Brightburn Review: The Birth of Superhero Horror
Superman is perhaps the best-known superhero character, which is why everyone knows his origin. The Man of Steel is often portrayed as a benevolent force or sometimes even a Christ-like figure. He feels obligated to relieve humanity’s burdens, even to his own detriment. But what if Superman was evil? More importantly, what if he was selfish? These are the questions that Brightburn grapples with. But the film plays more like a horror story than a traditional superhero tale.
The premise of Brightburn subverts the expectations of Superman’s story by twisting the lore in extremely dark and dreary ways. Because of these connections, Brightburn treads some shaky legal ground throughout its briskly told tale. Regardless, it presents a fascinating concept that is far more interesting than even the final film gives itself credit for.
Banking on Banks
While James Gunn’s name has been plastered all over the marketing for this film, he’s only a producer. David Yarovesky, Gunn’s longtime pupil and collaborator, directed Brightburn. Although hardly anyone saw Yarovesky’s feature debut, The Hive, his sophomore effort is a memorable introduction. The film presents a sense of unrelenting dread that consistently builds up tension. Perhaps the most impressive element of Yarovesky’s direction is his economy in storytelling. Yarovesky’s pacing is absolutely unforgiving. Unfortunately, this also means that the film favors plot over exploring the dramatic depth in any given scene. Fortunately, Yarovesky’s excellent casting choices mitigated this issue.
Elizabeth Banks’ turn in Brightburn is easily the highlight of the movie. In fact, a good deal of the film hinges on her impressive leading performance. Banks gives the film an interesting, flawed, and nuanced character that manages to anchor the story in reality. Similarly, newcomer Jackson A. Dunn is absolutely terrifying as Brandon, the devilishly smart and selfish title character. As a result, Dunn’s work is far complex than his age might suggest. Brightburn has a very solid cast up and down the call sheet. However, the writing doesn’t allow the actors to fully explore the characters’ psychology in a way that would fulfill the premise’s ambition.
The writing in Brightburn largely coasts on its premise. Brian Gunn and his cousin Mark Gunn have managed to craft a compelling story that successfully re-contextualizes the Superman mythos in a deviously clever way. Most importantly, their script doesn’t treat the audience like idiots. The screenplay acknowledges what the audience already knows, and because of that, the characters don’t feel like complete fools. In a horror film with an immensely familiar story, this is extremely refreshing.
Nevertheless, the character motivations are largely unclear in this movie. This ends up muddling some of its impact, especially when things go haywire in the third act. Brightburn wrestles with concepts of innocence, the corruption of youth, and the unchecked use of godlike power. But the plot largely bypasses these ideas in favor of a surface-level story. There are some satisfying moments, but the screenplay is heavy on plot and light on character.
Brightburn makes strategic, but effective, use of gore and violence. The physical effects are sparingly implemented, which makes the extreme level of violence horrifying at points. The climactic sequence alone is both terrifying and absolutely breathtaking. Michael Dallatorre’s cinematography is also impressive. Along with the near-minimal use of color and an editing technique to compliment it, Brightburn’s cinematography employs calculated lighting, static framing, and wide-angle zoom lenses to sell the unnerving nature of the story. While the physical gags and cinematography are effective, the jump scares ultimately fall flat.
This is the type of film that could have easily become lackluster by its conclusion. Fortunately, the reverse is true. The ending is more thought-provoking than the entire film before it. It’s hard to call Brightburn anything other than a horror movie, simply because it gets under the skin in a way that most superhero stories can’t match. Similar territory was explored in Josh Trank’s Chronicle. Regardless, Brightburn may very well be the successful beginning of a new subgenre – superhero horror.