Most superhero movies are based on comic books, we’re pretty familiar with that. The characters with fully established fan bases are the films that are guaranteed to make the most money in theaters. That’s why studios are hesitant to produce an original superhero film. Spending that much money on a film that doesn’t have any kind of backing to its concept aren’t guaranteed to make as much.
However, there are some times when filmmakers with original superhero ideas break the mold and get to make their film, and that’s exactly what James Gunn has done. Coming off the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy films, he has brought us something different in the genre, something a little more horror-themed, with Brightburn.
The film focuses on the concept of, “what if Superman came to Earth, but became a villain rather than a hero.” Young farmers Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are trying hard for a baby, but are unable. That is, until a space craft containing a seemingly human baby crashes in the woods near their home. They decide to adopt him, naming him Brandon.
When the now adolescent Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) discovers he possesses superhuman abilities, he also begins acting strange. He hears strange voices and begins behaving more hostile to those around him. It isn’t long before Tori and Kyle realize that Brandon isn’t what he appears to be, and must find a way to stop him before he unleashes his villainous urges onto the world.
We haven’t really seen a superhero movie like this before. While films like 2012’s Chronicle had sinister elements within the characters, this is the first to be a true horror film. As such, there are times when this film does feel like only an experiment. It follows Superman’s origin story pretty much by heart, and as a result, the film doesn’t have a lot of its own personality. It often feels like it was made to solely test the waters of a new kind of sub-genre in the superhero market.
However, it’s a pretty darn successful experiment. Brightburn may not have a lot of it’s own personality, but that doesn’t stop it from being a genuinely terrifying time at the movies. It infuses its familiar story with a rather sadistic slasher twist that can make you feel quite uncomfortable at times.
It really all comes from the atmosphere of the film. Not too many modern horror films know how to wrack up as much tension as this one does. There is a genuinely uneasy feel to the film right off the bat. You know something is going to go horribly wrong right from the minute the movie begins. And as Brandon starts to use his powers to hurt people, the film becomes even more intense. It even gets to the point where it’s hard to look at the screen.
This is also helped by the great performance of the young Jackson A. Dunn. He really knocks it out of the park as Brandon Breyer. He is able to switch, almost immediately, from innocent kid to horrifying monster, and he’s fully convincing as both. He’s even intimidating in the scenes where he tries to act oblivious about the horrific acts he has committed.
Elizabeth Banks also does a great job as the concerned mother Tori Breyer. She really fit the part, able to play a concerned, loving figure towards Brandon. She is a sympathetic character that clearly loves her son despite the horribly violent things she knows he’s doing. This makes her a likable person that we can really feel bad about when she is losing to Brandon.
Brightburn may only feel like a test in superhero horror, but it takes its liberties and comes out swinging. The tense atmosphere and spot on performance from Dunn help make Brandon Breyer/Brightburn a truly menacing character, while at the same time, the other characters are sympathetic enough for us to root for them. When superhero movies not based on any pre-existing comic book characters are made, they feel fresh and have the potential to go far. Hopefully the success of this film will see the rise of such original characters.