Directed by David Yarovesky and written by Brian and Mark Gunn, Brightburn is the story of Tori and Kyle Breyer, a mid-west couple desperate for a baby. One falls from the sky onto the outskirts of their farm and they decide never to tell the boy his true origin, and raise him as their own. All goes pretty well until, ten years later, Brandon starts hearing the ship in the barn calling to him…
There’s a read of Brightburn that says it’s a movie about incel culture. The inailable sense, despite how good your upbringing may have been that you’re not just an outsider you’re a superior to those around you. Brandon’ interaction with Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), the classmate he fixates on certainly speaks to that. Brandon, played impressively throughout by Jackson A Dunn is dead behind the eyes until he isn’t, the seething rage and entitlement of a white kid getting what he knows is owed him and so much more shining through with laser intensity.
There’s another read of Brightburn where you could argue this is a movie about how extremism happens. The Breyer farm is dilapidated long before Brandon begins his rampage, the town they live in is minuscule and the only jobs seem to be inward facing. With nothing to do but wait to be old enough to hunt, of course Brandon wants to test himself. Of course he wants to make a place in this tiny pond, by any means necessary. He may wear a gory, stitched together balaclava but give it ten years and he’ll suit a polo shirt with his Proud Boy chapter embroidered on it just fine.
There’s another read still that says this is a movie that proves nature beats nurture. That for all Tori and Kyle’s love, Brandon is lost almost immediately to the siren call of the pod that clearly deployed him to Earth. He’s a weapon, that’s all. He likes his work too.
Finally, there’s a read that says this is a dark parody of Superman’s origin. The alien baby, the red cloak, the rural upbringing. Even the soundtrack continually hints at breaking into the Man of Steel refrain. This one is clearly true. The others aren’t.
Brightburn is exactly what it looks like; a story about an evil super-powered boy. Every character reacts how you think they will. Almost every beat lands exactly where you think it will. It’s never less than competent but it’s also rarely better than good and even then, it’s fingertip deep. The thematic density above? The complex ideas the movie toys with exploring? Those are what you bring to it. It is, as Marguerite put it, a narrative with no context. A structure but no story.
That, in some ways, isn’t a bad thing. If you want a ‘Superman, yeah? BUT EVIL’ story then this is it. But that’s all this is. The Gunns’ script looks the ideas above dead in the eyes but never moves towards them, content instead to have Brandon commit another atrocity and hide behind his mother’s love. Elizabeth Banks and David Denman are both great here and, bluntly, they need to be. The movie runs right up to the point of exasperation with their refusal to see the truth and even now will finish far beyond that line for some. Yet, weirdly, it openly chickens out of being quite as extreme as the early ’00s comics it’s so desperate to emulate. Brandon’s school bully is one of the few black characters and vanishes halfway through, apparently unscathed. The relationship with Caitlyn evaporates around the same time as does his school life. The movie wants to show you this fundamentally decent kid being curdled by the mechanism that made him but it’s so excited by what he does once he is curdled that it ignores context. He’s a murderer. Who’s also a kid. And has superpowers. That’s it.
There’s hints of more, to be fair and several of those hints come in one of the movie’s best scenes. The fact it’s played over the end credits should maybe be a worry but still, we get Gunn family friend Michael Rooker going full Alex Jones about the super-humans among us (including a familiar face) as Brandon’s murder spree accelerates. This, one single place, is where the movie does something interesting with the fictional toys it’s so excited about breaking. Brandon is very very public in a way Clark never was. That’s a fascinating concept. We’re introduced to it as the movie ends. That’s maddening, as is the moment you realize what this truly is; a prologue. An origin story. The preamble to something much more interesting. In that sense it’s a surprisingly strong, beat for beat comic movie, at least structurally. However, as a standalone film it’s fun but rarely as clever as it thinks it is. The structure, ending where it began, is great but there’s no emotional meat on the skeleton. As a result, regardless of how many people Brandon kills, or the size of the spectacle he gouges into the Earth, in the end you just don’t care about him or it. And he, you and this idea all deserve better than that.
Technically brilliant but emotionally dead, Brightburn is on general release now.