The traditional Superman origin story has been done many times over the years… But what happens when you take this legendary opening, and twist it the totally opposite way?
Set in the sleepy town of Brightburn, the film of the same name follows our dark protagonist-to-become-antagonist, Brandon Bryer (Jackson A. Dunn), as he explores the wonders of puberty and growing up – At only 12 years old, he’s verging puberty where his body is going through changes; in many, this manifests as a deeper voice, an increase in hair growth… But in Brandon, it manifests instead as a form of demonic-like possession, superstrength, laser-firing pupils, superspeed, and levitation…
Why? Well… It’s because Brandon is special – Special in terms of being a bloody alien. Taking inspiration from the old Superman origin story, Brandon falls to Brightburn one lazy night in a sort of glowing, flying craft – After having failed numerous times to concieve due to fertility issues, local couple Tori and Kyle notice the craft crashing into some nearby woodland, and discover their little ‘miracle’. Brandon.
Over the next 12 years Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) raise Brandon as their own, having locked the capsule he came in down in the basement of their farmyard barn and having kept Brandon’s past a total secret to him… However once Brandon begins puberty – as mentioned before – his violent tendancies and demonic personality really comes through, with him massacring wildlife, stalking his classmates, and entering some extreme Exorcist-level possession sessions whenever he falls asleep – fit with levitation and hellish chanting – much like it’s inspiration.
Brightburn starts off very well in this aspect, slowly turning up the dial on Brandon’s descent into madness with more and more horrific imagery, culminating in Brandon going on a hunting trip alone with his father… Where they have a bit of man-to-man discussion; this is where the film’s second act begins, as Kyle tells Brandon: (Loosely):
“Sometimes boys have urges… And it’s ok to act on them every now and again…”
From here, Brandon begins an even dimmer fall into his own personal Hell, stalking his crush Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter) in her own bedroom at night due to his father’s advice; this results in Brandon suffering a stint of bullying, where he is placed in a trust fall exercise during his school’s PE class… Only to have Caitlyn betray that trust and not catch him in his fall, outing him as a pervert to the rest of the class – This event sets off Brandon’s anger further and further, leading to him brutally breaking Caitlyn’s hand and being suspended – From here it’s murder to murder, as Brandon struggles to clean up his mistakes and to try and correct his wrongs by eliminating the loose threads that would cause him harm…
This, however, is where the plot’s structure falls apart – See, Brightburn is a story that has a brilliant beginning and a brilliant end, but the middle section tends to hop around from plot thread to plot thread without slowing down – This is only damaged more by the short 90 minute run time, as you’re left desiring a lot more context behind Brandon, Tori and Kyle’s internal mingling; personally, I would have loved a bit more conflict within Brandon as a character, questioning his behaviour, the world around him and his place in the world before he goes on his rampage.
Not just this, but the extent of Brandon’s bullying is, oddly enough, not proportionate to Brandon’s destructive actions later on in the film – He gets called ‘maggot’ once, and then gets let down on a trust fall, and suddenly he’s breaking hands, killing people, stripping chickens of their flesh and more… I’d never wish this on anyone, but given the horrific actions Brandon executes, I would have thought that his bullying would have been worse.
Combined with this is a very small cast that ends up harming the film further – again, due to the lack of serious context or development – which could have been somewhat remedied if we learned more about Brandon’s classmates, bullies, the school he went to or the image other parents had of him – The details we get are threadbare, when they’re a major part of the driving force behind Brandon as a character, and form our impression of him and his justifications for committing these awful atrocities…
…Instead it just comes across as puberty twisting Brandon with a bit of demon possession mixed in. It’s a shame really because I do think that if the film was perhaps an hour longer, it could have better utilised it’s time to continue the slow burn the introduction act starts, and avoid the frantic escalation seen during the second third of the film.
Overall, Brightburn is a brilliant movie if you want to see a modern, unique subversion of the Superman origin story – Go for anything else and you’ll be disappointed, however. The gore and special effects are alright, the cinematography, character designs and acting are all top-tier, but it’s ultimately the pacing and desire to learn more about these characters that traps Brightburn in an odd limbo – Good, but not great – Memorable, but not a classic – Special, but not a cult classic.
If only they had adapted Brightburn in a different medium… Then it could have easily become the west’s modern Akira.
I give Brightburn a: