Brightburn strips polish from the Man of Steel myth

BRIGHTBURN

MA, 90 minutes

★★★½

If superhero origin stories are the new sacred texts, Brightburn carries the shock of wilful blasphemy. Directed with some assurance by the previously little-known David Yarovesky, this grim little parable retells a tale that any pop-culture-savvy viewer will know by heart, with a crucial twist.

One night in 2006 a meteor lands outside the town of Brightburn in the American heartland. A childless couple, Kyle and Tori Breyer (David Denman and Elizabeth Banks), find a baby in the woods and raise him as their own.

Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), as they name him, grows up just like any other kid, but a dozen years on his singularity is hard to ignore. He’s abnormally intelligent, to a degree that gets him bullied at school, and he has other powers, too, which start to manifest as he enters puberty.

Jackson A. Dunn in a scene from Brightburn. Credit:AP

In short, he’s Superman (even his name recalls Brandon Routh, the forgotten star of the 2006 blockbuster Superman Returns). Altruism, however, doesn’t seem to be written into his genetic code; as his predestined identity takes shape, even Tori’s unconditional love may not be enough to stop him from going astray.

Made on a modest budget, Brightburn has an almost throwaway quality compared to the epics it riffs on. But as a comment on Hollywood’s ongoing superhero boom, it’s very much an inside job, the key figure behind the curtain being James Gunn, writer-director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films.

Officially, Gunn is only a producer here – the credited screenwriters, Mark and Brian Gunn, are his cousin and brother respectively – but the enterprise echoes his previous work to a degree that strongly suggests his creative contribution was more than zero.

The Gunn touch could be defined as a certain zany morbidity, or as a cheerfully adolescent desire to alarm. Brightburn is not an incessantly brutal film, but its gory touches are nasty in specific, unusual ways, as if to keep us guessing just how far the filmmakers are willing to go.

Underlying the approach is an awareness that superhero stories are basically power fantasies of a brash, even demented kind, expressing an infantile wish to be stronger than anybody else and more capable of dishing out lethal violence. This queasy admission is very typical of Gunn, as is a willingness to be seduced by such fantasies even while critiquing or satirising them.

Elizabeth Banks as Tori Breyer in Brightburn.

The horror in Brightburn is held at a distance by the conceptual approach: the economical storytelling is a virtue, but 20 minutes added to the running time would have given the characterisations more chance to breathe. Dunn looks and acts the way “uncanny” children in movies nearly always do: dark-haired, scrawny, with a manner that can read as sensitive or sullen.

Mostly he’s seen from outside, meaning it can be hard to tell whether Brandon is play-acting or genuinely torn between conflicting impulses: Zack Snyder brought more feeling to a similar scenario in his underrated Man of Steel, a paranoid revisionist take on Superman in its own right.

In practice, the film belongs to Banks, whose character sometimes seems derived from another story entirely, resembling the “all-American, milk-fed” type Roman Polanski originally sought to play the mother of the Antichrist in Rosemary’s Baby.

The more Brandon falls under suspicion, the more Tori doubles down on her loyalty to him – an Oedipal scenario with a vengeance, culminating in a ghastly pas de deux that might spark the envy of arthouse nihilist Lars von Trier.

Brightburn is not a major film, but it’s a genuinely provocative one, a hand grenade tossed out into the pop culture arena. Perhaps the most disturbing moment is a simple line of dialogue: Brandon’s claim that he’s not just different from his parents and others in the town, but also superior.

It’s a declaration that casts a different light on the million underdog stories we’ve all read or seen —and that resonates, too, in the real world of 2019, which plainly isn't short on nerds who long for revenge.

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