There are few figures in modern fiction that are as deeply ingrained in the cultures of people all around the world as Superman: the boy born on another planet, the last of his kind, sent to Earth with special gifts, destined to live among us as a god. His story—one of fitting into and rising above social mores when you have the power to do whatever you want—is not one that’s wholly original, but it is maybe the most popular or most immediately recognizable example of such a fable.
In fact, the tale is so written into our collective subconscious that it has become a foundational cliché for all kinds of different fiction stories. It’s the basis for essentially every subsequent superhero, and parallels are frequently drawn between it and the Christ story, both in exterior literary analysis and even within Superman stories themselves (see Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel for a particularly pretentious attempt).
And naturally, with any cultural meme that spends enough time in the public mind comes satire, parody, spinoffs, deconstruction, and even corruptions of the myth. So comes Brightburn, a terror-inflected “other side of the coin” look at what might happen if Superman was born a psychopath, unfeeling and dispassionate for anyone around him, motivated only by his own id. It’s a novel (if simple) concept, and to be honest, I’m surprised it hasn’t been done on screen, at least to this specificity, before now. If the superhero craze had hit in the 80s, alongside the slasher craze, instead of in this century, Brightburn very well could have fit into the fad of “let’s take happy, cuddly, and/or pleasant concepts and turn them into monsters” that led to the conception of sleazy B-movies like Child’s Play and Silent Night, Deadly Night.
And Brightburn is ultimately a B-movie in its modest ambition, gratuity of violence, and sick sense of humor, but I won’t stoop to call it sleazy. Thanks to a meager but well-used budget of $6 million (“What?!” I know, right?), Brightburn looks slick and plays incredibly smoothly. It doesn’t reach for anything particularly thoughtful in its writing, editing, or cinematography, but it rarely, if ever, falters from “sufficient.”
Best of all, it’s apparent all involved with Brightburn are having fun. Elizabeth Banks and David Denman have surprisingly natural chemistry as Tori and Kyle Breyer, a childless couple living on a farm when a UFO crash-lands on the property, carrying with it a baby boy from another planet. Jackson A. Dunn clearly enjoys accessing his sinister side as the boy, given the name Brandon by his adoptive parents. As Brandon enters adolescence and he uncovers more about his background, his behavior begins to frustrate and disturb his parents (and not just in the normal ways).
For the most part, the script doesn’t require much of Dunn, but when he does get to turn on the cold, wicked malice, I’m reminded of Captain Quint’s monologue about sharks tasting flesh, their black eyes “rolling over to white.” The transition we see in Brandon in these scenes isn’t a literal translation of that, but the shift in his demeanor is just as apparent and terrifying. Ultimately, Brandon isn’t an “evil” kid—at least not in the conventional movie villain sense—but emotionally disturbed, lacking a conscience; most likely a psycho- or sociopath (perhaps a result of his genetic origin).
Director David Yarovesky—whose personal and working relationship with Hollywood big-shot James Gunn was clearly leveraged in order to get this film made (and as far as I’m concerned, that was a good thing)—brings little artistic or cerebral flair to his film, but it isn’t necessary—his execution of what was written by Gunn’s brothers Mark and Brian rarely misses its mark.
That mark is “entertaining, darkly funny, and wicked,” and that’s all this movie needs. It embraces schlock without losing itself to incoherence or regurgitation. This isn’t a movie of extremes, either in its dry wit or its suspense, but it balances both well that makes for an impressively easygoing, fun, and just plain watchable film. The exception to this modesty would be the violence, which the filmmakers clearly get a kick out of, as it occasionally even reaches gag-laugh levels of perversion.
By the halfway point, it becomes clear that Brightburn is not concerned with a heady, deconstructive satire of the Superman myth. There’s little meta-narrative at work here, and it rarely poses questions beyond the initial reversal of its classic premise. It’s closer to a simple one-off “What If?” issue of the comic books, indulging itself on the fun, malevolent possibilities that could play out from its change-up. And it’s a damn good time for it.