2019 | rated R | starring Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn | directed by David Yarovesky | 1 hr 30 mins |
Brightburn brings to life a delicious premise lurking behind the Superman mythos, but the material proves too wide open with possibilities for this particular team to get their arms around. We’ve heard of Bizarro Superman and we’ve seen Clark Kent turn into a jerk after being exposed to Black Kryptonite in Smallville; Brightburn wants to play that out as an bloody R-rated slasher movie for that very small cult crowd of people who might be restless with superhero movies.
Young Jackson Dunn plays Brandon Byer (the first of many transparent nods to DC comics). Brandon is unapologetically Clark Kent, gifted all of his flight, strength, speed and laser eyes powers that fair use will allow and the small farm town of Brightburn with a space ship locked away in the barn is unmistakably Smallville. What director David Yarovesky and writers Brian and Mark Gunn do with this premise is squander it minute by minute in a slowly rolled out, R-rated budget friendly origin story grasping for the easiest slasher movie cliches to move it along. It’s an economic story of vision and money compromising itself before our eyes: In order to get away with the jaw-breaking gore and bleak vision it wants, Brightburn has to contend with the smaller budget a studio will give to an R-rated superhero movie, and because of that the story makes compromises, filling time and unable to fully realize the potential of its premise. In Brightburn a young, psychotic superman has the visions and means to conquer the world and he uses it to lift a pick-up a few feet off the ground.
Much has been made of the involvement of producer James Gunn after Gunn shot to fame with Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s Gunn’s brothers behind the script and none of James’ fingerprints are recognizably in Brightburn. It’s small town setting and lead in Elizabeth Banks is set to recall Gunn’s cult alien slug movie Slither but Brightburn doesn’t have nearly the personality, sense of humor, creativity or self-awareness of Slither. And to keep the slippery slope in context, Slither is still a lower rent Night of the Creeps.
I’m not critiquing Brightburn for being totally humorless, or requesting that’s an element all superhero movies need, it isn’t – I’m asking it to have a personality at all. For example, the movie is thankfully not self-aware, Brandon never looks at a comic book if they even exist in the Brightburn universe, but it’s also unclear why he starts behaving like a theatrical supervillain. Why does he scratch his self-made logo all over his kills and why does he wear a Friday the 13th like cloth bag on his head? If he isn’t influenced by our pop culture, what about his alien DNA and culture that is making him do this? I just wanted my Evil Superman movie to have enough world-building to get out from under the most superficial on-the-nose storytelling. In just about every frame of this movie a meta “this is evil Superman” flashing light hangs over head.
Brightburn isn’t terrible. The film has a certain B-movie appeal by taking this premise as straight-faced and serious as possible, but doesn’t have the invention Gunn used to stretch a dollar into a satisfying little film. If this were Gunn in Slither mode, the spot where Brightburn ends would only be the mid-point in Gunn’s exploration of the premise. It’s in those final few seconds when the movie gets the most interesting.