The prospect of a bona fide superhero horror film is a very exciting one. While the anxious wait for Fox – or whatever form the current Fox/Disney hybrid takes – to release The New Mutants continues, the void has been filled by the sufficiently nasty Brightburn. It’s something of a family affair, with Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn producing a script written by his cousin Mark and brother Brian.
This is essentially Superman if he were a slasher villain, with 12-year-old Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) discovering super-strength after he is drawn to his family’s barn in his sleep. After testing the limits of his strength by putting his hand into the spinning blade of a lawnmower – a bold move, for sure – he begins to believe that his power makes him better than those around him. With his parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), harbouring a secret, he’s seemingly on a crash course towards villainy.
There’s a simplicity to Brightburn that, for all of its enjoyable mean streak, often leads it to feel as if it’s going through the motions of its origin story. This is the sort of tale we’ve seen a million times before, albeit with a character who ultimately decides to turn to murder rather than donning a stylish pair of specs for a newspaper reporter gig.
Director David Yarovesky visibly struggles with the fairly low budget he has been allocated and there are some creaky moments of slightly iffy visual effects work. However, when it comes to the more gruesome, macabre set pieces, Yarovesky amps up the visceral power of the violence, showcasing the hard-edged, horrifying side of super-powers that the world of 12A/PG-13 blockbusters can never display. There’s an unforgettable moment of eye trauma and a scene involving a car steering wheel that would give the Marvel boardroom an aneurysm.
A lot of the pressure in terms of making this work lies at the feet of young Jackson A. Dunn, who is delightfully unsettling as he portrays Brandon’s descent into chaos. His arrogance is terrific, and there’s a palpable sense of there still being a scared, adolescent boy underneath it all, communicated through his warped affection for classmate Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter). Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, too, are solid in the parental roles, with the latter showing heart-breaking sadness during a third act scene depicting a woodland hunting trip.
And ‘solid’ is very much the word that best describes Brightburn, which seems unwilling to push too many boundaries, trusting that its innovative conceit is enough to get it over the line. While the mean streak is obviously there, a willingness to push it a little further would have gone a long way. There’s undoubtedly something being held back here and, in a mid-credits scene featuring an enjoyably wild cameo from Gunn regular Michael Rooker, it seems clear that this is a case of powder being kept dry for a potential sequel.
Too often, Brightburn feels like an experiment – a case of dipping a toe into this particular ocean of genre filmmaking to see if there’s a chance of it working out. Thanks to an impressive array of central performances and some memorable explosions of gore, it does limp across the finishing line with most of its goodwill in tact. While it isn’t all that special this time around, there’s a chance that the sequel could be very good indeed.
Dir: David Yarovesky
Scr: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn
Cast: Jackson A. Dunn, Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Meredith Hagner, Matt Jones, Becky Wahlstrom, Emmie Hunter, Michael Rooker
Prd: James Gunn, Kenneth Huang
DOP: Christopher Ross
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Run time: 90 mins
Brightburn is in UK cinemas now.