My notes on Brightburn.
In the 1990s, DC Comics updated their old ‘Imaginary Stories’ concept – What if Superman married Lois? – for a darker, grittier, ostentatiously myth-mangling comic book culture and published a whole series of ‘Elseworlds’ one-offs that presented alternate versions of their flagship characters. What if Bruce Wayne lived in an oppressive theocracy? What if Batman tracked Jack the Ripper? In many of these, the rocket from Krypton landed somewhere other than on the Kent farm and Superman grew up a Soviet citizen or Amish or in the jungle? I did something similar in my story Ubermensch, which became a short film. Part of what sometimes seems like an ongoing project to eradicate every trace of charm or hope from their comics has prompted DC quite often to present Superman as a monster, so the high concept of this horror movie isn’t quite as fresh as it might be. And nothing here matches the mind-stretching take on the premise Larry Cohen managed in God Told Me To – or even the way M. Night Shyamalan has addressed superheroics in his Unbreakable trilogy.
Screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn – a brother and cousin of producer James Gunn, who’s done his own superdeconstructions in The Specials and Super – don’t much change the location of the Superboy coming-of-age-story (the setting is Brightburn, Kansas) but posit that the alien baby adopted by kindly farmers is a bad seed who might be the precursor of an invasion or merely a Michael Myers with the power-set of a demigod. After a few wavering moments as he misunderstands a credibly awkward Dad talk about puberty and a veiled suggestion that heartland values might not be as undebatable as they were in the Kents’ day when a drunk uncle thinks it’s a good idea to give a twelve-year-old a hunting rifle as a birthday present without consulting Dad first, little Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) becomes simply evil and rather inept about it. It has good work from Elizabeth Banks and David Denman as the low-key parents struggling with the realisation that their kid is irredeemable, and gets a few good shocks as Brandon cuts loose with familiar gimmicks like super-speed and heat vision, but the problem with the film is that it shot its bolt in the trailer. The flimsiest Elseworlds had more development than we get here and it’s not until the end credits (and a cameo by Gunn family fixture Michael Rooker) that a sense of a bigger story emerges. Damien Omen II is a more interesting film than The Omen, and it might be that a Part Two for this story will deliver more than a formula bad kid slasher movie with a cloaked, masked hovering menace.
In taking the elements of a well-known story – including the formation of a secret identity, the adoption of a BB logo (which the idiot uses to sign his murder scenes), the donning of a cape and mask, the alien spaceship under the barn, the presence of a ridiculous ‘kryptonite’ analogue – and skewing them darker, the film goes for grimness but also wimps out of saying anything … it trashes a beloved icon of truth, justice and the American Way, but tweaks the nature-nurture debate seen in most Elseworlds in favour of representing an alien evil when it would have been far more challenging this year to suggest that the kind of snarling I-want-it-now psychopathy of Brandon Breyer epitomises what now passes for an American Way. Director David Yarovesky puts it all together efficiently, and doesn’t flinch from the sort of goriness often absent from high-concept horror – the nastiest touch has the monster child curiously probing the hideous wound of a dying victim – but this is a quickie which offers a few shocks but not enough surprises.
Yeah, they really didn’t go anywhere with the idea. An unbeatable villain turns out to be just as boring as an unbeatable hero. The one potentially interesting angle – how do the parents handle this, and what is the potential blowback for them – was only briefly explored, and better handled in both It’s Alive / It’s Alive II and We Need to Talk About Kevin.