Movie Review: Superman goes bad in ‘Brightburn’

Movie Review: Superman goes bad in ‘Brightburn’

Everyone knows that Superman stands for truth, justice, and the American way, but what Brightburn presupposes is… what if he didn’t?

Produced by superhero vet James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), written by his brothers Brian and Mark, and directed by David Yarovesky, the gist of Brightburn is pretty fascinating stuff, if not exactly original. In the DC Comics, stories of an evil Superman were told through the alternate-reality Ultraman.

In Brightburn, the Superman origin story is faithfully re-created: the prayers of childless rural couple Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Brenner (David Denman), this film’s version of Ma and Pa Kent, are answered when an alien baby boy comes crashing down on the family farm in a tiny spaceship.

Flash-forward ten years, and young Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is just now beginning to learn that he’s more special than most other kids. In one of Brightburn’s most compelling sequences, Brandon sticks his arm into a lawnmower while discovering his invulnerability… and then promptly chucks the lawnmower 100 meters into the distance.

But will Brandon use his powers for good? Going by scenes in which he’s mercilessly mocked by his classmates - along with the trailer for the film, which gives away the game - the answer here is a decided no.

Brandon’s Superman-like journey into super-villain - also covered in movies like Chronicle - makes for an engaging narrative, and young Dunn gives a nuanced performance in the lead.

But Brightburn loses its way as its ripe premise gives way to what ultimately becomes a formulaic slasher film. At some point during the narrative, the filmmakers seem content to present the main character as a villain rather than a conflicted antihero, and the whole enterprise veers away from superhero movie commentary and into generic horror territory.

That gives Brightburn an unstable narrative - Brandon’s journey is tossed aside for more conventional thrills - but also it’s most most shocking scenes. Lest you have any notion that this isn’t a full-bloodied horror film, our lead character disposes of his victims in shockingly graphic fashion.

That includes a shard-of-glass-to-the-eye sequence that would make Lucio Fulci proud, and a stomach-churning automobile accident during which the camera uncomfortably lingers upon a character whose jaw has been gruesomely detached from his face.

Audiences expecting anything resembling a superhero movie may leave the cinema in terror, but horror fans are likely to be sated. For a while, anyway: those two aforementioned sequences are frontloaded into the first half of the film, and nothing that occurs later on comes close to them in the gore department.

Brightburn comes with a lot of potential, as commentary on superhero films or puberty or even school shooter-like violence. Ultimately however, it’s satisfied to settle into what might be best described as cheap thrills.

It doesn’t entirely work, but there are enough interesting aspects going on throughout most of Brightburn to warrant at least a mild recommendation. Brightburn doesn’t just present an evil Superman, but a vile and cruel one with motivations all too close to real-life villains.

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