Integral to the Superman myth is the issue of nature versus nurture. In its classical incarnation, the DC Comics icon is both the offspring of noble Kryptonian parents and the beneficiary of good old-fashioned heartland values, courtesy of Kansas’ Jonathan and Martha Kent. It’s the latter, however, that fundamentally shape alien Kal-El into the bespectacled Clark as well as the wholesome cape-wearing champion who fights for truth, justice and the American way. Superman is born a god, but fashioned by his upbringing into a hero.
Brightburn takes those dynamics and flips them on their head, imagining an alternate origin story for a borderline-indestructible extraterrestrial child with less-than-moral impulses. A riff akin to 2003’s Superman: Red Sun comic book miniseries, in which Kal-El lands on a Ukrainian collective farm and grows into an agent of Soviet communist might during the Cold War, David Yarovesky’s film—produced by Guardians of the Galaxy mastermind James Gunn, and penned by his brothers Mark and Brian—reconstructs its superhero tale for apocalyptic horror. It charts the maturity of a boy who falls from the heavens, is taken in by loving parents, grows up in a stable community, and yet still becomes a harbinger of doom. In a day and age dominated by Marvel and DC do-gooders, it’s a clever conceit about the origins of evil. And while its execution may sometimes be lacking, its answers to its central questions are satisfyingly unnerving.
In the rural enclave of Brightburn, Kansas, circa 2006, painter Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and farmer Kyle Bryer (David Denman) are in the early stages of once again trying to conceive a baby—the titles lining their bookshelves underscore their difficulty in this regard—when a thunderous crash interrupts their efforts. Following a quick glimpse of a smoking object in their yard, and a subsequent montage of home movies of their baby boy during his early years, Brightburn jumps ahead 12 years to the present. Now the parents of a pre-teen named Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), the couple is happy and content—although that’s not to last, as their son soon begins to exhibit disquieting behavior.
First, Brandon starts having nighttime seizures in which he chants along to strange foreign words that he hears in his head, and are emanating from the spacecraft his parents have locked away (unbeknownst to him) in their barn. Then, he compulsively scribbles a symbol—comprised of his initials, “BB,” conjoined in back-to-back fashion—all over his notebooks. Shortly thereafter, Tori and Kyle find lingerie ads as well as pictures of human organs hidden beneath his mattress, revealing that puberty is leading him down some unconventional paths (Kyle’s ensuing “sex talk” with Brandon results in more awkward bizarreness). Not that Brandon isn’t interested in girls; rather, it’s that, having discovered his superpowers, his feelings are mutating in strange ways, as evidenced by his creepy nocturnal appearance in the bedroom of a fellow classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who had previously shown him kindness in the aftermath of some bullying.
Something’s clearly not right with Brandon, and Brightburn teases his true nature in drips and drabs, with Kyle growing increasingly suspicious and Tori fiercely defending him. Even an incident in which Brandon crushes a now-frightened Caitlyn’s hand isn’t enough to truly rattle the protective Tori. If Brightburn has a logical shortcoming, it’s that this otherwise reasonable woman takes forever to consider the possibility that her mysterious adopted E.T. isn’t the answer to her fertility prayers, but instead is an unknown entity with negative potential. No matter how long she might have spent nurturing—and spending time in the seemingly normal company of—Brandon, Tori’s slow-on-the-uptake naiveté comes perilously close to being a cheap contrivance.
As scripted by the Gunns, Brightburn builds slow-burn menace through a raft of warning signs about Brandon—and, later, through a series of crimes he perpetrates in a ratty hood and matching cape. In the spirit of prior Gunn-spearheaded genre efforts like Slither (also starring Banks) and The Belko Experiment, the film marries polished studio aesthetics with a love of gratuitous gore. Yarovesky’s camera lingers on images of gouged eyeballs and broken jaws, the better to lend the action some playful B-movie verve. Moreover, à la Jaws, it keeps Brandon hidden from view, or spied from a distance, when the boy carries out his malevolent superpowered feats, casting him as a force of divine malice from on high. Dunn eerily conveys his protagonist’s disturbing blankness, hidden beneath a façade of pantomimed human feelings.
Brightburn’s soundtrack is far too enamored with Inception-style BRAAAAM! noises, and considering the narrative point at which it ends, there’s a frustrating sense that what’s being dramatized is only the first act of a larger story. Nonetheless, the film’s confined-to-childhood focus allows it to play like a case study of a sociopath’s development. Brandon figuratively dips his toes into dark-god waters, and then pushes the boundaries of what he can/should/wants to do for himself, and to others. The Gunns’ script imagines him as a serial killer with divine abilities, which is a fascinating idea that isn’t taken quite far enough. It’s clear that Brandon’s inner voice (telling him to “Take the World”) comes from his intergalactic ship and heritage. That, in turn, implies that he’s inherently wicked, thereby absolving his environment and parents of any responsibility for his actions—an approach that feels, on the one hand, like an easy way out.
Then again, no amount of traumatic childhood stories and psychological studies have ever fully explained the monstrousness of individuals like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer, all of whom were viewed by acquaintances as a bit left-of-center but far from obvious madmen. From that perspective, Brightburn forwards the chilling nature-centric theory that true evil is born not from being picked on as a kid, or rejected by a girl, or yelled at by a parent; on the contrary, it springs forth from an alien pit of destructive anger and emotional emptiness. In that bottomless domain, no light—of joy, of compassion, of love—can survive. All that exists is an insatiable hunger for suffering and power.
Which, unsurprisingly, is an extremely terrifying thing when the fiend in question is also equipped with heat vision.