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When you break it down, the world that exists in the pages of DC Comics is very lucky that Superman ended up the way that he did. Not only is it fortunate that he got a proper, moralistic upbringing in the care of Jonathan and Martha Kent, but also that his people/planet of origin didn’t naturally embed him with any kind of malevolent intent before he was sent across the cosmos. At the end of the day, humanity got a savior/protector when they could have just as easily gotten an unstoppable destructive force.
It’s this thought that exists as the backbone of David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, which takes the base concept of the Man of Steel origin and gives it that special horrific twist. It’s a simple idea, and one that merely requires effective execution – but the good news is that’s exactly what the film accomplishes. It’s not really a movie of big, complex contemplations, but it’s a well-told story that also pulls off a number of fantastic shudder/scream-inducing sequences.
Written by Brian and Mark Gunn, the movie begins by introducing us to married couple Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) on the night that they experience what they believe to be a miracle. After trying and failing to conceive a baby, their Kansas farmland is hit by what they discover to be a small spaceship – inside of which they find an infant. They make the decision to raise the child on their own, and for 12 years they exist as a happy family, though the parents make the conflicted decision to not tell their son where he actually came from.
Unfortunately, after Brandon (Jackson Dunn) has his twelfth birthday things start to change. It begins with eerie sleepwalking spells that draw him to a place in the barn where his spaceship is being hidden, but things escalate as he starts to notice certain developing powers. Throwing a lawnmower 100 feet and then sticking his hand in its whirling blades help him discover his super strength and invulnerability, but quickly his power set grows with the discovery of abilities such as super speed, heat vision, and flight.
While Brandon doesn’t share everything that’s going on with him, Tori and Kyle notice that he’s going through some serious changes but don’t want to do anything that may expose him for what he really is. That becomes harder to justify as a series of violent incidents start to happen in their small town of Brightburn, and before long they have to consider what kind of threat Brandon really represents.
Where Brightburn really excels is in the way it showcases how amazingly scary some of the coolest superpowers can be when put in the wrong hands. It turns out that having a hooded figure gently floating in the air at night can be an intensely unsettling image (particularly when said figure also wields a pair of glowing red eyes), and super speed is a genuinely perfect setup for heart-skipping jump scares (a hand, fortunately, that’s never overplayed). Furthermore, simply recognizing the very real threat that Brandon represents and his unpredictability makes him a disturbing presence in every one of his scenes – whether he’s just sitting down at the breakfast table or staring intently at the family’s chicken coop.
David Yarovesky does a great job instilling what is essentially a permanent horror atmosphere throughout the entire thing, but it should also be recognized that there are also some amazing punctuating moments. It’s not my job to spoil these scenes here, but I’m fairly certain I left fingernail embeds in my armrests, and you’ll definitely know the sequences I’m talking about as you watch them play out.
Brightburn is further benefited by having a really fantastic cast that delivers the needed performances for the story to have the impact that it’s seeking. The film doesn’t work if you don’t feel the love that Tori and Kyle have for their son, and both Elizabeth Banks and David Denman wonderfully express that beautiful warmth. At the same time, the extreme conflict in their evolving situation with Brandon requires some big swings, and the pain and hurt is palpable in their performances. Of course, it also doesn’t work if the audience isn’t absorbed in Jackson Dunn’s turn. The young actor delivers a great emotional development for the character as he continues to learn and accept who he is and what he is meant to do on Earth.
Brightburn is ultimately a fine example of high-concept storytelling: taking an easily digestible idea, and exploring it to its full potential in compelling and entertaining fashion. It’s flavorful filmmaking that’s arriving at what is really the perfect time, when superhero and horror stories are respectively hitting with audiences in a big way, and should leave fans of both ultimately satisfied.