In 2003, Mark Millar penned a three-issue series of “Superman” comic books that hinged on one big idea: what if baby Kal-El crash-landed not in the American heartland, but in Cold War era Ukraine? David Yarovesky’s “Brightburn” offers a similar twist on the superhero mythos, albeit one less refined and much, much ickier: what if Superman was a murderous asshole? Produced by James Gunn (who has done both actual superhero films and his own twisted “Super”) and written by two of his own brethren (brother Brian Gunn and cousin Mark Gunn), the film’s bent towards revisionist superhero history is certainly compelling, but stuck in the confines of the horror genre, it flames out far more than it flies.
The Gunns’ decision to riff on the Superman story is ambitious enough, and that’s to say nothing of how transparently they go out about it: the film opens on a sleepy Kansas farm, where husband and wife Kyle (David Denman) and Tori (Elizabeth Banks) are again attempting to make a baby (not sure of the pair’s inability to conceive based on their conversation? direct your eye to the half-dozen books about infertility that the camera lingers on for far too long). Suddenly, the house shakes, the ground rumbles, and a flaming red object crashes just outside their barn.
You’ve seen this all before, which is what the Gunns and Yarovesky seem to be counting on: while Brandon (mostly played by a very well-cast Jackson A. Dunn) grows up in front of our eyes via a series of charming home videos, it’s with the knowledge that there’s something very special about him that’s just moments away from being unleashed. Yarovesky builds tension early on, even a sweet scene of Tori (who adores her son, no matter what) playing hide and seek with tween Brandon shouldn’t make audiences want to jump out of their skin, every second is tinged with fear. (That young Brandon is lingering dangerously close to his locked-up and hidden-away spaceship doesn’t help matters, another obvious Superman riff.)
Super-smart, very kind, and just a bit awkward at school, Brandon has no idea he’s anything special, and while Tori and Kyle talk in hushed whispers about his origin, “Brightburn” does little to build out the mystery of the long-time couple adopting a kid that fell from the sky and thinking nothing of it. Tori and Kyle should, of course, think much more about it, especially when Brandon starts going missing, staring weirdly at some very freaked out livestock, and acting out in ways that go beyond puberty-inspired angst. Once he starts hearing voices that advise him to “take” things and crushing the hands of people who are onto his creepier abilities, all bets are off.
Little about “Brightburn” is very subtle – again, those fertility books – but there are compelling grace notes that hint at something a bit wittier lurking underneath. The first night that Brandon realizes there’s something going on, he creeps out of bed with a maroon blanket tucked into his back, and for just a moment, the kid’s got a cape. Soon enough, however, he’s retrofitted said blanket into a wholly unnecessary face mask that does little to hide his powers, or his rage. And rage is the order of the day: while Brandon occasionally falls out of the fugue that has turned him into a murderous freak (i.e. his true nature), revealing that nice kid underneath, it’s all gone by the time he’s committed his second (gory, gruesome) crime of passion.
As Brandon’s rampage zooms forward, “Brightburn” moves away from its best ideas (like the people who seem to know there’s something off about him, his mother’s overwrought inability to come to terms with who he really is, or even the global implications of what Brandon believes he’s been sent to do), pushing into still more eye-jabbing, bone-crunching, fire-laced crimes and a series of increasingly cheap jump scares.
The terror is baked in – what if a super-strong space alien crashed to Earth and wanted to kill everyone? now that’s an idea right there – but “Brightburn” isn’t content to let that wicked concept do its magic. Soon enough, it’s just another scary movie with a nutso bad guy burning stuff down and looking freaky while doing it, and that’s something we’ve all seen before.
Sony and Screen Gems will release “Brightburn” in theaters on Friday, May 24.