DC and Marvel have been publishing special, out-of-continuity comic books for decades, usually (but not always) under their respective “Elseworlds” and “What If?” banners. It’s the kind of stuff that fanboys would argue about before the internet, like ‘What if Batman but in Victorian era England and he’s fighting Jack the Ripper?’ or ‘What if Gwen Stacy never died?’ or ‘What if the Punisher killed everyone in the Marvel Universe?.’ It’s all in good fun, these inconsequential hypotheticals, and that is essentially what David Yarovesky’s Brightburn is, too — a goofy ‘What if…’ scenario, presumably concocted over some beers late at night. The hook is undeniably catchy: ‘What if Superman…but evil?!” True to Superman’s well known origins, Brightburn begins with Tori & Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), unable to conceive a child of their own, finding a rocket ship/escape pod thingy in the woods containing a tiny, human-like baby. Fast forward 10 years or so, and they are the happy parents to Brandon (Jackson Dunn), who seems like a pretty well-adjusted kid. But since this is the ‘evil’ version of Superman, instead of learning to control his powers and use them for the betterment of mankind and his adopted home world, Brandon discovers that he has the ability to fuck with just about anybody he wants, and silence anyone who might tell his parents about it.
Yarovesky and cinematographer Michael Dallatorre shoot everything with clarity and simple, clean compositions. This is a good-looking film, but while it satisfies as low budget genre fare, one is left with the feeling that it could have been more.
Yarovesky and writers Brian and Mark Gunn (brother and cousin, respectively, to James Gunn, who produced the film) have some fun with this premise, for sure. True to their roots in low budget horror, the Gunns have devised a superpowered slasher film, with a couple of absolutely brutal, squirm-inducing set pieces. There’s a bit with a shard of glass and an eyeball that that is almost unwatchable in the best, most horrific way possible. Yarovesky and cinematographer Michael Dallatorre shoot everything with clarity and simple, clean compositions. This is a good-looking film, but while it satisfies as low budget genre fare, one is left with the feeling that it could have been more. For one, Brandon is an absolute cipher of a character, seemingly designed to look as blank as possible even while murdering people. This could certainly be part of the point, but it robs him of any personality and agency. It’s never suggested that Brandon has turned bad because of his upbringing (his parents talk openly to him about being adopted), but because something in his old space pod has ‘activated’ him. In that sense, any kind of interest in the nature vs nurture argument goes right out the window. The filmmakers do suggest that puberty mixed with superpowers can lead to some creepy stalking behavior, but this thread is also underdeveloped. For their part, Banks and Denman give solid performances, providing some gravitas for the proceedings, with Banks in particular elevating every scene that she’s in. She’s so good that one wishes the film could rise to her level. The movie has an absolute gut-punch of an ending, but much like the old comic books that this kind of resembles, Brightburn is ultimately an inessential one-off.