What if Superman had “broken bad”? What if Uncle Ben never told Peter Parker that “with great power comes great responsibility”? That’s the brutally dark premise of “Brightburn,” David Yaroevsky’s foray into “superhero horror.” And man oh man, does Yaroevsky lean into it.
A childless couple (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) stumble on a crashed spacecraft—containing what appears to be an infant—near their Kansas farm. Like the compassionate folks they are, they name him Brandon and raise the boy (Jackson A. Dunn) as their own. Twelve years pass in peace and quiet. But all too soon, little Brandon begins to manifest Superman’s suite of powers—and starts hearing strange alien voices commanding him to take the world.
(Did you know “Brightburn” was actually a stealth sequel to James Gunn’s vicious little indie “Super”? Me neither.)
“Brightburn” is worth reviewing for one crucial reason: it’s a case study in how not to make a worthwhile horror movie. As far as I’m concerned, good horror movies tend to express something true—from the straightforward moralisms of 1980s slasher flicks like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th” to the ruthless social satire in early “Saw” films, the deep religious undercurrents at the heart of “The Conjuring” saga, and the critique of modernism in 2018’s “Suspiria.” Even a film as straightforward as “Alien” has value in this regard: it’s a study of Ripley’s courage in the face of a walking nightmare. Cinematic merits aside, you don’t walk out of a film like “It” or “The Curse of La Llorona” feeling dirty—like your insides need a bath. You leave feeling pleasantly rattled.
But “Brightburn” is grim to its core—a nasty, cynical piece of work that has nothing true or noble to say about the human spirit, or the human condition, or transcendent reality. (I’d like to pretend that “Brightburn” is actually a sophisticated indictment of Antiochan Christology—the pre-Chalcedonian view of Christ that rejected the hypostatic union of natures and cast Jesus as simply a man “indwelt” by God—but that’s too optimistic.)
In the past, I’ve written about the Nietzschean ethos at the heart of Zack Snyder’s superhero films; “Brightburn” adopts that paradigm, but darkens it further by denying the “good guys” any übermenschen of their own. Here, all we observe are helpless humans thrashed, bashed, and gutted by a malevolent cosmic force beyond their control. And that is less entertainment than it is sadism.
I’d like to say more, but there’s really nothing else “there.” So even if you’re a fan of the genre, feel free to pass on “Brightburn.” You are not missing much.