With superheroes saturating the box office in the last couple of decades, a driving quest is to find something fresh. The concept of “what if” — exploring alternate takes on characters — is one that comics have turned to for years, and Superman’s origin story has fuelled that type of tinkering (DC had a Russian-raised Supes in Superman: Red Son, Marvel offered Supreme Power, which followed an alien orphan on Earth who took a much darker path). Brightburn splices the Man Of Steel’s childhood with an even more horrific outcome, positing what would happen when an unusual boy with adoptive parents confronts the triple threat of puberty, school bullying and a mysterious whispering coming from the crashed spaceship in which he arrived. Answer: there will be blood.
James Gunn, who, before bringing a warmth and chatty, creative style to Marvel’s cosmic corners was known for schlocky horror and oddball super-folk, here acts as producer (and selling point: you can imagine the sighs of relief when he was rehired to the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies before this touched down on screens). He has a script from Brian Gunn (his brother) and Mark Gunn (his cousin), with long-time collaborator David Yarovesky (horror flick The Hive) directing. But despite his influence, the result only fitfully grasps how to truly exploit the genres the way he once did.
There’s only so much you can do with the same basic jump scare.
The burgeoning-abilities aspect of Brandon Breyer’s (Dunn) upbringing is briefly explored at first (his hand is unscathed after a clash with a mower), but rarely goes further than some of its paper predecessors. Yet his behaviour is also weirdly forced, morphing from loving son to psycho-killer with supervillain tendencies so swiftly, you wonder whether the screenplay was written by The Flash.
And then there’s the horror. Yarovesky has a solid way with a gory killing scene (those with a phobia of eyes should, well, look away during one where a waitress is stalked by the lad), but when it comes to tension, this doesn’t so much go back to the well as build an entire agricultural irrigation system. Lights flicker and Brandon’s there! Curtains twitch and he appears! Someone closes a door and… well, you get the idea. His superpowers give it all an extra edge, but there’s only so much you can do with the same basic jump scare.
Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, who share most of the character beats as concerned parents starting to suspect their blessing might in fact be a curse, offer the most nuance. Yet while the film occasionally finds the dark wit Gunn has brought to his own work, it’s not enough to make the rest of it work.