How the Grisly Thriller 'Brightburn' Sets up Its Own Superhero Universe
This story contains major spoilers for Brightburn, including a discussion of the ending.
In the same way do-gooder vigilantes and mysterious villains obscure their faces, superhero movies often wear disguises. Whether the film is dressed up like a quippy hang-out comedy (Thor: Ragnarok), a stark neo-Western (Logan), a clever found-footage thriller (Chronicle), or a contemplative family drama (Unbreakable), the mask usually comes off in the final act of the story, revealing that it was actually another comic book movie all along. Inevitably, the narrative demands of the origin story or the larger cinematic universe flatten the other genre elements at play. Brightburn, the unapologetically gruesome new horror movie about a boy with extraordinary powers, is no exception.
Working with broken-off shards of Superman lore and the creepy-kid atmospherics of The Omen, Brightburn is always attempting to do two things at once -- and often with mixed results. The fertility books on their bookshelf make it clear from the beginning that Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks) and her husband Kyle (David Denman) both want a child, but their baby-making plans are disrupted when a glowing red object plummets from the sky and crashes right in their farmland in the town of Brightburn, Kansas. The objects ends up being a spacecraft with an infant inside, suggesting it was an escape pod from another world. Like Ma and Pa Kent in various Man of Steel tales, Tori and Kyle decide to raise the child as their own. What's the worst that could happen?
After a quick montage of home-videos, we cut to 10 years later, and Brightburn answers that question in detail. As the boy, named Brandon and played by actor Jackson A. Dunn, enters the early stages of adolescence, he starts to realize that he might not be just another corn-loving Midwesterner. In one of the movie's most effective and unsettling sequences, he struggles to start a lawnmower and ends up tossing it across the yard with his super-strength. Curious about his own powers, Brandon sticks his hand right in the rotating blade of the upturned machine. Instead of getting his hand cut off, he bends the blade and breaks the mower. No more yard work.
Soon, Brandon begins to use his special skills, which include running incredibly fast and shooting red lasers from his eyes, for more than getting out of chores. This rapidly paced middle section lets director David Yarovesky, who helmed the 2014 thriller The Hive, generate suspense and riff on the familiar "superpowers as puberty" metaphor. In addition to getting teased in the classroom for his knowledge of wasps, Brandon is embarrassed in gym class, sleepwalks in the middle of the night to the barn where the vessel he arrived in is hidden, and throws a telekinetic temper tantrum at a diner with his family after his dad won't let him keep a gun bought for him by his "fun" uncle. He's sinister, but not exactly evil yet.
When Brandon fully breaks bad and violently torments his perceived enemies -- it starts with him breaking his crush's hand and gets increasingly more disturbing (and graphic) from there -- the execution wavers. The script was written by Brian and Matt Gunn, the brother and cousin of Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, who serves as a producer here. In addition to helming the mildly rude but ultimately family-friendly Marvel franchise, Gunn cut his teeth at Lloyd Kaufman's anti-establishment gross-out indie film company Troma Entertainment as a young man, wrote Zack Snyder's brutal Dawn of the Dead reboot, and directed the often grotesque horror-comedy Slither, which also featured Banks. (He's tackled superheroes from an askew angle before too with both 2000's The Specials and 2010's Super.) As anyone who has read his controversial old Tweets can attest, he's always had an edgelord sensibility, a quality shared by Brightburn's worst moments.
Looking at it generously, Brightburn wants to provoke visceral reactions and perhaps offer up a half-hearted critique of toxic masculinity. It's more successful with the former, which it achieves through stomach-churning shots of glass piercing an eyeball and a mangled human jaw coming unhinged, than it is with the latter. The details are too thinly sketched out. Unfortunately, Brandon's transformation from a wide-eyed young boy who loves doodling in his notebook to slasher movie antagonist with a passion for slicing up innocent people (and farm animals) feels unmotivated and unwieldy. In some scenes he's a wily smart-ass, while in others he's a silent presence. Dunn, who recently had a small part as young Ant-Man in Avengers: Endgame, does his best, but there's little psychological consistency to the character.
By the end, Brandon is a completely one-dimensional force of destruction. When his father takes him out on a hunting trip and attempts to shoot him in the head, Brandon kills his poor dad by turning his fiery sight on him. Next, he tracks his mother down at their house and searches for her by darting through the halls like a red cannonball, decked out in his makeshift costume. Eventually, she remembers that a piece of the spaceship made Brandon bleed and she snaps off a chunk of it to use as a dagger. (Yep, like Kryptonite.) "I still believe you were a blessing that fell to this Earth," she whispers, giving her son one last hug. Right before she can stab the weapon in his back, Brandon stops her, flies her all the way above the clouds, and then drops her to her death.
To cover up his various crimes, Brandon crashes a plane on his house, killing hundreds of passengers and providing himself an alibi. According to the news reports that flash across the screen at the end, Brandon goes on to commit even more deadly acts of terror. This is all presented with an odd combination of solemnity and impishness. There's an implication that other super-villains are also out there in the world, perfect for setting up a Glass-like sequel or a Cloverfield-esque spin-off if this film proves to be a modest hit. "Bad Guy" by teen pop singer Billie Elish blares on the soundtrack as the credits roll, perhaps as winking reminder that you shouldn't take this movie especially seriously.
If there's a larger problem with the film's finale, it's that Yarovesky and his collaborators haven't done the work to hit the darkly tragic or at least melancholy tone they're aiming for. In a movie like Carrie, another story of adolescent rage that ends with a telekinetic bloodbath, the final massacre sequence has a staggering emotional potency to it that's predicated on the audience strongly identifying and empathizing with Sissy Spacek's shy, sheltered protagonist. You're horrified by her actions, particularly the relentless way she locks her fellow students in the gym, but there's a sense of queasy recognition. From its opening image, Brightburn stages most of its action from the perspective of the parents, showing less interest in Brandon's evolution and growth. It neglects him until it's too late.