Brightburn review: Superhero horror fails to take flight

The new slasher flick takes the latest in a long line of superhero movies in a dark and gory new direction but this new vision isn't quite super

Look, up in the air…  is it a bird? Is it a plane? Or just a brash attempt to combine the two most profitable film genres of the last decade? Hollywood has become so saturated with superheroes that it was surely only a matter of time before someone attempted to put a horror spin on the traditional tights-and-flights narrative. The thrifty result is Brightburn, an impudent mix of extraordinary origin story and nasty slasher flick. The rather breathless marketing brands it “superhero horror” but let’s call it what it really is: cape fear.

One of the smartest things about Brightburn is that it lets Superman do most of the heavy lifting. Even just through cultural osmosis, it feels like we all know Clark Kent’s wholesome foundational myth. A meteor crashes in the Kansas countryside. A kindly farmer couple find a baby inside. They raise the tiny alien immigrant as their own, and after being imbued with the strong moral values that come from fixing up fence posts and driving tractors he becomes the ultimate symbol of truth, justice and the American way.

Brightburn recycles that premise right down to the Kansas setting, and trusts that audiences are so familiar with the broad strokes that it does not even need to show the fateful space capsule streaking across the sky. By the time we meet Brandon Breyer (Jackson A Dunn), he is already a super-smart but socially awkward 12-year-old enrolled at nearby Brightburn high school. His doting parents Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) have already explained to their son that he is adopted, even if they have wisely been a little vague on the details. But now Brandon’s cosmic heritage is calling out to him – literally, glowing in ominous red from behind a padlocked door in the barn – and he is about to hit puberty with unexpected force. Plenty of kids feel like lashing out against what seems like an unfair world. But what happens when you multiply teen angst with super-strength, super-speed and crackling laser-vision?

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Brightburn seems to be setting the table for a heightened exploration of the nature-versus-nurture debate. If Brandon was destined to dominate puny humans because of his extra-terrestrial DNA, might not a decade of unconditional love from his artistic foster mother and bearish but kind-hearted dad short-circuit his programming? Frustratingly, it is clearly more interested in stringing together a series of sometimes tense but always gruesome horror set-pieces than trying to communicate what is really going on with Brandon. 

If the violence in mainstream superhero movies can sometimes seem a little bloodless – perhaps necessarily so, considering these franchises are designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible – Brightburn veers wildly in the opposite direction. Producer James Gunn, who recently wrote and directed the highly successful Guardians Of The Galaxy movies for Marvel, got his start at Troma, the cheerfully disreputable studio responsible for The Toxic Avenger and other splatter-filled exploitation entertainments. Here he oversees enough buckets of gore and viscera to induce genuine nausea. Eyes, fingers and jawbones are all mangled in
upsetting detail. 

Despite cheekily piggybacking on existing mythologies, Brightburn still feels underwritten to a frustrating degree and is nowhere near as subversive as it thinks it is. There probably should be more counter-narratives to undercut or at least interrogate the seemingly unstoppable rise of superheroes in our multiplexes. But this one strikes such a nihilistic note that it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, more super-sour than Superman.

Brightburn is in cinemas now

Image: Sony Pictures