-on-quote” respect it enough to at least give it a chance.
Now yeah, that sounds harsh and maybe I am being a bit tough. After all, the cast and crew behind Brightburn at least offered audiences an original product from the machine that is Hollywood – so that should at least count as an obvious plus in this day and age. So maybe I should take this time to at least admit what I liked about the film.
Despite the dialogue being pretty poor, Elizabeth Banks and David Denman were really good as the frazzled and fearful parents of the titular supervillain. Their portrayal of distressed, in-denial parents really sold me on the most convincing morsels of the script with Banks especially delivering some high class work, specifically towards the film’s climax. Brightburn also genuinely looked and sounded pretty good with the costume design, in particular, standing out. The general appearance of the villainous Brandon Breyer in his crude red riding hood made for a horrifyingly monstrous look. Also how the film shot young Breyer at far angles or through bloody lenses assisted in building up a sense of heightened fear for the character, without him even physically doing anything to provoke the horror. Little elements behind the production of Brightburn went a long way in making the film not completely fail but at least manage to attain a chunk of competency above all else.
Then again, this was never going to be an overly positive review. Despite my respect for the filmmakers involved, I really cannot stress this enough that I feel a great concept was wasted… and for what? No, seriously, I am asking you: for what?
For some strange, unidentifiable reason Brightburn left audiences with a somewhat unique superhero film but an absurdly cliché horror movie. Question is, which would prefer to focus on? The unique? Or the cliché? Trick question, Brightburn was so cliché that the uniqueness may as well not have been there in the first place.
The horror elements relied on weak jump scares and then when it couldn’t deliver on those, Brightburn just continued to drown its audience in unnecessary amounts of confronting, gory imagery. Now yes, I do like a bit of gore in my horror movies – but gore needs to come with a purpose. If the bloody elements do not service the story, then why include them? There is some truly disgusting images in Brightburn that even had me looking away at times, but never did the excessive mangling of the human body feel like it was needed. Sure, if most of it was directly associated with the film’s villain and his plight, that would be fine… but Brightburn weirdly lingered on too many frames that were constructed purely to shock. Although, it was not shocking – it was just disgusting. If Brightburn was a serial killer film like The House That Jack Built, then sure, have all the blood you want. Though a movie where a kid has superpowers and never directly uses them to tear people’s faces off and, yet, people’s faces are torn off, there’s really no need. Just lazy horror writing, if you ask me. A unhealthy reliance on cheap jump scares and yucky open wounds.
Aside from the effectiveness of its horror though, Brightburn was also heavily reliant on the performance of its lead actor: the one and only, Jackson A. Dunn as Brandon Breyer. I don’t like hating on child actors, because they’re children and are obviously still growing, but when you make a film which needs a strong child lead – you should find a strong child lead. Dunn could not carry this film. The kid worked best when he had a mask on, didn’t say anything and was mostly just CGI. Any moment where Dunn had to “act”, the film lost me. The rest of the movie’s child stars were also just so poorly directed, to the point their performances were equally so poorly executed. Brightburn had troubles outside of just its performance category, but the role of an actor in a film is so damn important that as soon as that element shows fault, its much harder to forgive the rest of the production.
The script also felt a little first draft like it was somebody’s first time writing a feature length film. The foreshadowing in scenes were heavy to the point they weren’t discreet or even felt like the filmmakers had tried to hide the fact they were winking to the audience. The character work, such as how some of the characters went through changes and decisions over the course of the film, felt very unbelievable and jarring. And the story, in general, flowed in such a clunky matter, I don’t even think it could be called a “flow”. Brightburn felt very much like a teenager had thought up a cool idea for a superhero and proceeded to sketch a design for it and furtherly write an edgy origin story script for it… but didn’t know how to then properly film it when it came to crunch time.
In short, I admire the effort behind Brightburn and in no way would I indorse this as a bad movie. Its an ok movie which sadly has a lot of problems to its name. I truly appreciated the efforts the filmmakers took in really making the film work as a satire of Superman, what with the obvious allusions such as the Kent-like farm and the discovery of the alien child. But I also loved the more subtle references like the film being named after the town of the super-powered individual’s origin (Smallville becomes Brightburn) or genuinely how the film is shot in the style used by Zack Snyder for Man of Steel.
Brightburn did indeed burn, but not like a big raging fire… more a smoldering little puddle of ash and embers.
Brightburn, sadly, belongs in the… KINGDOM OF THE CRIMINALLY DULL…
- Ignition, 2019, Brightburn (2019), IMP Awards, TMDb, viewed 25 May 2019, <http://www.impawards.com/2019/brightburn.html> (Featured Image)
- Nashawaty, C 2019, Brightburn imagines if a young Superman didn’t come in peace: EW review, Entertainment Weekly, Meredith, viewed 25 May 2019, <https://ew.com/movie-reviews/2019/05/23/avengement-review-scott-adkins/>