‘Brightburn’ seems to dispose of supernatural backstory to shock, scare

May 25, 2019

On the surface, “Brightburn” appears to examine the question, “What if the Superman mythology produced a villain instead of a hero?”

Once you look into the film’s credits, you’ll notice the name of James Gunn, who, before launching into superstardom with the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, deconstructed the genre in a grimy little independent film called “Super,” starring Rainn Wilson, Liv Tyler and Ellen Page. 

In that film, Wilson played a short-order cook who takes it upon himself to be a superhero, despite his lack of any prolific ability. The film had the misfortune of being released around the same time as the splashier and bigger-budgeted “Kick Ass,” and quickly dropped off the radar. But it was an update of the tragic Travis Bickle character study, and was interesting for its idiosyncrasies.   

Gunn’s family now gets into the superhero act, with his brother-and-cousin writing team of Brian and Mark Gunn, as they once again look at the “origin story” mythology with a much darker lens. James serves only as producer, but his fingerprints can be seen throughout. 

Following almost the same exact story as the Superman legacy, “Brightburn’s” young prodigy could easily be Kal-El’s cousin: He was found as a baby in a crashed spaceship in the woods and taken in by a loving American couple. 

Tori and Kyle Breyer (played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are stand-ins for the Kents, and young Brandon (played by Jackson Dunn), is their Clark. We meet the family when Brandon is entering the awkward adolescent phase, which most parents know can already be excruciatingly challenging. 

But if you add an intergalactic calling to destroy, it makes the typical hormonal mood swings of a tween seem tame by comparison. It’s an abrupt choice made by the filmmakers, and one that seriously undermines any adequate, in-depth analysis that could provide an insightful, nuanced take on the genre. 

Instead, the Gunns and director David Yarovesky decide to craft a Super-Slasher, emphasizing the guts and gore of young Brandon’s reverge spree. It glosses over the bullying young Brandon receives from classmates. And while it hints at a relationship with a cute classmate who makes an effort to befriend him, the film quickly uses that as a device for Brandon to seek further revenge. 

“Brightburn’s” biggest issue is that young Brandon’s turn to evil does not feel earned in any way. He simply is possessed one day by the spaceship from which he landed (which his parents have kept hidden in a barn, for some reason), and transforms from a loving young boy to flat-out psycho with a lust for blood. It’s so sudden and unexplained, there is little emotional connection to make it work for an audience. 

A far more masterful take on the making of a monster is the 2009 “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” starring Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly and pre-Flash Ezra Miller as the troubled teen. “Brightburn” seems to dispose of all its supernatural backstory in an effort to shock and scare. And while that might be right up some viewers’ alley, it just seems like a profound waste of narrative potential. 

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society. Email him at

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