Man of Steel meets We Need to Talk About Kevin in Brightburn, the James Gunn-produced “What if Superman bad?” movie that’s had folks buzzing since its mysterious announcement last year. Gunn, who cut his teeth in the Troma movie scene – a disruptive production company infamous for splatter and farce-fueled horror movies like Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead and The Toxic Avenger – before becoming a big shot with The Guardians of the Galaxy series, has his gore-tastic fingerprints scattered throughout Brightburn, though the superhero script-flipper’s signature touch is decisively missing, Brightburn lacking the mark of a seasoned filmmaker with keen editorial prowess, a knack for subjective horror, and Gunn’s dark, cruel wit.
Brightburn attempts to do justice to its juicy premise to mixed results. Written by Gunn’s brother and cousin (Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, respectively) Brightburn flips the conceit of infertile Bible Belt farmers discovering a baby humanoid alien amongst interplanetary wreckage, soothing and molding it to their human moral code and the will of their corn-fed nation. The thankful Breyer family name their bundle of smoldering alien rubble Brandon, perhaps forgetting that alliteration is critical in superhero and villains alike.
Brandon Breyers (Jackson A. Dunn) is at the top of his eighth-grade class, which doesn’t earn him a warm place among the popular kids. The gifted kiddo falls prey to bullying, laying the groundwork for Carrie-esque recompense that never actually pays off. As Brandon matures so too do his pubescent inclinations, which include a sudden desire for blood and fire. BB quickly becomes the Daenerys Targaryen of the superhero-verse with about as much energy invested in his “I’m bad now” heel turn, with Brightburn providing little intel into the psychological aspect of its would-be-hero breaking bad.
Examining the feature from David Yarovesky (The Hive) as a straightforward homage to the slasher film of the 80s, one more interested in over-the-top kills than psychological prying, that uses the modern edge of superhero popularity as a new-found leverage point for societal horrors, the film becomes a commendable assembly of well-oiled machinery; its note-worthy performances and gruesome kills become all the more worthy of celebration.
When you factor in the incredibly modest $7 million budget, Brightburn looks all the more a winner, Yarovesky managing exceedingly convincing special effects that outshine the relatively unimaginative plotting. With the Gunn cousins’ script, there’s not nearly enough narrative surprises to elevate the meta-textual deconstruction of post-modern American exceptionalism. It really is as simple as “bad Superman” and before ever stepping foot in the theater, you could probably guess exactly what the A to B to C of the story entails. Which is an undeniable disappointment, one exacerbated by the producer credit of Gunn, who has become an icon of oddball storytelling esoteria. Which is sorely missing here.
Elizabeth Banks and David Denman help to elevate the underwhelmingly written Tori and Kyle Breyer, giving the movie a much-needed punch of lifeblood, while newcomer Jackson Dunn is just right as the eerily expressionless and increasingly sociopathic conquerer. The guttural, alien soundtrack from Tim Williams (which riffs on Superman sonic iconography as much as it can without impinging on copyright) does its best to sell spookiness but Yarovesky never quite figures out how to use framing and subjectivity to his benefit, limiting the effectiveness of Brightburn as a “scary”, endeavor. While it does inject a few mildly effective jump scares, this is not a movie that’ll keep you up at night nor throttle you in your theater seat. Simply put – it’s not scary. But the team more than makes up for that in the explosive gore department – seriously, this thing sizzles in that regard. All complaints aside, were Brandon Breyer to fly once more, I’d be there watching him rain destruction over puny humans. But hopefully they punch up the script the next go around.
CONCLUSION: Somewhat hampered by its limited scope and simple script, ‘Brightburn’ soars serving up grisly kills. A committed cast helps sell otherwise simpleton characters.
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