An extraterrestrial raised by midwest farmhands, 12-year-old Brandon Breyer (Jackson A Dunn) hits puberty and discovers he has superpowers: the plot of Brightburn is basically Superman if Superman were bad. This is fine as a starting point, but it becomes increasingly unsatisfying as the film struggles to articulate why Brandon is evil (though its end credits are soundtracked by Billie Elish’s hit single Bad Guy to ensure the point is hammered home).
There’s plenty of time spent on the violent hows (I’m still shuddering, thinking about a Tarantino-esque scene involving a shard of glass and a woman’s eyeball), but a lack of conviction in its own mythology. As an antihero with an oedipal complex, neither Brandon nor Dunn is sufficiently creepy or conflicted to launch a new franchise. Brandon can’t compete with Batman’s nihilism, Deadpool’s self-deprecation or Wolverine’s depressed lone wolf quality.
Produced by James Gunn of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy films, Brightburn is eager to explore something darker than the comic-book genre usually permits. The handheld cinematography emphasises its grittier, more horror-inclined ambitions, recalling the camerawork in Josh Trank’s found-footage superhero thriller Chronicle. Yet in its attempts to provide an antidote to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s catalogue of liberal fantasies, the film swings too far in the other direction (even the town’s name, Brightburn, recalls far-right news website Breitbart).