It’s one of the great nerd questions: What if Superman wasn’t such a darn Boy Scout? The question has been explored before in the graphic novel Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar and Dave Johnson (in which Superman grows up in the USSR and helps defend their way of life), but the surprisingly engaging new horror film Brightburn offers a very different take on the story. What if our young hero doesn’t have a moral compass but instead realizes that his super powers mean he can retaliate towards anyone that doesn’t immediately conform to his desires?
Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) are farmers in the tiny little town of Brightburn, Kansas. Even a bookshelf full of fertility books can’t help them conceive, however, and so when a freak meteor crashes and there’s a baby inside, they don’t question, they just accept him as a gift from God. Until he hits puberty, all is well. Young Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is shy, awkward, and whip smart, making him a constant target of teasing by some of his less adept classmates.
The film deliberately parallels the Superman origin story, including Superman’s Smallville, Kansas parents Martha and Jonathan Kent keeping his spaceship hidden under the barn floor for an eventual reveal. In Brightburn, however, the ship is evil and it begins to call Brandon in his dreams right around his 12th birthday. That’s when everything goes sideways for him and he finds – to his surprise – that he is not only “special” but is also endowed with remarkable strength.
This first reveals itself with a lawnmower, of all things. Unable to start it to do his chores, he hurls the mower far across the meadow, then walks over and forcibly stops the blade spinning without a scratch. Everything really starts to fall apart when his Dad gives him “the talk” (you know, birds, bees, adolescent changes, urges, etc) which has the awkward result of inspiring Brandon to show up and peek in the bedroom window of his school crush, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter).
She’s alarmed by this, as would any adolescent girl be to find a boy peering in the window, and the next day accuses Brandon of being a pervert. Awkward. He retaliates violently and that begins the sequence of events that over the subsequent 48 hours produces a variety of missing people, gory deaths and worse. All along, however, Brandon leaves his signature double-diamond signature at each crime scene, a logo curiously similar to the retro Screen Gems logo shown as one of the production credits at the beginning of the film.
His parents are in denial but his aunt Merilee (Meredith Hagner) and Noah (Matt Jones) start to wonder about what’s going on with dorky little nephew Brandon. Doesn’t take too long for likeable local cop Sheriff Deever (Gregory Alan Williams) to also start putting two and two together. When you’re hunting down a criminal with superhuman capabilities, however, it’s not entirely a surprise that it ends poorly for Deever.
The entire premise might sound a bit daft, but it all works surprisingly well. There aren’t many surprises or jump scares in this rather cerebral horror film but it’s still satisfying entertainment. The performances are good, particularly young Jackson Dunn channeling Damien from The Omen series and Elizabeth Banks as his devoted mother, always ready to ignore the growing signs of his evil. Ah, a mother’s love.
The biggest problem with Brightburn, though, is the lack of storyline follow-through. Perhaps it was co-authors Brian and Mark Gunn trying their best to avoid any trite teen horror tropes, but when we see classmate Royce (Abraham Clinkscale) constantly harassing and bullying Brandon, for example, it’s odd that there’s never any retaliation or comeuppance in the latter part of the film. At barely 90 minutes running time, there was certainly space in the story for more closure.
Brightburn is a small, tight, low budget horror film, so while the special effects are very good – and sporadically stomach-churningly gory – most of the action takes place in two or three rural settings. This works just fine, leaving us wondering what will happen when Brandon tires of Kansas and heads to the big city. Not to wonder too long: The closing titles interweave news footage of him finding his strength as he wreaks havoc on local cities. Don’t leave the theater too promptly!
I enjoy a good horror film and prefer a thoughtful film to one that’s just torture and sadism. Director David Yarovesky shows great restraint letting the film slowly build to its chaotic ending. It’s good fun and if you like the genre, you might well enjoy Brightburn too.
Parental Note: This is not suitable for children, but if you have an adolescent who enjoys horror movies, they might find this quite interesting in the same spirit as Stranger Things and The Omen. Lots of good conversation starters about alienation and retaliation too, though Brightburn is much more about retaliation towards adults than peers.