2019, R, 90 min. Directed by David Yarovesky. Starring Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 31, 2019
"What if Superman was a serial killer?" sounds like an automatic elevator pitch. Brightburn is exactly what that sets up: the childless Breyers, Tori (Banks) and Kyle (Denman) find a baby that fell from the sky, who grows into a 12-year-old (Dunn) with bigger problems than raging hormones, and the power to do anything he wants. Unfortunately for the small Kansas town of Brightburn, that anything mostly involves bloody murder.
It's not that the Breyers are bad parents (even though there is a passing riff on the idea that you shouldn't tell your kids they're special, because they may just believe you). Instead, Brightburn sets up its mechanism for an evil alien in an early scene, when Brandon is asked in class to differentiate between a wasp and a bee. Of course, wasps get the bad press again, but the idea that there was always going to come a day when this nasty little interloper was going to brandish his stinger is nastily charming.
Has the idea of a twisted superhero been done with more depth and nuance? In comics, yes. DC Comics has done it enough times with Superman, most notably with The Dark Knight Returns, and played with alternate origin stories in its Elseworlds series. There have also been plenty of satirical reinventions of the Big Blue Boy Scout, like Marvel's smug bully Hyperion. Of course James Gunn – brother to Brightburn writers by Brian and Mark – did his own, more pointedly scathing version of superherodom in Super, which was more interested in making the audience cringe at the violence than shriek and giggle. But what his brothers have written is basically a Friday night popcorn movie, a slasher where we know whodunit from moment one. Its pleasures are simple and visceral and gory, like a mid-Nineties throwback, and it at least knows what to do with its evil kid (unlike the more supernaturally tinged The Prodigy, which grievously fumbled its possession-by-serial-killer mechanic). Sallow-faced, empty-eyed Brandon doesn't need a mask to hide his malice, as he sets off on his gory campaign to rule the world.
And there is a fair amount of gore, mostly deployed for gruesome laughs. As directed by David Yarovesky (The Hive), the script shows that, while talent may not be genetic, there are at least some shared familial tastes with the Gunn boys' more famous sibling – most especially his 2006 alien invasion gorefest Slither (also starring Banks, who is perennially game for gross-out genre antics). Most of these gags are simply well-executed inversions of adventures of the young urSuperman (let's just say that Brandon isn't the kind to go rescuing airplanes, and there's a subtle nod to X-ray vision that makes for one of the grisliest sight gags), and they push the budget to and often far past its limits. A few practical effects in particular are rubbery failures, but then Brightburn was never intended to be super-naturalistic. It may be an elevator pitch stretched to 90 minutes, and never aspires to more than that, but it's a fine and distinct funhouse ride designed to elicit cackles, then be forgotten about by the next ride.