Brightburn movie review: Superman crashes into the Conjuring universe, mass casualties expected

Director – David Yarovesky
Cast – Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A Dunn
Rating – 2/5

Has there ever been a more ominous portent in cinema than the Bob Marley song, Three Little Birds? Often mistakenly thought to be named Every Little Thing is Gonna Be Alright, or Don’t Worry About a Thing – understandable because those are its most prominent lyrics – it has been featured in several films and television shows over history, usually with the intent to disarm the audience.

But the result is often quite the opposite. Every time you hear Marley’s soothing lyrics in the background, or – as is the case in the new film Brightburn – being sung by a woman to her child, the immediate reaction is to expect the worst. You’re not stupid. You’ve seen movies. Everything is most definitely not going to be alright, and Elizabeth Banks’ character better be worried. Her son is turning into a supervillain.

Watch the Brightburn trailer here:

Brightburn is the new high-concept horror film from producer James Gunn, best known for his Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and for being the writer of two Scooby Doo films (and several trashy tweets). Initially sold as an intriguing reimagining of the iconic Superman story, Brightburn very quickly announces that it has nothing of worth to add to its one-line premise – what if Clark Kent was evil?

Banks and David Denman play Tori and Kyle Breyer. It is implied, with the subtlety of a brick to the face, that they are unable to conceive. Their wishes are granted when an alien spaceship bearing a baby crash lands at their large farmhouse. A decade or so later, the child, whom they’ve named Brandon, has grown up to become an outsider – routinely bullied by other kids, overwhelmed by sudden outbursts of emotion, and an absolute mystery to his parents.

As he approaches puberty, he begins exhibiting rather strange behaviour. He realises, for instance, that he has the ability to move objects with his mind, and he also seems to have super strength – so far so Superman. But one of the earliest indications that this movie is off its rocker is in the manner in which it chooses to depict this particular evolution. We don’t see Brandon lift heavy objects, for instance, or use his strength to inadvertently hurt people. We are instead treated to a scene in which Brandon eats food, and absentmindedly chews half the fork as well.

In fact, director David Yarovesky routinely makes the most bizarre choices with the material, written by Gunn’s brother and cousin, Brian and Mark – a fine example of Hollywood nepotism for those wondering if it’s mostly a Bollywood thing. The idea to reimagine Superman’s origin story – easily one of the most recognisable superhero origin stories of all time – as a horror picture isn’t necessarily terrible. But Brightburn isn’t aping good horror movies, which would have been fine; instead, it’s satisfied being a cheap knockoff of one of those Conjuring spin-offs – overly reliant on jump scares and idiotic characters.

And this lack of ambition is reflected in Brandon, too. Just when you’d expect him to ramp up the terror and murder someone, he’s busy wasting his time with pointless poltergeist activity – drawing strange symbols in his notebook, and standing at the foot of his female classmate’s bed every night. When he is discovered, and accused (justifiably) of being a creep, he punctures the accuser’s eye with a shard of glass.

Perhaps the greatest reinterpretation of the Superman story is Red Son, a comic book written by Mark Millar, which asks the question, “what if Superman’s ship had been a few hours late and landed in the Soviet Union instead of a Kansas farm?” In Red Son, instead of fighting for ‘Truth, justice, and the American Way’, Superman wields a hammer and sickle, and is described in Soviet radio broadcasts ‘as the champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin and socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact’. The moral of the story being that despite his upbringing, Superman will always be an inherently decent person – he is driven by neither politics nor patriotism, and is, instead, motivated by an indescribable desire to do good.

Brightburn isn’t that story. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The subtext – assuming of course that there is any – is cruel, inhuman, and downright deplorable. We know nothing of Brandon’s past, or motivations. He is, for all intents and purposes, an evil robot that has been switched on by an invisible hand. It’s a daft, unambitious perversion of the Superman story.

If you’re looking for films in which a superpowered child grows up to become a moody murderer, you’re better off watching Looper, or, heck, even Man of Steel.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

First Published:
May 24, 2019 09:25 IST

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