'Brightburn' Review: Okay, Maybe Lex Luthor Has a Point About Superman

More effective as an experimental concept than a horror film, 'Brightburn' still mostly works in turning the superhero story into something sinister.

If the “S” stands for hope, then the “B” stands for fear. Brightburn, a movie that reimagines Superman’s wholesome origin story as a monstrous nightmare, is more effective as an experimental, “Elseworlds”-style “What if?” than an actual work of horror. Nevertheless, Brightburn carries enough thrills and chills to keep its simple premise — “Hey, what if Superman was evil?” — from ever feeling thin.

A sophomore effort from The Hive’s David Yarovesky, Brightburn stars David Denman (The Office, Power Rangers) and Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games, Power Rangers) as the Breyers, a barren couple whose quiet life is disrupted by a spaceship crash landing on their farm. Upon finding a baby inside, the two adopt him as Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), who grows up to discover his powers to the horror of everyone else.

More The Omen than it is Smallville, Brightburn is the proper “superhero horror” movie that recent attempts like Hellboy, Venom, and Glass failed to deliver. While those films masked efforts with comedy or absurdity (in the case of Venom, Tom Hardy eating live lobsters was both), Brightburn makes an actual slasher out of the Last Son of Krypton.

It works, and it’s fun. While we’re numb to onscreen superpowers, the best moments in Brightburn come from its clever staging of Brandon, his victims, and the use of his powers.

Elizabeth Banks Brightburn
Elizabeth Banks stars as "Tori Breyer," a midwestern woman who adopts a child from outer space, unaware of his true nature.

The big superhero movies should take note: These are legitimately exciting sequences that end with stomach-churning results. Shards of glass pierce eyeballs, jaws split in half by steering wheels, brains become watermelony mush. Brightburn is fearless in gore as it is smart in atmosphere and tension.

The climax, where Brandon unleashes the full brunt of his powers with maximum volume, is a gleeful experiment that thumbs its nose at “better” horror films that play to subtlety compared to Brightburn’s refreshing excess.

But it’s the willingness of Yarovesky (as well as producer James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy 1 and 2), to emphasize its Superman influences that best work to its benefit. All throughout Brightburn, Gunn/Yarovesky evoke the familiarity of the DC icon, down to the red “cape” that the Breyers find Brandon wrapped in and his “first appearance” carrying an airplane. No reference is cheap; you won’t find jabs at the DCEU in this superhero satire. The movie’s only resource is the ubiquity of the Man of Steel.

It’s difficult to look at Brightburn without seeing bits of Gunn’s resentment towards the superhero-industrial complex over his brief firing in the nuances of the movie, but it’s unlikely that’s what happened. Gunn, who planned the project between Guardians of the Galaxy sequels and Brightburn, avoids mentioning DC or Marvel by name. Still, he’s clearly got something darker to say about the genre that’s given him so much.

Brightburn Superma
'Brightburn' is an effective experiment that imagines Superman's story as a monster horror movie than an uplifting superhero fantasy. It's also a pretty good horror movie, too. 

Keeping Brightburn from being truly sublime is that it doesn’t have any actual reason for the “evil-ing” of its antagonist. Brandon is all mold, no character. While there are echoes of toxic masculinity, particularly in Brandon’s one-sided affection for a girl in his school, his story never enters territory that would have made Brightburn infinitely scarier.

When we meet Brandon as an adolescent, he’s a well-behaved if lonely kid who doesn’t understand the extent of his heritage. He doesn’t know where he comes from (nor do we really learn), and he doesn’t understand the origin of these powers. But he likes them, a lot.

In a way that recalls Sam Raimi’s Spider-ManBrightburn doesn’t shy away from equating superpowers with puberty. But the metaphors end there when the film fails to actually make something of all that misplaced young male fury.

It’s not that Brandon should be a social outcast. It’s just that without any real engine driving him, Brandon’s descent into “crazed alien invader” feels empty and inevitable. It could be so much more: A real loss of one’s innocence and perversion of their identity in a difficult world.

Brightburn
Jackson A. Dunn stars as "Brandon Breyer," a Clark Kent-like character who stars in a riff of 'The Omen' rather than 'Smallville'.

“What if Superman was evil?” is a boring idea even DC is exhausted from by now. There’s already comics like Superman: Red Son, the Injustice video games, and movies like Superman IV that have shown us an evil Superman. Brightburn is maybe the best version of that thought exercise, one that plays well in the framework of a horror movie, but it ultimately isn’t as clever as it wants to be. Thank Rao we still have TV shows like Supergirl and comic book writers like Gene Luen Yang, Grant Morrison, and Brian Michael Bendi who “get” Superman and still know how to subvert expectations in a way us mortals can never understand.

As much as Brightburn succeeds in doing something different with the Superman mythos, it fails at its own pitch. Superman isn’t naturally good or evil. Superman is who he is because of Pa and Ma Kent. If it weren’t for those two, Superman would probably be the most dangerous individual in the universe.

Brightburn argues, disappointingly, that it’s Brandon’s nature to be evil no matter his upbringing. The Breyers aren’t bad people. Flawed, yes, but they’re human, and they’re helpless to stop the person their son has turned out to be. To them, that’s the scariest thing in the world.

Brightburn hits theaters on May 24.

Media via Sony Pictures