I think the biggest question I have about Brightburn is this: how the fuck did it take this long to create a movie like this one?
Brightburn’s premise is pretty simple – what if
Superman no, not Superman, nothing like Superman, I don’t know why you’d even bring it up but anyway, but what if a mighty intergalactic being came to Earth as a child, was raised by human parents, started manifesting his powers – and, instead of turning to heroism, became a villain? That’s the story that director David Yarovesky is taking on (alongside veteran pop culture mavens Mark and Brian Gunn as writers) – it’s the superhero movie played as a bloody horror, and it’s really a shock that nobody got there before them.
But you know what? I’m actually glad they didn’t, because this version of this story is the only one I want to see. I’m a huge sucker for horror – in case you didn’t already guess that – and especially horror that goes to great lengths to pick apart the tropes of cinematic genres (see also: Cabin in the Woods, The Ritual, Get Out. Really, see them too, they’re all great). The only problem with high-concept horror like this is that it can often trip over its own meta-commentary, and fail at actually delivering a story beyond parody and self-analysis.
But Brightburn makes the right choice centreing this story as a small family affair – following parents (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) after they adopt the mysterious alien boy who arrives in their back garden (Jackon A. Gunn), it’s mostly focused on how enormous power like this unpicks a family at the seams – and the violence that results from those unpracticed in decent morality being given enormous power to enact their basest instincts.
The performances from the lead three are strong – this is Banks’ film, though Gunn manages to eke out some genuine menace from his performance, sliding between innocence and child-logic violence. And there’s a lot to be said for the complexity on display here, as this young boy grapples with the new worlds he is being thrust in to – as a man, as a member of the family, as a person going through puberty, not to mention those that revolve around his mysterious identity and terrifying power. Brightburn never goes out of its way to stop and explain the ins and outs and the mythos to us. Instead of slowing down its taut ninety-minute runtime with deep explanations as to the how and the why, it simply focuses on what the impact of these powers and these discoveries are on a young man trying to figure out his identity in a myriad of different ways.
Brightburn is not an exceptionally brilliant film, by any means – the cinematic language it uses to tell its story is pretty simple, the scares more jumpy than they need to be, and some of the characters lacking in depth and nuance. But then, the genre it’s trying to deconstruct, the superhero movie, uses the same language, so in a lot of ways, it makes sense that Brightburn should operate in such broad strokes. For all it’s issues, it has a strong throughline of identity, discovery, and family, buoyed by great performances to boot, and it makes for one of those most cleansing tonics to the deluge of superhero cinema we’ve been dragging ourselves through for the last few years. And it has a Michael Rooker cameo at the end. What more could a girl want?
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Roger Ebert)