James Gunn loves superheroes. Even before he took the helm of the wildly popular Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, Gunn had crafted the darkly comedic Super, a low budget satire of comic book media. However, Gunn is also a moviemaker with horror in his DNA, with cult classics like The Belko Experiment and Slither under his belt. So, it really was only a matter of time until an idea like Brightburn would come along. A film that combines the most familiar tropes of both genres. People all over the internet are calling “superhero horror,” but is it worthy of being the first in what could be a really interesting subgenre? And as a side note, is it as good as other films bearing Gunn’s name?
Before I got into my thoughts on the movie, let’s talk the premise. Directed by David Yarovesky from a screenplay by Brian Gunn & Mark Gunn (James Gunn’s Brother and Cousin), Brightburn is a sadistic twist on the Superman origin story. We begin with a young couple in a rural community, whose lives are upended when they find an alien baby crash-landed in their backyard. That baby grows into a seemingly normal boy, until awesome powers manifest themselves in him. But where Clark Kent begins a journey to becoming the world’s greatest hero, the young Brandon Breyer begins on a much darker path. With none of Superman’s morality but all of his godlike abilities, Brandon is about to make the sky above Brightburn, Kansas, a very dangerous place.
As a horror movie, I thought Brightburn was decently effective. The creepy look of Brandon’s costume made for a chilling icon throughout the film, especially with the help of his glowing red laser eyes. Gunn cleverly alters the power of flight to be a scary thing, making the sound of a fluttering cape a sign of danger, not hope. And if gore is your thing when it comes to horror, then holy hell, you are going to like this movie. In particular, there is one scene set in a diner that had the whole audience in my theater covering their eyes and squealing. Most superhero movies are PG-13, implying gore more than ever showing it, so to see it so brazenly flaunted in a movie about super-strength and laser vision was kind of funny. In a sick way.
But if you’re not seeing Brightburn just to be scared or watch evil Superman, you’ll probably find yourself feeling a lot of ups and downs. For everything that Brightburn got right, there seemed to be something else lacking. For example, I thought Jackson A. Dunn did a pretty cool job with the character of Brandon Breyer. As the face (creepy mask?) of the film, he departed from your run-of-the-mill creepy kid, who seem more and more like Stewie Griffin every time I see one. Dunn didn’t just play a teeny antichrist or psychotic little gentleman, he played an alien come to earth, confused and disturbed by humans. However, the film itself doesn’t give him time to really switch from shy kid to otherworldly murderer. We barely get any of Brandon before the powers, so when they show up, the change isn’t that frightening or even surprising.
Then, there’s the plot itself. In a world where planet-threatening adventures seem to be the only thing that sells, Gunn did a great job keeping the story compact and intimate. This is the story of a small community under threat, more Halloween than it is Man of Steel. I loved watching the “it couldn’t happen here” crowd come to terms with what’s right in front of them, usually way too late to stop it. However, the otherwise strong plot is touched with weird exposition of things that aren’t immediately obvious to the audience. For instance, the story of the Breyers finding Brandon gets explained with some awkward dialogue, as does a key element of how Brandon‘s powers work. In fact, characters will sometimes even just explain bits of the plot by saying things out loud, just to themselves. It beats missing out on information, but still, it took me out of the film.
However, there is one part of Brightburn that’s pretty close to perfect, and that’s Elizabeth Banks. As Tori, adoptive mother of Brandon, Banks absolutely owns the screen. She brilliant brings to life this conflicted mother, confronted by the evil nature of the person she loves most in the world. Every line she delivers is natural and earned, even when the dialogue itself isn’t. Her interactions with her son are heartfelt but never forced, making you feel the real terror of this film: that you could be wrong about the people you love. If for nothing else, go see this movie to watch an American treasure dominate a genre film, because that’s what Elizabeth Banks does in Brightburn.
Banks’s performance aside, I’ll probably be unsure of how I felt about this movie for a little while. As both a huge horror fan and superhero fan, I think I wanted a lot out of this movie, so maybe my expectations for it were wrong. But, I can still answer the questions I posed earlier. First of all, is it as good as a James Gunn movie usually is? Well, no. If you want to watch a James Gunn superhero movie or a James Gunn horror movie, it’s probably just better to pick one genre and go with it. His mashup doesn’t reach the heights his other films have in either genre.
But is Brightburn worthy to be the start of a new subgenre of horror? I’m going to answer yes. Though it has its flaws, the concept behind the film is a really worthwhile one. Plus, it was extremely evident throughout that these filmmakers love both genres deeply (we’re probably going to be finding easter eggs in this movie for the next ten years). People are already talking about Brightburn opening up a superhero horror connected universe, and though I’m not sure I’m crazy about that (not every movie has to have an Endgame), I’ll be happy to check out other movies with twisted superhero concepts in the future. And I’ll be thankful that Brightburn was the jumping off point.
Brightburn is now in theatres.
If you’re interested in the concept of superhero horror, check out this editorial from December of 2017. It’s a bit dated, but it fits into the discussions people are having about Brightburn. If you want more horror reviews, check out Mary Beth McAndrews’s look at the delightfully B-Horror Velocipastor or Bryce Gibson’s breakdown of Lin Shae’s psychological Room for Rent. Make sure you’re following us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for even more recommendations. And for all your horror movie reviews, news, and interviews, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.