We are a country where anything should be possible — a society where an orphaned immigrant can become our ideal, and a heartland where two lonely people in the rural countryside can raise a superhero. Brightburn, the new film directed by David Yarovesky (The Hive) and written by Brian & Mark Gunn (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) posits a different result of this social experiment in storytelling. It questions whether the nurturing of a kindly couple can shift the genetic destiny of (super) nature. These are lofty ambitions, and the tactics it takes to accomplish them are subversive and challenging. Slowly but surely, it rots the Superman origin story from the inside out. While the methods eventually fail the premise and the film takes a turn for the exploitative, some strong performances and the desperate horror of the premise make this an uncomfortable cultural curiosity for our times.
Brightburn is not subtle as the film opens with a tracking shot through a house filled with books on fertility. Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks), our Gen-X Martha Kent, and her good-natured husband Kyle (David Denman), soon discover a crashed spaceship in their field. Inside this shimmering womb is a child they adopt and name Brandon Breyer (played by Jackson A. Dunn). So far, so Superman. The following home video montage of Brandon’s childhood does an adequate job at steering this film’s look away from the Marvel and DC house styles. The early moments overcome cliche by sticking to a simple and universal human dynamic. When it comes to stories about parents and their children, there is a primal emotional register that oscillates between extreme hope and abject fear. Tori and Kyle’s idyllic existence is wholly predicated on the stability of their child, but they have constructed a false narrative for Brandon. They have told their son he can do anything and be anyone, but by hiding his origins, they accidentally plant the seeds for a monstrous turn.
Yarovesky and cinematographer Michael Dallatorre are at their best when framing the action on the Breyer homestead. The heavenly sunlight clouds over into a Lynchian ether as darkness falls over the farm. The demonic red light of Brandon’s spaceship ignites and calls out to the boy in his sleep — from here, the Breyer family dynamic forever shifts.
As the film pivots into absolute horror, it becomes genuinely uncomfortable to watch. The divergence from the usual superhero genre style becomes quite clear. The obsession and impotent rage expressed by Dunn in his performance as Brandon are visceral, even as the script fails to deliver on a fundamental level. Where the dialogue and characterization fail to involve, a disturbing existential fear can’t help but build inside a viewer as we question the hidden thoughts that develop behind Brandon’s eyes. Does the boy’s discovery of power tempt him into exploring the potentiality of evil, or is he some pre-programmed death machine? Either way, when we finally glimpse the hidden artwork and designs inside Brandon’s notebooks, the subliminal message is clear enough: in our highly individualized and alienated age, the American tendency to mythologize our importance can lead to unexpectedly dark forms of self-actualization.
At its best, the film attempts an ambitious fusion of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and Lynne Ramsay’s masterful and traumatic We Need to Talk About Kevin. It walks a tricky tonal line and never masters the balance. As a genre piece, it doesn’t go far enough into the strange, and as a psychological thriller, it lacks the necessary nuance. The costume design for Brandon’s altered persona does work very well, and the silhouette he cuts against the darkened sky carries dramatic weight. With that said, some misused visual effects push back against the more evocative elements of the production design. By the time the killing starts, the film turns away from psychological horror and becomes a gory exploitation flick. The filmmakers portray the offensive capabilities of this American boy’s violent urges, but they go so overboard that any psychological realism is lost. It disingenuously leads its audience into tricky and challenging waters but rescues us before we are able to reckon with the idea of a Superman gone bad.
The film sadly loses focus on the central relationship of Tori and Brandon — too swept up in its super powered-slasher detour. Although the acting and visuals of this atypical comic book film soar — all of the narrative’s psychodrama has degraded due to the fractured and underwritten arcs of the characters. The question of what makes an American monster is left on the table, without even a metaphorical jab at a conclusion. Brandon becomes just another comic book villain, and this film falls back onto the well-trodden ground. By the time the dust settles, it is unclear whether Brightburn is poking fun at the endless appetite for superhero universes, or gunning for a franchise setup. Perhaps the creators intended for a bit of both – a practical promise, with a cynical bite. However, these days, it is difficult to grasp whether all of this super-heroic noise is a joke or just another American nightmare.