By Elias Savada.
Here’s a twist on one of those what if comic book, sci-fi scenarios. What if an alien baby (conveniently human in form) crashes to Earth and becomes an evil superhero. A real vindictive one. His small, single occupancy spacecraft arrives not in Superman’s adopted hometown of Smallville, Kansas (the eponymous name of the popular WB network series), but in the Sunflower state’s similar look-and-feel farm community of Brightburn (which has begat a woefully meh film from Screen Gems, an offshoot of Sony Pictures).
Setting itself up as a franchise under the tutelage of producer James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) – with his brother, Brian, and their cousin Mark penning the screenplay and serving as executive producers – this R-rated film (for horror violence/bloody images, and language) features the 16-year-old Jackson A. Dunn playing the 12-year-old adoptee Brandon Breyer, a.k.a. an evil super pre-teen. He starts off being just nerdy enough to be picked on in school and ends up being nasty to anyone in spitting distance.
I’m not sure this is a role that will beckon Dunn to stardom. He appeared for a few seconds (what, you blinked?) in Avengers: Endgame as the young version of Scott Lang. According to publicity material, he’s had some small recurring roles (i.e., a few appearances) on Showtime’s Shameless (3 episodes, 2015) and Nickelodeon’s Legendary Dudas (5 of 6 shows in this short-lived series). I guess he scowls well enough in Brightburn (under a ridiculous looking, blood-read, hand-knit cowl) and was glad to build up his resumé in this sub-par Greek tragedy.
Stretching the Superboy lore comparison, the young, infertile couple who “adopt” the child are thankful for their “miracle,” even if the film doesn’t dawdle on his arrival (let the ground shake) or early years (when he’s just a lonely yet smart kid without any obvious supernatural abilities). But, dang it, when he enters puberty, the boy becomes troublesome and powerful and just about indestructible. It seems he’s getting evil signals from his inter-planetary Uber X, so maybe he’s not fully to blame. But that throbbing red glow from his arrival craft has a seismic effect on the adolescent. His parents Tori and Kyle (Elizabeth Banks, star of James Gunn’s 2006 horror comedy Slither, and David Denman) had locked the ship’s remnants in the cellar of their barn. Alas, aliens don’t like locks.
Brandon is now part of one twisted superhero horror film directed by David Yarovesky, who cut his teeth with the horror thriller The Hive (2014), about a man with no memory who must recall his past before succumbing to a deadly parasite. There’s a casual jest about that earlier feature’s title in an early classroom scene, but there’s not much lightheartedness in the film, especially after Brandon discovers powers he can use to quash and squash anyone from revealing his true nature.
At first, the film paces the horror with snippets of curiosity, even if the score announces every calamity or scare with a thunderous soundtrack bang. A strong handshake that shatters a fellow student’s hand. A lawnmower tossed across a field, its twirling blades too mesmerizing to ignore. Brandon, getting used to being a super malevolent torture machine, gets more daring with each wicked adventure. Yarovesky and his writers toy with possible solutions, but the lad is way too smart for any local yokels intent on putting an end to his sinister intentions. “Take the World,” he intones to himself, and Brightburn seems to be the first step in that assignment.
The film does offer an escalating exuberance as it races toward its inevitable, open-ended conclusion. In the end, there’s an empty feeling that the filmmakers were just treading water, opting for a sequel money grab. I can’t recall whether the original DC Comics superhero was able to create an electromagnetic pulse, but the impulsive pre-teen seems to relish testing that ability. It wouldn’t surprise me if any sequels are made, as the script will add some more outlandish capabilities to his resumé. But then, I’d rather hope that an EMP might smite the writers’ computers before they hack out Brightburn 2.
On the horror side, the means to each cruel death become overwhelming silly as the filmmakers orchestrate the demise of the simple folk of this small town USA, hoping the film’s audience will go along with this straight out blood-and-gore joke. It’s not that the screenplay takes its character tropes from Mayberry RFD (well, maybe it does), but Brandon’s intelligence is too much for anyone to outsmart.
While the evil Brandon doesn’t get a moniker for his super personality, the film likes to point out his signature (two angular “B”s back-to-back) at the scenes of his destruction. Breaking Bad?
Reporting from Brightburn, Hell hath no fury like a child scorned.
Enough! Stop reading! Get moving!
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).