Directed by David Yarovesky
Starring Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn
Brightburn works more as a pitch than an actual movie: What if we retold the Superman origin story as Damien: Omen II? It’s a great idea on paper, but the resulting film is too obvious, slathering on the gore when it should be springing surprises.
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Childless couple Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) find a child in the spaceship that crash-lands on their Kansas farm (the title of the movie is the name of the town they live in). They adopt the baby boy and christen him Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn). When the child hits puberty, he develops superhuman abilities and an unhealthy fixation on the barn where his parents hid his spaceship. Despite a loving home that instills self-esteem and a sense of purpose, Brandon goes the other way, and members of the community start dropping like flies.
You know where Brightburn is headed, you even know how it ends. And so the least the filmmakers could have done is take an unorthodox approach to the narrative. Injecting a sense of humor could have done wonders, especially when you consider that James Gunn, the tongue-in-cheek auteur of the Guardians of the Galaxy films, shepherded this movie through development. But the script by Gunn’s brother Brian and cousin Mark takes the straightforward horror approach, and not even very effectively: the pacing is sluggish when it should speed up, and abrupt when it should linger. It also substitutes jump scares and gore for deeper psychological scares, with one effective set piece featuring Brandon paying a nocturnal visit to the unfortunate object of his schoolboy crush.
And still, things could have been salvaged if Brightburn had given us characters to care for. Instead, Elizabeth Banks, normally a plugged-in performer, feels oddly disconnected from her mother role; she looks like she wants to crack a joke but is contractually barred from doing so. Meanwhile, the film’s anti-Superman could have used some shading himself. Nobody will accuse Damien: Omen II of being a masterpiece, but at least it made a persuasive case for an adolescent coming to terms with who he is destined to be. Jackson A. Dunn is the kind of actor who suddenly discovers he can throw a lawnmower over a mile, and instead of frightened bewilderment, his choice is to give the viewer a self-satisfied smirk. Also, for a student whose smarts supposedly puts him in the upper-upper percentile of his school’s population, Brandon has a penchant for coming up with weak alibis. At one point, he also makes the counterintuitive choice to terrorize another victim instead of the one that threatens his identity—simply because the plot demands it.
Superman may have made you believe a man can fly, but Brightburn will make you see that high concepts can flounder.