It’s safe to say Superman, the Man of Steel, the last surviving son of Krypton, is on something of a cinematic hiatus. Put through the ringer in more ways than one since 2013’s reboot (some would argue since Superman III, but that’s a debate for another day), whether being relegated to a supporting character in his own sequel or becoming something of a laughing stock thanks to Moustache Gate in 2017’s Justice League, it has been a rough road for Supes on the big screen so perhaps it is time to shake things up again just like M.Night Shyamalan’s superb Unbreakable did almost two decades ago. Step forward James Gunn and his family to ask: what if Kal-El used his powers for bad instead of good?
Well Brightburn, produced by Gunn and directed by David Yarovesky (The Hive), aims to answer that very question and invert the origins of our most famous of superheroes. The basis for the story is the same: the Kents are replaced with Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), a Kansas couple who are desperate for a child but despite their best efforts seem destined not to be parents, until a spaceship crash lands in on their farm and out walks a baby boy. Raising him as their own, they name him Brandon and hide said now dormant ship in their barn cellar until it awakens twelves years later and begins communicating with Brandon, who realises his superhuman gifts and, as puberty hits and bullying is getting more aggressive, his dark side begins to take hold.
As a concept, Brightburn is the shot of originality that the superhero genre has needed in the past few years given the focus shifts onto ever-expanding universes, sequels, reboots and ret-cons. Fatigue in the genre – and, indeed, in all things franchise – is slowly creeping in and some out of the box thinking is required, at least in some ways and Yarovesky’s film sets out to do just that, subverting our expectations of the mythology with different degrees of success.
As a superhero inversion experiment, it works well, heightening the outcast scenario and modern epidemics of bullying whilst still maintaining enough showcase pieces to keep the super elements in tact. As a horror film, however, it rarely gets going, too overly reliant on jump scares that only moderately register – and even the best of those have been spoilt through the trailers, leaving us without anything to really get us close to the edge of our seats. The performances are thankfully strong enough to keep everything ticking over, with Banks and young Jackson A. Dunn (who some of you comic-book nerds may recognise from a brief cameo in another superhero film this year) both excellent throughout.
Given the conceit of Brightburn, there was certainly some expectations that it would transcend the genre boundaries somewhat after its initial trailers but it doesn’t quite soar to the dizzying heights of its lead character. That’s not to say there isn’t merit in it – a couple of sequences in the second act make the film worth seeking out on their own – but on the whole feels like something of a missed opportunity.
Scott J.Davis | ★★ 1/2
Horror, Thriller, Sci-Fi | USA, 2019 | 15 | 19th June 2019 (UK) | Sony Pictures Releasing | Dir.David Yarovesky | Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Gregory Alan Williams