It’s a question that bears asking, certainly. What if an alien super-powered being came to Earth as a baby, was raised by human parents to believe he was “normal,” but then discovered as a youth that was, in fact, very different and very special? Yes, this exact scenario has been addressed once already – and quite famously, starting in the 1938s, as the origin story of seminal comic-book character Superman. But the new film ‘Brightburn’ throws an important asterisk into the conversation: what if this story took place not in the more “wholesome” era of the 1930s and 1940s, but in our present day of info-overload technology, hyper-sexualized culture, and angry me-first attitudes – would this fact (among others) change the outcome of the stranger’s development?
For ‘Brightburn,’ the answer is a resounding yes. And the on-screen results – brought to us in part by master of the independent horror aficionado James Gunn – are visually stunning and very through-provoking, even if the execution stumbles at times and the climax is the low point of the film. And you’ve seen approximately 80% of the film’s plot if you’ve seen any of the trailers.
As the film begins, much of the tale feels familiar (even if you’re not a Superman fan, you’re likely aware to some degree of his origin story, since it’s so ingrained into pop culture). A small-town Kansas couple, Kyle and Tori Breyer (David Denman and Elizabeth Banks), are blessed with a “gift from above” when a strange meteor lands on their farm property; as we discover via a “10 years later” time jump, the space rock was actually a vessel containing a young alien boy who conveniently looks perfectly human; the Breyers have been raising this boy as their own, naming him Brandon (Jackson Dunn) and not telling him about his true origin. All seems well until around Brandon’s 12th birthday – well enough for an adolescent, of course, who is coming to terms with not only his changing body but also dealing with external stimuli like girls and bullies. When his spaceship, which the Breyers have locked away in their barn, starts calling to him at night, this seemingly “activates” the young boy, and he begins to learn just how different he is from the other children – and how much more powerful he is than the average human. It’s a dangerous combination of hormones, power, and confusion, and as you might have extrapolated from the trailers, things don’t really go so well for the people surrounding him.
Best known for his work as the writer and director of the two Marvel Cinematic Universe ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ films, James Gunn showed some of his best early-career promise when working on smaller-budget horror/alien/superhero fare such as ‘Slither’ and ‘Super.’ Here, much of these two films are meshed together, and it’s important to note that James Gunn only produced this film, he did not write or direct it – and it shows, unfortunately. The film was co-written by Gunn’s brother Brian Gunn and his cousin Mark Gunn, making for a family affair that doesn’t quite live up to the original’s standards. The pacing is a bit choppy at times, particularly as the action careens towards the film’s climax. I would have appreciated seeing Brandon struggle a bit more with his transition to becoming a super-powered being, both internally and externally. There is a bit of back-and-forth in his attitude on “should I kill them all or show mercy,” although this could be attributed to him simply playing mind games with the humans – it’s frustratingly difficult to tell, given how the film presents things. He also seems to pick up the tricks and the trade of being super-powered fairly easily, something else the movie could have further benefited from showing-not-telling. It’s a combination of writing and editing, with the issues falling a bit heavier on the former. This film could be a prime example of certain people advocating for… wait for it… better Gunn control! Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
The storyline itself, while borrowing heavily from aforementioned source material, is entertaining and altered just enough to feel quite unique. The biggest letdowns, however, are characters willingly doing stupid things – of particular note are the people closest to Brandon, who know he can’t be hurt by “normal” means but keep trying to stop him that way anyhow. This is not an issue relegated solely to this film, but it’s an issue nonetheless. The climax of the film feels a bit rushed and “standard;” the outcome shown in the final scene and through the first few minutes of interspersed mid-credits clips should really surprise no one, even though surprise is probably what the Gunn crew were going for. Happily, another famous face and long-time Gunn collaborator pops up on-screen during this time, so I can’t complain too much about things, I suppose.
On the editing side, with the above-noted exception, things present well visually, and the action strikes a fairly decent blend of creepy and exciting. Credit director David Yarovesky, who himself is another James Gunn acolyte, having worked with the pop-culture guru in various behind-the-scenes roles and spin-offs of ‘Guardians,’ ‘The Belko Experiment,’ and more. This film is Yarovesky’s first turn as a feature-film director, and all things considered, it’s a fairly solid outing. The acting is above average, with Denman and Jackson providing good work in their roles as emotionally-struggling father and super-emo kid – Banks, as always, is the shining star of the entire film, and every scene she is in is made infinitely better by her presence and wholly believable acting skills.
When it’s all said and done, ‘Brightburn’ doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel here, but it is a very unique film that I do recommend any super-hero fan checks out. These “what-if” style stories are always fun to dive into, to let fans see how things might be different if their favorite heroes had something happened differently during their origin stories. Short of DC authorizing this film as a direct alternate-reality take on Superman’s genesis, ‘Brightburn’ is as close as we’re going to get, so I’ll keep my complaints to a (relative) minimum and simply enjoy the ride.