Depending on the angle, it would only require a small tweak to turn a superhero into a supervillain. The only thing separating the two are intention. Brightburn explores the darker side of a hero’s origin story, but fumbles the execution.
Just as the movie opens, Tori and Kyle (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are getting it on in hopes of finally making a baby. Within moments, we not only know that this loving couple want to expand their family, but also that Brightburn is no story for kids. They hear a crash in the yard and see a red glow out in their farm’s fields. Then, without explicitly being told, we’re treated to a baby montage, watching home movies of Tori and Kyle raising their smiling baby boy. Connecting the dots between an extraterrestrial arrival and new baby is an easy line to draw.
Years later, as the baby known as Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) turns twelve, the film settles into the real plot. Brandon doesn’t have any friends. He’s the weird kid in school who rattles off facts about parasitic wasps rather than make his classmates crack up. His parents are loving and the farm always needs a helping hand, but Brandon is clearly aware of the fact that there’s something else going on with him beyond this normal life.
As Brightburn plods along toward the inevitable reveals of Brandon’s past and his future, it keeps telling us precisely what to look for in each consecutive scene, without ever fully integrating the details of Brandon’s peculiarities. Whenever any detail is brought up clumsily through dialogue, you’re destined to have that random, context-free point become a part of the plot within the next few minutes until all of the parts of Brandon’s life are revealed. Not all of these nuggets of information make sense, but they try their hardest to add atmosphere and mythology to the film.
That is, all of the parts that we will eventually be told unfurl in this manner. Much is still left to be known about this boy and where he comes from. While that makes discovering his powers more of a staircase than a ramp, I honestly do respect Brightburn for not over-explaining everything about the kid. The discovery of what we do know could have been more graceful, but the volume of information is just about right.
Also, and I consider this a good thing, Brightburn has plenty of great gore effects. Just as it wasn’t shy about sex early on, the film embraces its R rating and shows the consequences of Brandon’s actions in oozing, graphic detail. The camera closes in on viscera and lingers on the gooey bits to announce loudly that this is no ordinary kid.
The gore makes it clear that Brandon is capable of doing very bad things, but Brightburn never quite declares loudly if we should empathize with him or not. When he gets picked on in school, we’re asked to feel for him as an outsider, but soon after he’s creeping on fellow students and straight torturing some townsfolk. Even his parents seem unaware of how they feel about Brandon – not torn, just indecisive. The lack of definitive guidance makes for a slightly muddy experience. Although pain is bad, how do we feel about the boy causing it?
A tad too serious and a bit too disorganized, Brightburn squanders a potentially interesting dark origin story and a whole lot of blood.