Brightburn has an extremely strong, if simple, elevator pitch: What if Superman was evil? Even the "dark and gritty" superhero movies these days have some hopeful notes; what if Brightburn played out more like a slasher movie? What if there's no hero to rise up and defeat the omnipotent villain in the end?
Unfortunately, Brightburn never takes the concept any deeper than that macabre skeleton of an idea. It succeeds in corrupting the fabric of superhero narratives, but it replaces it with an empty void of over-the-top gore and desperate cynicism. It may succeed at scaring you with its dark vision of an all-powerful pre-pubescent monster, but without anything to actually say, Brightburn is just 91 minutes of miserable murder porn.
Elizabeth Banks and David Denman play Tori and Kyle Breyer, a couple living in the small town of Brightburn, Kansas. Their wish for a child is granted when a mysterious craft lands in the woods nearby their rustic farmhouse home, but their lives take a dark turn around the time their son Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) hits puberty. The boy begins to feel the call of destiny and discovers his powers--flight, speed, invulnerability, incredible strength, laser eyes, you name it. Multiply that discovery by the raging hormones that come with the territory, and you have a recipe for one angsty supervillain.
But Brightburn doesn't stop there. Brandon isn't simply frustrated by girls, schoolwork, and the other troubles that beset many boys of that age--he transforms overnight from a bright, caring kid into an absolute psychopath with little explanation.
The resulting movie is a little bit like the 2011 drama We Need To Talk About Kevin, but with one crucial difference. That movie follows a mother's everyday life in the wake of her son's killing spree, posing poignant questions with no easy answers. It's a tough watch, but worth it. Brightburn, on the other hand, is like if the movie followed the murderous Kevin from beginning to end, never stopping to challenge viewers or consider the ramifications or larger forces at play. Brightburn might as well follow a school shooter from beginning to end--it's hard to watch, but it's made irredeemable by the way it uncritically revels in its evil protagonist's actions.
The gore in Brightburn is out of control. Some viewers will no doubt find sadistic enjoyment in seeing characters painstakingly tug shards of glass from their eyeballs amid spurts of viscous blood or try to reattach their jaw to the rest of their face, tongue lolling sloppily from a gaping throat. The movie's intent is clearly to shock, and at that, it succeeds. Brightburn is undeniably terrifying, although besides the general existential dread of a person this powerful being so evil, it relies too heavily on jump scares and loud noises to get reactions.
Banks is sympathetic as a mother who wants to stand by her child as he grows more and more monstrous, but the movie leaves her straddling a wishy-washy middle ground without a strong characterization one way or the other. Denman does a good job with what he's given and becomes the most relatable character somewhere around the middle, when he begins to see Brandon for what he's become. Besides that, there are a handful of side characters, but they exist only to be victims of Brandon's cruel violence.
There's a kernel of an idea for an interesting film in here about the challenges some boys face around a certain age, when hormones run wild and their instincts are all generally terrible. When Brandon's dad tells him that it's OK to give in to his urges sometimes--i.e. to masturbate--and Brandon takes that as permission to begin overtly menacing his crush in her bedroom at night, Brightburn almost gets there. But that kernel ultimately gets lost in the unapologetic, masochistic joy the movie takes in Brandon's carnage. In failing to give Brandon--who's positioned as the film's protagonist--any mitigating virtues or the possibility of redemption, Brightburn also fails to give viewers any reason to watch it.
Brightburn wants to be a rebuttal to the drippy sentimentality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it fails to understand one key reason why the superhero genre is beloved by millions. The heroic capacity to do good on a large scale is inherently fantastical; many people go through life feeling helpless to affect positive change in the world, despite good intentions. In contrast, doing evil on a large scale is all too easy. There's nothing enjoyable about watching someone with great power do what actual mass murderers have done countless times in real life: unapologetically kill a lot of people. It's just sadistic--a power fantasy for psychopaths.
What would happen if Superman was evil? I can see how the question seemed like a good jumping off point, but now I wish I didn't know.