Longtime comic book readers know that depictions of an evil, all-powerful superhero aren’t exactly foreign to the genre. Here are just a few: there’s the Sentry, a Marvel-created Superman analogue with god-like powers and an evil split personality; Ultraman, the alternate-universe version of the Man of Steel who lives on a world entirely sustained by evil; the psychopath at the heart of Rick Veitch’s Maximmortal, the white-haired evil-doer who made the world of Mark Waid’s Irredeemable so compelling. That’s not to mention all of the times that Kal-El himself has been portrayed as a sociopathic kid, or a Nazi, or an agent of Apokolips. But, generally, on-screen, our point-of-entry in our exploration of the dark side of superheroics has often come in the form of a Batman-like vigilante — think Kick-Ass, Defendor, or James Gunn’s own Super, which is one of our favorite movies, superhero or otherwise, of the decade — generally due to the budget required to realize a Superman-like character.
But David Yarovesky’s BrightBurn, produced by Gunn and penned by the Guardians of the Galaxy helmer’s brother Mark and his cousin Brian, aims to change that, offering a dark retelling of the Superman origin story. It’s a genuinely creepy exploration of what would happen if unlimited power were placed in the hands of a fickle, puberty-ravaged teen.
That teen is named Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn), a very smart and shy kid who spends his free time obsessing over facts about insects and doodling in his notebooks. He’s, for the most part, a normal kid, helping his loving mother (Elizabeth Banks) and a kind father (David Denman) with the chores around their farm on a day-in and day-out basis. But he’s starting to change: he’s taking an interest in girls, which ensures that his dad has to give him the “talk” while they’re out on a hunting trip; he’s starting to kick against the pricks of his age, like when his dopey uncle (Matt Jones) gifts him a gun for his birthday and he flips out once his father takes it away from him; and the spaceship that he arrived in as a child starts glowing and telepathically communicating with him, blaring messages of conquest and triumph in an alien language to the young boy. Wait, that doesn’t happen to everybody?
Anyways, Yarovesky uses these earlier moments to establish the cracks in the facade of BrightBurn‘s seemingly loving family — Den hints at a history of abuse at the hands of his own parents and is a bit too comfortable getting physical with his own son, Banks starts making allowances for her son’s wildly oscillating behavior — and sets up the seeds for conflict to come. All three are well-cast, especially Denman, who is often thrust into these types of roles (with good reason), and Dunn, who is great and balancing his own fear and his own alienation with the changes he’s going through.
Anyways, Brandon starts to realize that he’s not like the other children. When frustrated by a lawnmower that won’t start, he surprises himself by throwing it a few hundred feet away into a field, and then, on a whim, sticks his hand into the blade to see if it’ll hurt him. It doesn’t, of course, and he begins developing even more bizarre superpowers as the film goes along. And, as such, he lashes out against the people in his life who are bringing him down, misinterpreting his dad’s “talk” as an excuse to stalk a girl that he’s obsessed with, and then breaking her hand when she calls him a pervert in front of his gym class. Soon, that becomes a crusade — in which the young man dons a mask and cape constructed from the blanket he was swaddled in as a child — to stop all of the people aware of his superpowers from telling his parents of his bad behavior — from the girl’s mother (who you’ve already seen pulling glass out of her eye in the preview for the film, which somehow manages to be even grosser here), to his uncle, and more and more until he’s on a killing streak that both can’t be stopped by mere bullets and ignored by his parents.
These sequences, in which BrightBurn (named for the county that the film is set in, much like Smallville) becomes a super-powered take on the slasher genre, are when the film’s at its finest, as Yarovesky and the Gunns become properly unhinged, finding creative (and exceptionally gross and gory) new ways to demonstrate the effects Brandon’s powers have on the human body.
So, for the most part, BrightBurn offers a gleefully bleak take on a genre oftentimes willing to toe the line up to this point but never willing to commit itself all the way to its central thesis. Honestly, it’s a better origin story for the Zack Snyder take on Superman than the one presented to us in Man of Steel, as it’s easy to imagine this character snapping the neck of an adversary in the heat of battle (though he’d probably just vaporize the civilians after anyway), and Yarovesky often jokingly parodies Snyder’s Malickian portentousness in his shot selection. If it has one major flaw, it’s that Yarovesky occasionally can’t find his perspective into the story, and he can’t decide whether he wants to tell a We Need to Talk About Kevin-style dissection of modern parenting through Banks and Denman’s view, or whether he wants to tell the story from Dunn’s frame, about a troubled, violent kid who is absolutely failed by the support system that is around him and is pushed towards darkness as a fact. Both are attempted, and neither totally works in conjunction with the other.
But BrightBurn is genuinely unnerving — both intellectually and physically — for the majority of its well-paced 90-minute runtime, and that’s more than I can say for a hell of a lot of horror that’s hit theaters this year.