This deliciously disturbing origin flick doesn’t have the enormous budget, established comic-book characters, or shared-universe synergy of Marvel’s box-office-billion spectaculars, which miraculously ends up not mattering a bit. At exactly half the length of “Avengers: Endgame,” “Brightburn” efficiently delivers a simple but solid story that’s so fresh, frightening, and franchise-worthy you’ll wish you could binge on a sequel as soon as it’s over.
The plot’s premise is irreverently intriguing. What if a different “strange visitor from another planet” arrived on Earth exactly the same way Superman did as a baby, was secretly adopted by another childless Kansas farm couple, but became evil instead of fighting for truth, justice, and the American way when his powers kicked in?
For blankly low-key Brandon Breyer (the excellently understated Jackson A. Dunn), that happens at age 12, when the spaceship his parents hid in the barn comes to red-glowing life and starts putting creepy voices in his head. Already ostracized at school for his smarts and suffering unrequited love for a classmate, Brandon uses his incredible strength, heat vision, flying skills, and super speed in decidedly non-heroic ways.
“Sometimes when bad things happen to people it’s for a good reason,” he calmly rationalizes at one point, shortly after describing himself as “something superior.” You just know that can’t be good.
In DC comics, variations on the “Bad Superman” theme have included a nasty version called Ultraman, a Nazi known as Overman, the appropriately nicknamed Superdoom, and others. There even was a Soviet Superman, whose ship crash-landed in Ukraine instead of America.
What sets “Brightburn” apart from all of those diabolic doppelgangers is not only the main character’s youth but the story’s intimate scale, never leaving the small town of Brightburn—and without a single supervillain or alien invasion in sight. Its closest movie equivalent is 2012’s “Chronicle,” which took a similar “real world” approach to the concept of an antisocial adolescent gaining abilities he violently misuses. In a less-is-more sense, “Brightburn” also is better at believably twisting superhero genre tropes than M. Night Shyamalan did with his entire “Unbreakable” trilogy.
The R-rated “Brightburn” plays its story completely straight, very dark, and sometimes graphically gory. In other words, don’t go expecting a naughtier, but still amusingly tongue-in-cheek “Shazam.” Every time the screenplay (by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn) seems headed toward a predictable development or a narrative cop-out, events take an unexpected you-won’t-believe-they-went-there turn. One of them is literally jaw-dropping. And, yes, I do mean literally.
Elizabeth Banks is Brandon’s overly protective mother, Tori, who is dangerously reluctant to acknowledge the truth about her little miracle boy until it’s far too late. David Denman is bearded and bearish dad Kyle, who thinks Brandon’s problems may be merely puberty-related. Pretty classmate Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), the spooked object of Brandon’s would-be affections, comes right out and calls him a pervert at school, after a super-speed stalking incident.
Producer James Gunn was the director and writer of Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” flicks, and star Dunn even makes a brief appearance as the young version of Ant-Man in “Avengers: Endgame,” but “Brightburn” is the tonal opposite of those mainstream blockbusters. There’s zero comic relief (unless an awkward sex talk in the woods counts), and there is a sense of genuine menace when Brandon goes bad.
Director David Yarovesky (“The Hive”) perfectly paces the proceedings to keep up the tension. The sight of red-eyed Brandon hovering silently above the ground in his cheaply improvised mask and cape at night is chilling. For less subtle terrors, it’s hard to beat a glass shard being pulled from an impaled eyeball.
The end credits offer tantalizing hints of a possible sequel that could address a major unresolved mystery and expand the story’s scope to the wider world. With any luck, the filmmakers will manage to go bigger next time while remaining this fearlessly unpredictable.