Think about Superman for a minute. He is an unnatural, unstoppable alien force. Sure, he is a force for good. But what if this near-omnipotent being chose to serve a different master: himself.
Brian and Mark Gunn’s script for Brightburn aims to envision what that “what if” comic would look like. It is speculative fiction, like how 50 Shades of Grey is its own story but everyone knows it started as Twilight fan fiction. The child who crashes to Earth in a spaceship is not Clark Kent; he is Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn). And he doesn’t land in rural Smallville, Kansas; he lands in Brightburn, Kansas, in the woods on the outskirts of Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle’s (David Denman) farmland.
But Brandon Breyer, as he reaches adolescence, starts realizing powers in himself. He has supernatural strength. When he gets angry, his frustration causes lights to flicker and short out. At night, he finds himself drawn by a voice in his head toward the family barn, where something grows red under the floorboards.
It is puberty (of sorts), and for a surprising time no one around Brandon seems to notice it as anything more than that. Until he starts causing trouble.
Brightburn engages in a 90-minute battle with itself over cliches and how to adequately use them. The premise of the film is rather brilliant. The Gunns (James Gunn produces, as well) and director David Yarovesky exploit the trendy popularity of the superhero genre for their own benefit, choosing to have fun with a horror-superhero mashup. The basic tropes of a superhero origin story are subverted. But horror conventions act to hinder the effectiveness of the novel conceit.
A handful of the horror set pieces are clever and, to a gore-averse audience, squirm-inducing. It is in these scenes when the film is having the most fun with itself. A sequence in a diner is clever in its use of POV. A sequence in a girl’s bedroom is clever in its reinterpretation of awkward teen romance as a horror scene.
But some of the set pieces are downright sloppy. When there is not a clever twist on an old horror favorite, the film relies on loud noises and quick flashes of our villain flying across the frame. The novelty disappears, and so does the tension. The film, in general, is not overtly scary, but at least the aforementioned sequences have clarity and creativity in their veins. The remainder of the set pieces are choppily edited and dramatically flat.
When Brightburn is at its most self-aware and most indulgent, it is a fun watch. The Gunns’ script knows exactly what it is. It engages with the emotional conflict of its child character, but it also allows Dunn the ability to play a vindictive, ham-fisted villain. The resulting sequences run the gamut of quality, but they stem out of a comic book idea of horror violence. It is chintzy, bloody fun, in spite of all the shortcomings.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)