To a certain extent, comic fans ask what if a villain instead of a hero had been dropped in a field in Kansas, given a loving family, and the powers of a god. Well, Brightburn answers those questions through long-established superhero tropes that are flipped upside down and crashed through a house. Produced by superhero veteran James Gunn, directed by David Yarovesky, and written by Brian and Mark Gunn, Brightburn is a refreshing twist on something that has become central to the American myth, Superman.
When the first trailer dropped, the purposeful mirroring of the Man of Steel trailer put some viewers off of going to see the film. But in truth, it sets up audiences up for a world they know to crash down around them thanks to the Gunns. Brightburn centers on Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn), a 12-year old boy living in Brightburn, Kansas. A bright kid in school, he’s bullied by others but has a friend to ease his mind. Not only is Brandon not alone at school, but his home life is idyllic. Though an adopted child, there is no indication that his parents Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) see him as anything but their son, he isn’t an alien who came to Earth, but a blessing that literally fell from the sky.
When we see villains, when we see evil, we focus on a broken home life. Not a life in the same way that Batman is an orphan, or in that Superman’s planet has been destroyed, instead, we focus on an abusive parent, a poor childhood, a lack of support, and more often than not make trauma a vital part in becoming evil.
But, in Brightburn, nature versus nurtures is in full effect. Regardless of the love from his parents, or the fact his mother will continually turn a blind eye to the evidence of evil, Brand still becomes the villain of this story, the monster. Sometimes, bad is just bad and no amount of love can cure it.
The bulk of Brightburn is focused on the increasingly evil acts of the young boy, as he learns his powers quickly and begins to be called to the ship he crashed in. The film turns from superhero origin story into a slasher. There is no straddling a line between another genre and horror, it is clearly and unashamedly horror. Albeit one influenced by superhero tropes and horror ones alike.
Where the film excels is using the superhero mythos to inform the horror, but ultimately leaning into the traditional slasher, well as traditional as a flying 12-year old with laser eyes can be. The film is very much in three acts, the hero discovers their power, the hero discovers their origin, the hero becomes his true self. It’s formulaic but it works. The discovering of the power risks mutilation, but not to save someone, just to see. The origin talk runs off the rails away from where Tori thought it would go, resulting in a violent outburst and not a beautiful coming together. And finally, Brandon’s true self isn’t a savior, but a destroyer set to take the world.
While the story progresses, each section is marked by explicit and uncomfortable violence, which for a slasher is a good thing. The creative team brings to life a bone popping hand crush, an eye scene that left me covering my entire face with my jacket, and a hit that leaves the victim as more than pink mist. The way the kills were grafted shows a true eye for visual horror. While much of it is a gorefest, close-ups of moments sit with you, make your skin crawl, and show a keen eye for knowing how much blood is too much and how much is the right amount to accentuate a splintered jaw.
With that being said, the visuals in Brightburn are a mix of horror-know-how and comic knowledge with some iconic comic moments replicated with disastrous effect. There is also tension built through the smaller moments. Particularly, Brandon, eating breakfast decides to mangle his fork. The crunch and scrape of the metal ring in your ears and if you’re like me, you curl up inside, wanting it to stop, and truly terrified of this terrible child.
Unfortunately, a lot of the well-executed visuals are undercut by an over-reliance on jump scares, as many mid to large studio horror does. While some were creative, others were repetitive by the third act and more still were prominently released in the trailer. Some of the largest moments lacked shock since I was expecting them coming in. This is more a fault on the marketing of the film rather than the film itself but had the jumps been reduced and the small moments more prominent in number, the film would resonate with veteran horror fans and not just theater audiences.
Truly, the best part of the film is the cast, namely Banks and Dunn, for two opposite reasons. For Banks, she gives a moving performance of a mother trying to love her son and deliver him from evil. Her voice shakes and her world crashes down around her. And Banks sells it even though the dialogue is less than stellar.
For Dunn, it’s his silence. It’s his motions, his eyes, and his ability to convey the detached look. In many of the scenes, he looks distant, away from the room, until he snaps into place. It’s jarring to see him move from vacant to present although there are some issues with his timing.
That being said, the rest of the cast is forgetful and the film is pushed forward by beautifully grotesque prop work and gore. In addition to some bland extended cast performances, the pacing is unsure of itself as we transition between acts and the addition of a dream sequences the brings a Pet Sematary moment that is out of place within the rest of the narrative. However, the execution of an unexpected ending for either genre leaves a good imprint of the film after the credits roll.
Overall, Brightburn was clearly made by creatives with deep understandings of both genres. The three Gunns and Yarovesky offer up a new tale that dives head first into horror while still maintaining a story rooted in traditional superheroes. Sadly, for purists of either genre, this may be a tough sell. With the influx of slow-burn horror and the shift away from jump scares, that will feel too stuck in horror’s past, and with the proliferation of heroes in media and the longevity of Superman, many comic fans may believe they’ve seen it before.
But as someone who loves both, Brightburn is a film that does right by them. It doesn’t try to be more than it is, a superhero slasher, and if you can appreciate that, you’ll walk away satisfied.
Brightburn is in theaters everywhere Memorial Day weekend, May 24th.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.