It certainly feels like a modern take on the superhero myth when Superman is re-imagined as an angry internet troll. Brightburn, directed by David Yarovesky and produced by James Gunn, tells the tale of Brandon Breyer, an alien who crash lands on our planet and is raised by two loving parents. He’s a true farmboy, learning how to mow the lawn and displaying a desire for hunting. But he harbors innate, Superman-like powers and there’s not even a moment to question whether or not he’ll use them for evil.
There is no BS in Brightburn; it is a blunt, straightforward inversion of the Superman myth, purposely brought to an intentionally exaggerated alternative to show just how powerless we are in the face of such a being. But in doing so, the film is mostly flash without any lasting impact. Imagine one of those YouTube videos where a popular comedy has horror-themed music and sound effects added to it’s trailer; a fun exercise, but a 1-note joke. Here, Brightburn operates the same – this is a 1-note parody full of 1-note characters.
The film opens with an introduction to Kyle and Tori Breyer (David Denman, Elizabeth Banks), on a night where they’re desperately trying to conceive a child. But wouldn’t you know it, their prayers are literally answered by the sky as psycho baby falls from the sky on this very night, and the Breyers take him in. Early scenes depict a happy Brandon, from toddler to pubescent teen, with no hint at a sinister personality. Teenaged Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is timid, but smart and this earns him the attention of his schoolgirl crush Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter). However, his intelligence also draws the ire of school bullies, a needless cliche since his interactions with the bullies go absolutely nowhere.
Everything regarding Brandon’s personality takes a sharp turn the night he is called to the barn, propelling him to sleepwalk by the spaceship he landed here in. The scene resembles that of a demonic posession, until his mother finds him there and breaks up the event. This prompts Tori and Kyle to tell Brandon of his true heritage, which causes Brandon to instantly become a psychotic monster. Instead of having a basic crush on his classmate, he becomes a morbid stalker. Instead of taking orders from his parents, he becomes a violent abuser of the very people who take care of him. The film never makes it explicit, but you can certainly read Brandon as a satire of entitled internet trolls who throw a tantrum when they don’t get their way. But Brandon’s tantrums leave a pile of dead bodies.
The script, written by Mark and Brian Gunn, leaves much to be desired in the way of characterization. The dialogue, especially in the first 15 minutes, is astonishingly simplistic (one bully blesses us with the assertion that Brandon is always talking about maggots, therefore he “must be one” to the accompaniment of thunderous classroom laughter, oh hardy har har!). One may argue that the dialogue is intended to evoke a small town feel, but small town inhabitants are a lot more colorful than this dull array of stock characters. Banks and Denman are playing the typical concerned parents, but they have little chemistry with Superboy or each other, leaving their family dynamic one we’re not invested in seeing preserved.
Denman in particular is unconvincing whenever he’s required to let us know he cares for Brandon, while Banks fares much better. The cast is supported by Brandon’s aunt and uncle (Meredith Hagner, Matt Jones) but their personalities are so truncated by a lack of screentime that they fail to establish dynamic characters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s Dunn himself who steals the movie. His interpretation of Brandon as a callous, tone-deaf, heartless egomaniac provides the little spark the film has. It’s by far the juiciest role to play here, but you believe every indignant remark and sinister grin that Dunn exhibits.
Brandon’s turn to the dark side leads to some strikingly grotesque violence. The film doesn’t disappoint on the gore, and doesn’t shy away from the horrific damage this kid is able to cause. If anything, Brightburn may become an annual Halloween/October rewatch among horror buffy based solely on it’s gore and sinister tone. But there isn’t much else here besides that. There’s no backstory on where Brandon comes from or why he landed here, and that’s largely done as a function of screentime aswell as an attempt to make Brandon’s turn more mysterious. But the lack of explanation of Brandon’s connection to the spaceship makes the development feel merely as a plot device to turn him evil.
This is especially apparent when you notice that there are no signs of Brandon’s sadistic side prior to the discovery of his powers and his heritage. Perhaps evil men are a product of circumstance; Brandon is only evil when he has the power of a God. At one point, he lies to his mother and tells her “I want to do good, mom.” Evil men may do some good, but only if it benefits them and their massive ego. And Brandon certainly fits the bill of someone who believes he’s special and is owed everything he wants solely because he was gifted powers, to hell with actually using said powers for anything productive.
In the end, Brightburn plays exactly how you’d expect, which is disappointing. This is a story about the wrong person having power, a nightmare that is cautionary but not scary or suspenseful. In the aftermath, there is some sequel teasing, including a potential expansion of the universe. Unfortunately, Brightburn is too predictable to make these additional stories sound promising. When you have a film that says so very little, what’s the point of giving it another opportunity to speak?