Film Review | Brightburn: The perils of an alien adoption

Superman meets The Omen in this refreshingly dark take on the superhero franchises currently dominating cinemas worldwide

Physics teaches us that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction, and so it should come as no surprise that the current corporate superhero blockbuster craze is beginning to yield its own shot of darkly-inflected pushback.

And while it’s hardly a trail-blazing affair, Brightburn arrives to cinemas with impeccable timing, offering yet another morsel – though one with a decidedly bitter tang – to superhero fans, while also short-circuiting the ‘franchise fatigue’ that’s afflicting some movie-goers by presenting a flipped-over take on the genre.

Written by Brian and Mark Gunn (brother and cousin to Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, who co-produces here) and directed by David Yarovesky, Brighburn opens with a device that should be familiar to both fans and non-fans of the superhero genre the world over: a rural childless couple finding an alien bundle of joy crash-landing by their farm.

Keen to conceive but biologically unlucky, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) decide to raise the extraterrestrial child (Jackson A. Dunn) as their own, naming him Brandon and shielding him from his true origins. But once the boy turns twelve, the call of his biological roots becomes too strong to ignore, and Brandon begins to grow into the scourge of his little rural town of Brightburn.

Working off a script that edges towards the dangerous precipice of workshopped efficiency, David Yarovesky directs a lean and mean subversion of the Superman origin story, whose saving grace is ultimately not so much its high-concept central conceit as much as the delicious B-movie engine it secretly operates under.

For the most part it’s pretty much a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of affair, with Brandon’s reign of terror gradually escalating from ominous possibility to destructive inevitability, following the expected beats along the way and giving horror-hounds a decent measure of imaginative kills to salivate over.

Suspension of disbelief blinkers are required throughout – could Tory and Kyle really have passed off their alien son as a routine adoption for 12 whole years? – which only emphasises the project’s pulpy nature.

Which means that Brightburn is in some ways more comic-booky than its current crop of slick cinematic counterparts: it festers like a fascinating alien wound away from the ballooning corporate silos of the Marvel and DC cinematic universes. This is also down to the fact that on the superhero-to-horror ratio, Yarovesky’s film skews squarely towards the latter, in the end developing closer affinities to the Omen franchise than anything dreamed of in Superman’s philosophy.

But neither is this to say that the film is entirely hollowed out on the thematic front. Because it does lean into the horror – a genre always-already ripe with symbolic and psychological weight – Brandon’s arc can also be seen as an enactment of growing pains, writ large.

After all, adolescence is painful and confusing enough. Mix in the revelation that you’re actually the spawn of a destructive inter-galactic force that’s calling to you to ‘Take the world’ and, well…

The verdict

Zoning in on a killer concept and executing it with a B-movie brio, the Gunns and Yarovesky have crafted a much-needed anti-superhero tonic for our oversaturated times. Here’s hoping that the hinted-at ‘expanded universe’ suggested in the closing credits doesn’t lead to much the same in the near future.

More in Film