Director: David Yarovesky
Writers: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn
Composer: Tim Williams
Starring: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn
Genre: Horror, Sci-Fi
First announced as the Untitled James Gunn Horror Project back in 2017, Brightburn unfortunately experienced a few delays on its way to the silver screen. Produced by Guardians of the Galaxy director, James Gunn, and written by his cousin (Mark) and brother (Brian), Brightburn had wrapped principal photography right before James’ Twitter scandal and subsequent firing by Disney. With a ruined reputation, Brightburn’s advertising was pulled from 2018’s San Diego Comic-Con.
The Gunn family no doubt used that downtime to edit the film, though the first trailer wasn’t officially dropped until after Disney relented and rehired James. As result, it seems that this film has come out of nowhere from cinema’s shadows. Brightburn’s director, David Yarovesky, yet another man with ties to the Guardians of the Galaxy film, admitted that he did enjoy the secrecy around the project, and that if there were to be another one, it would most likely appear suddenly as well.
So what exactly does this horror/superhero film look like? And are we up for another (albeit darker) universe?
Violence/Scary Images: This is a horror film, therefore it intends to scare audiences. Extreme gore (involving eyeball injuries, jaws, skulls, burns, broken bones, and a shot of an autopsied corpse/disembowelment). High level of blood. There are several murders and attempted murders (gun violence, stabbing, and supernatural deaths involving lasers, super strength, and high speed). There are several sequences where a prepubescent girl is stalked; the scene is creepy and disturbing, intentionally conjuring up thoughts of sexual predation. Corpses of animals are seen–they are killed off-screen.
Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb and s-word are said under ten times each. “Jesus Christ” is uttered as an exclamation. Other swears mentioned are god*mn, *ss, h*ll, and fr*cken, along with minor insults such as stupid and weirdo.
Drug/Alcohol References: Several men discuss how much they’ve drunk whilst playing pool at a bar. Alcohol consumption is not shown, though it is clear a character is intoxicated. Several characters worry about another drunk driving–the topic is brought up again later on.
Sexual Content: A married woman straddles her husband in bed while talking about making a baby. A father has “the talk” with his son–he encourages masturbation. Magazines are found under a teenage boy’s bed, which contain images of women in bikinis. Gory images are mixed in with the sexualized material as well.
Spiritual Content: A mother talks about how she prayed to God/the universe/anyone that would listen about how deeply she wanted a child. She frequently tells her son that he is a blessing, and that life has a purpose.
Other Negative Content: This film raises a number of fears regarding adoption; it unintentionally promotes a negative view of the subject.
Positive Content: The movie displays the importance of morals and compassion for others, particularly amongst those who are in a position of power.
There are few films where the marketing campaign and trailers greatly increase one’s enjoyment of a movie. Based off a massive “What if?” premise, it would be interesting to read the reaction of someone who went into this film blind, or is unfamiliar with the character and lore this story is referencing (if such a person even exists). If you wish to volunteer, fantastic! Though unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to review Brightburn without digging into its inspirational source material. It’s not much of a spoiler (considering it’s heavily hinted throughout all of its trailers), though by going in blind you may gain one extra reveal that the rest of us were cheated.
Okay, has that one awkward person gone now?
Cool. Let’s talk about the premise that everyone has always wondered about!
Yes, Brightburn is the answer to the question as to what would happen if Superman went bad. Or rather, what if we got Zod instead of Kal-El? This is the situation Batman was afraid of in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and thankfully Brightburn does a much better job at exploring these themes.
Naturally, Brandon Breyer is ever-so-slightly different from Clark Kent in order to dodge copyright infringement. Also, if you listen closely during a classroom scene, the movie offers another interpretation of the unfolding events should one wish to ignore all the similarities to the DC franchise.
For the most part, the film does lean heavily on the audience’s familiarity with Superman. I don’t know for sure (and if you left this review earlier but have now come back, please give a report!) but if you were unaware of Superman’s lore, then Brightburn may have a few pacing issues. Brandon’s backstory isn’t fleshed out thoroughly and he develops his powers quickly. Though this isn’t an issue for those members of the audience who have walked in, fully aware of the premise. This isn’t necessarily a flaw of the film, as the movie would be genuinely difficult to market without revealing its “anti-Superman” nature.
One aspect that many people feared going into this film was that despite the story presenting an intriguing premise, the answer to the great “What if?” scenario is actually fairly boring: an evil overpowered being like Superman would just kill everyone. In incapable hands, this movie could easily become a generic horror film filled a plethora of cannon fodder.
Thankfully the Gunn family have a solid handle on the narrative. That old saying about how it’s the journey that matters is true here. This movie is satisfying because it travels in the direction you expect it to head. Though for those who are looking for something a little more clever and left of field, then Brightburn will prove disappointing.
However, while the narrative is predictable, that doesn’t mean that the story lacks depth. The strength of this film rides on the back of Brandon’s parents, played magnificently by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman. While they are stuck in an absurd situation, their fears are utterly relatable.
Brightburn mixes in a parent’s concerns about their child changing through puberty. Never has a talk about the “birds and the bees” been so terrifying! While Brightburn will always be compared to Superman, in regards to its thematic content, it’s actually really similar to We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Parenthood comes with a fear of making mistakes and unintentionally raising a monster, along with a loss of control. The Breyer family also has the added foreignness that comes with adoption, and while they have an extreme case, there’s an extra fear of uncertainty that’s explored. Brightburn shows how horrifically isolating parenthood can be, as well as the crippling need to take responsibility. What’s scary is that this plot is not as fantastical as others in the superhero genre, where the characters’ problems are rather unrelatable. There are parents out there who have children with psychopathic tendencies (which scarily has a prevalence rate similar to autism), and Brightburn taps into their troubles and mindset (albeit the film displays an extreme case with terrible consequences).
Ultimately Brightburn is satisfying because it portrays the more likely scenario of the Superman narrative. Not only is there more richness present than your typical slasher film, but the movie’s existence also develops an appreciation of Clark Kent’s parents. Seriously, what they did was kinda crazy! By exploring the darkness–the opposite outcome–you also appreciate the original and its themes of hope, kindness, and the importance of a moral upbringing.
The fear of the unknown is frequently touted as the key to a good horror film, though Brightburn dares to flip this concept upside-down, much like everything else it explores. You know the lore it’s based off, and the filmmakers are aware of this (in fact, they bank on it). When the horror arrives, it’s not a matter of not knowing what will happen. It’s terrifying because we are fully aware of just how hopeless the situation is.
As a result, the deaths that are present within this film are tinged with sadness. The characters are relatable, annoying, and some are more developed than others but still relatable. They aren’t nasty people– they’re acting fairly reasonable given their current circumstances. There’s nothing for us to scream at the screen, as we know there is nothing that they can do, and that we wouldn’t fare much better. There is an ever-present existential dread throughout the movie’s runtime because the audience knows how everything will go down. Yes, this film uses its predictability to its advantage.
In terms of flaws, Brandon’s descent does happen quickly. It would have been nice to gain more of an insight as to his reasoning, and to see him mentally battle a few moral dilemmas. Instead we see his conscience switch off like a lightswitch. That creative choice can be justified, though it makes for a less interesting film, feeling rushed.
There is also an excessive amount of gore, to the point of becoming voyeuristic. Yet at the same time, this film would have suffered under a PG-13 rating. It needed to go there, the full distance, no holding back. Brightburn successfully blends both the horror and superhero genre, which is refreshing. The gore isn’t entirely mindless–there’s one injury that plays into the film’s red motif, adding some extra symbolism throughout its runtime. Though for the most part, the camera does linger too long, contributing nothing meaningful, making the cheap CGI only more apparent.
Considering this movie’s tight budget ($6 million) it holds up surprisingly well. It’s encouraging to see independent films like this being made, providing audiences with content that they wish to see, and not leaving everything in the hands of major studios. After all, film is a medium that should be accessible to all, not just the elite. Brightburn may not be great in terms of rewatchability, though there’s enough material to potentially form an indie trilogy of films such as M. Night’s Unbreakable/Split/Glass saga. If not, and this is all we get, then it’s still a solid film that will entertain geeky horror fans. Worth a look.
The Bottom Line