Movie Review: 'Brightburn' Offers a Dark Twist on the Superhero Mythos | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Movie Review: 'Brightburn' Offers a Dark Twist on the Superhero Mythos


Published May 29, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 21, 2019 at 12:38 p.m.

Someone should write a guidebook for movie parents raising demon spawn. You know, What to Expect When You're Expecting a Kid but Wind Up With a Freak of Nature, Antichrist or Baby From Space. Because, let's face it, these moms and dads may inhabit different genres, but their child-rearing challenges usually prove pretty much the same.

In Brightburn, Kansas couple Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) are ecstatic when their prayers for a child are answered. One night an explosion sends them running into the woods, where they discover an infant in the wreckage of a rocket. Fast-forward 12 years, and things are less idyllic on the family farm. Young Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) looks like other boys but gradually figures out he possesses superhuman powers and zero interest in using them for good.

James Gunn is the Quentin Tarantino of superhero cinema. In the same way the Inglourious Basterds auteur delights in subverting tropes and traditions of old Hollywood, Gunn has seemingly endless fun deconstructing comic-book cosmologies and slapping together warped new worlds from mythic rubble. In 2010's Super, he explored the concept of a masked crusader whose crime-fighting gifts are limited to a lug wrench and a delusional can-do attitude. In 2016, he cowrote "Dolphinman Battles the Sex Lobsters." He's written and directed the Guardians of the Galaxy series, and, with his latest, Gunn gives us the Superman origin story yanked inside out.

This time he operates from the producer's chair. David Yarovesky (The Hive) was called in to direct. Brian (brother) and Mark Gunn (cousin) did the screenplay, a devilish mashup of DC Comics-style spandex antics and good old-fashioned gore. Don't be dissuaded by the film's trailer, with Brandon glaring at you through cornball red corneas. The movie's effects and scares are consistently clever and original.

Back to poor Tori and Kyle, modern-day Martha and Jonathan Kents confronting mystery and menace in the heartland. When the tot who fell to Earth begins evincing signs of sociopathic trouble (a classmate's hand is crushed; notebooks are filled with satanic scrawlings), the adoptive couple makes the rookiest of movie-parent mistakes: They stand by their boy.

Anyone who's seen The Bad Seed, Carrie, Firestarter, The Brood, The Omen or Village of the Damned knows this isn't going to end well. Fictional characters are supposed to be like real people, yet, strangely, they never seem to have seen even one well-known film in the genre they inhabit.

As tends to happen in these situations, the longer Mom and Dad turn a blind eye — FYI, Brightburn features maybe the squirmiest blind eye effect ever — the higher the body count grows. And you really don't want Damien going through so many friends and relatives that there's eventually nobody left to obliterate but you.

The kid's a fascinating creation. Dunn does a dandy job of bringing him to credible life. Not every actor has what it takes to play a tween whose to-do list includes world domination without overacting. A pleasant aspect of both his character and performance, in fact, is how understated they are. In one of the picture's blackly comic moments, Banks breaks the news of an acquaintance's death, and Dunn replies, "I feel like you want me to cry."

Brandon's villain costume, I must add, is a baffling fashion statement. Hopefully opening weekend was kind enough to earn him a follow-up, and we'll get the chance to find out precisely what that getup was trying to say.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Brightburn"