Brightburn review: a gory, nihilistic tale about the bad boy of superheroes

2
Jackson A Dunn as Brandon Breyer in Brightburn
Jackson A Dunn as Brandon Breyer in Brightburn

Dir: David Yarovesky. Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A Dunn, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Jennifer Holland, Steve Agee, Gregory Alan Williams. 15 cert, 90 min

“When superheroes go bad” is an established meme; remember Superman III (1983), when Christopher Reeve became an unshaven mean machine, leaving Clark Kent in the dust? Brightburn, David Yarovesky’s new horror film, posits a Superman-adjacent character who’s born bad, after a alien spaceship crash-lands and deposits his embryo in the woods near a childless couple’s home. For years, the kid seems regular enough, if a little lacking in empathy. But then adolescence strikes – and his latent powers burst out, bit by harmful bit.

Brightburn is a negative image of Man of Steel, set on a rusting Kansas farm that we’re meant to recognise as mythological Ground Zero. Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, playing mom and pop, live in loving denial of this foundling’s capabilities, and their protective instincts insulate him, at least for a while, from the consequences of his rage-filled actions.

Then again, they aren’t there to see him creeping around in the curtains of a schoolmate at night, like the flying vampire from Salem’s Lot, or snapping her wrist when the same girl publicly rejects him. And they have no idea how vengeful this caped anti-crusader could become if the burning red fury behind his eyes were to be triggered by further betrayals.

Their boy, Brandon Breyer, is half Smallville’s answer to a Midwich Cuckoo and half Damien from the Omen films; he serves no lord and master other than some cosmic megalomania that he barely understands. “Take the world!” becomes his motto, with his initials “BB” etched at every scene of carnage.

Jackson A Dunn, the novice actor in this role, has already worked in TV, and appeared in Avengers: Endgame as the young Ant-Man. With his wide-apart eyes, he can seem eerily ordinary, and this makes him a good casting choice, up to a point. His blank affect isn’t milked; he just sits there with a shrug. It’s his youth – 16 years old, but Dunn looks a lot less – that gives the film its nasty charge, because he looks too young to be watching it, let alone dictating the horrors in store.

After the midway point, though, there isn’t a lot of tension left in the concept, other than guessing how far the filmmakers are going to risk pushing the gore effects; some of these, such as a jaw-bone dangling off its face, are hideously accomplished as such things go. Brightburn was written by cousins Brian and Mark Gunn and produced by Brian’s brother James (Guardians of the Galaxy), whose collective comic-book mania may feel like catnip to jaded fanboys, but possibly no one else.

Instead, the horror elements, courtesy of director David Yarovesky (The Hive), gradually take over, and Brightburn does manage some arresting moments of menace on a comparatively titchy budget – it cost quite a bit less than James Gunn’s directing debut, the small-town horror-comedy Slither (2006). But Brightburn’s satire and ghoulish humour never really come to the fore, despite an end-credits cameo from Gunn regular Michael Rooker as an online conspiracy theorist ranting about malign superbeings, including evil versions of Wonder Woman and Aquaman.

Committed: Elizabeth Banks as Tori Breyer

Some will appreciate the knife-twist in the guts that this film delivers to the superhero template – I suppose I grudgingly did – and at least it doesn’t carry itself with the cynical, smirking high-fivery of a Deadpool or Kick-Ass. By taking the relationships seriously, not least the mother-son one, which builds on committed work from Banks, it wants to shock you with its nihilistic reversals.

The final effect, however, is a disheartening vacuum. Having torn down a myth, it leaves little but a dropped mic in its wake. Even The Omen wafted a lingering dark mischief behind it, which made the sequels inevitable. While Brightburn hits its marks as a black-hearted origin story that could feasibly be parlayed into yet another one of these not-your-usual-superhero franchises, the film sabotages itself by leaving you with little appetite for more.