Updated: Feb 8, 2020
Brightburn has an interesting concept: Superman’s origin story reimagined as a horror movie. What if the super powered alien the Kent’s found was motivated by evil instead of the wholesome qualities of the people who raised him? Just that basic idea turns the American idealism of the character on its head. So much can be done with that. Unfortunately, this movie uses it mainly as setup for a routine “demon child” plot, loaded up with jump scares and gore. It is well-made, with a few very impressive shots and a couple of nicely thought-out characters. However, as it went on, I could not help but feel let down when it became obvious the filmmakers were not actually going any deeper than the surface.
Tori and Kyle Breyer live on a farm in a small town in Kansas with their twelve year old son, Brandon. While he thinks he is adopted, in reality they discovered him in a crashed spaceship when he was an infant. Now, what his parents assume is puberty may be him realizing how special he truly is.
Director David Yarovesky uses familiar iconography to establish the setting. There are sunlit shots of the Breyer’s farm, their cornfields, barn and house, bringing up images of the small town American dream. The movie makes sure to show them as a loving family, then it begins hinting that something is wrong. It is all intentionally reminiscent of the various Superman movies. It introduces a heroic mood Brightburn then flips upside down. There is a lot to like before things get dark and it goes on autopilot. Yarovesky really captures the idyllic look of his setting, made just as effective when the tone fully shifts to horror. He clearly put a significant amount of energy into the visuals. Too bad the screenplay is not nearly as creative.
To be fair, the Breyer parents are drawn pretty well. Tori loves her husband very much, but is so devoted to her son she is unable to believe in anything besides his innocence. Kyle is not quite as blindly committed. He loves his son, yet part of him seems to always be aware Brandon is not human. Elizabeth Banks and David Denman are both good in their roles, lending emotion and dramatic conflict to their conversations. They come off as real people, at least until they start making some dumb decisions toward the end. Jackson A. Dunn is extremely creepy as Brandon, even if he remains largely one-dimensional. Too many questions about him are left unanswered to make him any more than a plot device.
Brightburn (85 minutes without the end credits) will probably appeal more to horror fans than to comic book fans. Though the premise has a lot of Superman elements, the story is filled with tired horror tropes. What saves it from being easily dismissed are the unique concept, the performances and the skilled execution of even the least interesting death scenes. Despite the fact I did not ultimately enjoy it, I would be intrigued by the continuation of this universe. It could go in so many different directions that could explore heroism and villainy. There are really cool ideas here. They just got sidelined this time in favor of derivative genre thrills.
2½ out of 5
Elizabeth Banks as Tori Breyer
David Denman as Kyle Breyer
Jackson A. Dunn as Brandon Breyer
Meredith Hagner as Merilee McNichol
Matt Jones as Noah McNichol
Emmie Hunter as Caitlyn
Directed by David Yarovesky
Written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn