Directed By: David Yarovesky
Written By: Mark Gunn, Brian Gunn
Brightburn is best known as “The evil Superman movie.” Which is a description that isn’t totally inaccurate but doesn’t sum up the film properly either. There is no doubt that it is a retelling of the Superman origin story, one that asks the question: What if Superman came to destroy us instead of save us?
I’ve always loved Superman so the concept alone would have been enough to get me to the theater. I was completely sold when I heard that James Gunn was involved. He serves as a producer while David Yarovesky directs a script written by Gunn’s brother Brain and cousin Mark. I was disappointed to find out that James Gunn wasn’t the director but Yarovesky did a fantastic job with Brightburn. There are a number of memorable shots in the film and the way that the action sequences are laid out helps keep the audience just as off balance as the characters, never quite sure where their attacker is going to come from next.
The cast is great. There is a fine line that each of the main characters has to walk and the actors do so perfectly. Tori and Kyle Breyer are the parents of young Brandon. As the story progresses both of them are torn between loving their son and fearing him. They are played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman. There is a scene in the woods between Denman and Jackson Dunn (who plays Brandon) that is tense, heartbreaking and frightening all at the same time. Denman is probably best known for playing Roy on The Office but I have seen him pop up here and there in other things and always enjoyed his work. I really hope that his role in Brightburn shines a light on how great he can be and leads to bigger and better things for him. Elizabeth Banks plays his wife Tori, a woman who is haunted throughout this film because she seems to know the truth about her son but she can’t bring herself to accept it. I don’t know why more people aren’t talking about Banks as one of the most talented actresses working today. She never gives anything but a terrific performance and her role here shows off her tremendous range. I have found that more and more I am writing about how impressed I am with a child actor and how great they were in a particular project. It may be time to retire that narrative and admit that we have a lot of talented child actors at the moment and instead of being surprised when they don’t ruin a film for me, I should go in expecting them to be good. It’s been a great year so far for Jackson Dunn. His other movie in 2019 was a little thing called Avengers: Endgame. He’s tackling an entirely different sort of superhero in this one though. Just like his parents, young Brandon is torn throughout the story. He doesn’t like what he is becoming (at least at first) but he’s also powerless to stop it. Dunn does a masterful job at being sweet and threatening all in one look and it adds an enormous amount to the film.
The screenplay from Mark and Brian Gunn is smartly written. There is not an ounce of fat on this story. We get the story of the Breyers wanting to have a baby and not being able to and then the spacecraft crashing immediately and then we jump ahead ten years to Brandon’s 12th birthday. Soon after that we are off to the races and things don’t slowdown for the rest of the 90 minute runtime. Often writers explain way too much or spend too much time on the setup of the story. That is not an issue here and it is a welcome change of pace from the two to two and a half hour movies that have become common place.
The early reception to Brightburn has been all over the place and I suspect that it is a debate that will go on for quite awhile. One particular thing that has stood out in the discussion is Brightburn being called the first horror movie for incels. I can see where this point of view is coming from but I think it’s quite a stretch to get there. Yes, Brandon does exhibit some of the behaviors of an incel but he also exhibits the behavior of a 12 year old boy who is hitting puberty and dealing with life. Carrie is a horror movie that is praised by most people and at the end, even though the audience has watched her murder a ton of innocent people just to get back at the few who bullied and embarrassed her, they still feel empathy for Carrie White and even a bit of understanding for what she did. Brightburn isn’t all that different from Carrie. We see Carrie bullied at school and tormented by her mother at a fragile time in a young woman’s life. After the incident at the dance, she loses control and unleashes her power. In Brightburn, Brandon is bullied at school because he is smart and weird and he finds out who he really is and feels like his parents have been lying to him, all at a fragile point in his life. Add to this that there is something calling to him from his spaceship or possibly his home planet and it’s easy to see how he starts to break. When he first starts acting strangely he doesn’t even appear to be aware of what is happening. He is hearing voices emanating from the ship and he enters a trance like state. Certainly he eventually gives into what he is becoming and doesn’t seem to feel any remorse for the things that he does but I don’t see how his behavior makes him anymore of an incel than Carrie White’s makes her one. They are both young people dealing with lives and bodies and emotions that are rapidly changing and neither one handles it particularly well.
To write Brightburn off as “The evil Superman movie” is to sell the movie short and to close yourself off to any of the more important things that it has to say. There is a lot in this movie about how hard it is to be a child, how hard it is to be a parent, what it means to be a family and how adults and children relate to one another. I’m certain that there will be people who claim that I’m reading too much into this film, and it’s possible that I am, but I guarantee that there is a lot more below the surface of this one.