Movie Review : Brightburn (2019)
Superheroes are a representation of the cosmic balance between good and evil. They’re the immovable objects that protect us from the unstoppable forces of the universe and whatnot. They exist under the assumption that humanity is special and worth protecting. None of them discover their superpowers and decide they simply don’t give a shit about others. The James Gunn-produced Brightburn in somewhat of a trailblazer in that regard. It doesn’t have much to say, but it’s the first to earnestly ask the question: “what if Superman was a nasty, sociopathic kid?”
Brightburn is not LITERALLY the retelling of Superman as evil. Somewhere in Warner Brothers’ offices, a brand watchdog raised the flag about that and the movie was not allowed to use the trademark. Anybody familiar with Superman’s lore will notice the obvious similarities, though. It’s about an infertile couple in Kansas, finding a baby in a spaceship that crashed in the nearby woods. Except that baby doesn’t turn out to be Clark Kent. He’s a creepy fucking kid named Brandon (Jackson Dunn) who enjoys using his superpowers to win arguments and fuck shit up.
The main problem I had with Brightburn is that it doesn’t commit to what it’s trying to do. The kid hears voices from an unknown source and overpowers whoever’s not letting him do what he wants. That’s the gist of this 90 minutes movie. The parents never sit down with their kid to plead their cause or help him figure out all these his changes. Brandon is never confronted with a moral choice. He’s a prepubescent Michael Myers without any promiscuous teenage victims to kill. If you go beyond its premise, Brightburn is pretty barren.
There’s a reason for that. Brightburn is trying to be a horror movie. It is constantly and valiantly trying to scare you and you don’t scare people with exposition scenes and complex narratives. Director David Yaroveski pulls it off in certain scenes. My favorite is when Brandon is actively trying to kill his mother (a game Elizabeth Banks) by swooping through the house. In one particular shot, she looks at her son floating in the night sky, through the remains of her dilapidated home. I’m convinced that dealing with a superpowered being who’s trying to kill you feels exactly like that.
But Brightburn’s masterplan is also its undoing. When the rules are set so early and rigidly, it’s not really scary anymore. The screenplay operates under the assumption that no one’s ever heard of Superman. By that, I mean neither the character nor the audience. We KNOW the kid has laser vision. We KNOW the kid can fly and breathe when he’s in outer space. We KNOW every goddamn thing that’s going to happen and it torpedoes the plan of turning Superman’s origin story into a brooding horror movie. It could’ve worked with an unknown creature, but it doesn’t here.
There you have it. Brightburn is not good. It’s not terrible either in the way Hellboy was, but it’s barren and predictable. Everyone’s either evil, dumb or uninteresting and it’s a problem. Before the credits roll, you don’t really want to see Brandon punished because he hasn’t killed anyone you care about. Because of that, Brightburn will be forgotten pretty quickly. It’s one of these movies that has all the pieces, but lacks the magic needed to put them all together. Oh well. James Gunn is directing Guardians of the Galaxy movies again, so that’ll be the end of that.