I remember when this film’s trailer first dropped at the end of last year. The use of James Gunn’s name wasn’t particularly timely at the time, but it seemed like a novel idea at first glance, sure it was such a transparent Superman paralell that it could have been used as window, but the concept of a superhero horror story, and with such a name as James Gunn attached, it was certainly intriguing.
Of course, the creative input of JG was likely minimal. He is after all only named as a producer, and such roles can vary, sometimes a producer runs the film, sometimes they’re just someone who put some money up to fun the project, where Gunn’s input lies on that scale it is impossible to speculate.
The actual creatives on the project are Mark and Brian Gunn, James’ cousin and brother, respectively, as the writers and relative unknown David Yarovesky in the directors chair. The biggest screenplay from this films writers prior to this film was Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, so it’s easy to see why the studio thought James Gunn’s reputation was more marketable.
In Brightburn, Kansas a child drops from the sky and lands in the woods near the home of Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, respectively) a married couple who are struggling to conceive a child. Ten years later, the child, Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) starts showing signs of supernatural powers, and his parents have to face the truth of what their son is.
So, from a fairly stable start of riffing on the Superman mythos, the tone is pretty swiftly turned 180 degrees in the complete opposite direction, it basically gives us an answer to the question that has been asked for many years, what if Superman was evil?
While the similarities to the Man of Steel are obvious, the tone could not be any further from your traditional Superman story. As suggested by the trailer, this film firmly pitches its tent in the ‘horror’ genre, with all the bells and whistles that come with such a film.
Unfortunately, it also falls into a fair amount of the same traps that turns me off horror films, it relies far too heavily on jump-scares and music stings, when it feels like it could be so much more creative. It doesn’t take a lot to make someone jump, that doesn’t necessarily qualify it as scary, what I feel makes a good horror film is its atmosphere, and for what it’s worth, there are times when Brightburn builds a very solid atmosphere, only to fall back into its usual habits moments later.
The idea behind the film has bucket-loads of potential, leaving aside the obvious Supes parable for a minute, the idea of a super-powered person falling to Earth and wrecking havoc is an interesting one, and the fact that’s it’s a child makes it all the more effective, but I think the filmmakers dropped the ball in its execution.
We are never given a good explanation for why Brandon turns out to be evil, his character just completely changes mid-way through the movie, just as the reveals about his origins start to roll out. So, are we to presume that he was always evil because he’s presumably an alien? There are a few hints to him being bullied at school, but they’re treated as such an after-thought that they couldn’t possibly expect us to connect that to his turn to the dark side.
In the end, Brightburn was a film of good ideas that never got truly fleshed out. The evil super-child horror thing was a good idea, but relies too heavily on jump scares to be really effective, the direction feels very reminiscent of films like A Quiet Place, but this is undermined by the superhero effects. It starts to build a nice atmosphere, but never truly pays it off.
The acting on the whole is good though, I especially enjoyed the performances of Elizabeth Banks and Jackson A. Dunn, they’re dynamic was engaging, and they both seemed to inhabit their characters, Dunn in particular was very good at giving off a ‘creepy child’ vibe, which did wonder for his character, which without his intensity might have felt rather silly.
In conclusion then, Brightburn was a bit of a missed opportunity. It shows that there is potential for superhero-themed horror, but never really grasped the subtleties itself. If it lays a groundwork for future films to build upon more expediently, then history might look upon it favourably, if not, then it’s likely to just be remembered as a mis-step, if it is remembered at all.