What if Superman was a horror movie? An alien crash-lands on earth, is raised by loving human parents, and develops incredible powers—it’s a familiar story that we know and love all too well. But what if he doesn’t want to save the world, but rather, take the world? That’s the question explored in the horror-superhero mashup Brightburn, a splashy genre piece with some chilling themes and subtext.
The team behind Brightburn knows their superheroes and their horror. Producer James Gunn helmed the horror flick Slither and the superhero indie Super before graduating to the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. His brother Brian Gunn wrote the script for Brightburn with cousin Mark Gunn, while David Yarovesky directs.
Elizabeth Banks stars as Tori, a Kansas woman trying and failing for a baby with her husband Kyle (David Denman). Their prayers are answered one night when a mysterious meteor crashes in the woods next to their house, and they find a baby boy inside, whom they raise as their own. Of course, all hell breaks loose when puberty hits. Jackson A. Dunn plays their son Brandon, a seemingly sweet and smart kid, who starts to rattle the chains on his idyllic childhood and parental control when he turns 12.
While that kind of rebellion is natural at that age, for Brandon, his acting out involves chanting mysterious incantations in a trance, yanking on the doors of the barn basement where the wrecked alien ship is stored. He starts to develop urges about women and girls, which his parents presume is normal hormonal changes in their boy. But his desires seem off, with graphic photographs of internal organs mixed up in the bra ads he stores under his bed. He becomes fixated on a girl in his class and when she rejects him out of fear, he crushes her hand. The resulting scandal and punishment for this act leads to a series of gruesomely bloody events that spiral throughout the small town of Brightburn, KS. Yarovesky does not hold back on the body horror that is inflicted.
All the while, Tori defends and protects her son. She’s unwilling to believe he could possibly have anything to do with the tragedy and horror raining down upon their town, while Brandon becomes increasingly remote, angry and dangerous.
Brightburn never focuses on what Brandon wants or why he’s doing this, which is a boon to the film. We know he’s a malevolent alien with powers of flight, laser eyes, and super strength, but we don’t know where he comes from or who he truly is. The only explanation, in allegory, comes from a science class where Brandon carefully explains the difference between wasps and bees—wasps are predators while bees are domesticated creatures. He’s simply programmed to be a predator, and eliminate all threats around him.
Dunn plays the part of the little psychopath well. One can’t help but think of Columbine killer Eric Harris, who similarly detailed his plans to blow up the world in his journals and notebooks, and managed to manipulate and fool the authority figures in his life. The kind of rhetoric that Brandon spews, about his superiority, what he is entitled to, feels like it was transcribed verbatim from a violent incel message board. While Brightburn certainly is a bloody horror flick, there are these metaphors and timely ideas simmering below the surface that make it more than just schlock and sensation.
Brightburn is rich with references and genre expectations. While the supervillain comic trope provides the narrative backbone, the film falls into the horror subgenre of the demonic child, like Damien from The Omen. But the puberty angle aligns him more with classic teen female monsters like Regan from The Exorcist and Carrie White in Carrie. Banks’ Tori, who starts out as a Cool Mom, starts to take on shades of Piper Laurie’s overbearing Margaret White from Carrie, who identifies evil in a child and tries to do something about it.
While Brandon might be imbued with superpowers, his rhetoric hits chillingly close to home. The kind of language that Brandon uses to justify his actions feels all too real, as he claims “good reasons” for his actions, and the dark, absolute sense of superiority that he asserts. But what he wreaks is gory, random, and ultimately devastating. If Brightburn tries to impart any message, it’s a warning, and an urgent one too.
3 1/2 stars out of 5
Image: Screen Gems