Brightburn: Superhero/psycho mash-up asks 'What if Superman were bad?' and answers it badly

By Liam Lacey

Rating: C-plus

When a spaceship carrying an alien baby crashes on a Kansas farm, a childless couple, Tori and Kyle Breyer, decide to secretly raise the child as their own. As he develops into a boy, Brandon turns out to have a variety of super-powers. Familiar so far?

Here’s the twist: He does not use his powers for good, nor does he stand for Truth, Justice and the American Way. Though the “what if Superman was bad?” conceit isn’t especially new, Brightburn, named after the town where it is set, is something a little different, a deliberate horror/superhero mash-up. 

Brightburn: If only a super-powered alien were here to save us…. oh, wait.

Brightburn: If only a super-powered alien were here to save us…. oh, wait.

The film is brought to the screen by Guardians of the Galaxy producer James Gunn, which may probably raise unwarranted expectations. Written by Gunn’s brother and cousin, and directed by David Yarovesky, (The Hive) this a predictable soar-and-gore, welding a winking Superman origin story to eighties’ slasher and demon-child genres. 

The cute baby of the early scenes soon emerges as a stone-eyed slasher, mixing his super-powers with some old-fashioned creepiness:  A little telekinesis and a glass shard to the eyeball; some levitation on the night highway and a driver left with a rearranged face.

By the time the budding super-creep has hit puberty, even Brandon’s patient parents Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) begin to realize they have a problem. The kid throws a lawnmower across several fields, crushes the hand of a girl classmate, fills notebooks with the phrase “Take Earth” and likes to hide in closets wearing a ski mask. 

 As Brandon is busy checking off all the guidance counsellor’s boxes for a future career in serial killing, he also displays super-strength and laser shooting eyes.

Elizabeth Banks tries hard as the still-sexy doting mom practicing steely denial, but she’s a good actress working well beneath her abilities here as a scream queen. 

As the bearded, burly dad, David Denman (The Office) is left to gasp at the obvious absurdity of the situation. (“He’s not our son! He’s a thing we found in the woods.”). Unfortunately, Jackson A. Dunn, the young actor playing Brandon doesn’t really manage conveying a human side. His lack of affect and scene-to-scene inconsistency becomes more incoherent than scary. 

The movie rattles through ninety minutes of episodic jolts, the visual style is jumbled. Distinctive only in having a better effects budget than your average demons-in-the-attic quickie. While the super-parody elements offer a few snorts of amusement, the movie avoids taking on more complex ideas about Superman as an American ideal, though the filmmakers are obviously aware of the Bizarro context. In a jocular sequence during the credits, we see an Alex Jones-style conspiracy nut raving on the television, a nod to a nation caught up in fear mongering and violent fantasies.

Of course, the character of Superman – an emotionally-stunted, not-quite human with formidable destructive powers, has always had his ambiguous side. The character was originally evil in creator Jerry Siegel’s first 1932 story, Reign of Superman, before the Man of Steel settled down, a few years later, as the familiar embodiment of boyish, clean-cut patriotism. 

As a number of commentators, including the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, have already noticed, there’s a better demonic superhero story out there to reflect the Trump era. That story is Jerome Bixby’s 1953 short story, It’s a Good Life later adapted into one of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes (and a segment in the 1983 Twilight Zone movie).

In the story, a Midwestern farm community is cut off from the world and trapped in the thrall of a tempestuous monster child with God-like powers. As we know from the daily headlines, that’s a predicament that is truly horrifying.

Brightburn. Directed by David Yarovesky. Written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn. Starring: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn. Brightburn can be seen at the Scotiabank Theatre, Cineplex Yonge-Eglinton and Cineplex Yorkdale.