Brightburn is a bloody watchable superhero/horror genre mash-up

In this superhero horror produced by James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) and starring Elizabeth Banks, an alien child crash lands on Earth. But instead of becoming a hero to mankind, he proves to be something far more sinister.

High-concept films don’t live or die on their ideas so much as their execution. The potential of “what if Superman was evil” is obvious—and not just in Zack Snyder’s post-apocalyptic way—but what makes Brightburn tick is a tight focus, and an embrace of the grim and gory. Free of DC constraints on content, it follows an off-brand alien kid definitely not called Kal-El but Brandon (named after… Routh?), who possesses powers and a fondness for red capes. Brandon’s coming-of-age is a coming-of-evil for his adoptive parents (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) as well as the small town of Brightburn where they live, and to which the events of the film are confined.

In Jackson A. Dunn, the film has found a great Brandon, his performance swinging between oblique and threatening. Brightburn doesn’t try to make us empathise with him or necessarily see him corrupted by his powers, but instead sell the scare factor of an inscrutable all-powerful alien inhabiting a kid’s form.

Thankfully for the viewer, if not the objects of Brandon’s attention, it doesn’t take long for him to discover—and almost immediately begin to misuse—his powers. Before long, there’s some detailed eyeball violence, objects and limbs are being deformed, and jaws hanging open as a result of his actions. As you’d expect from an evil-kid picture, Brandon’s folks aren’t inclined to buy into their son being a super-powered monster at first, but to the relief of potential viewer frustration, they do not stay wilfully unaware any longer than seems reasonable for folks who raised a baby they found in an alien spaceship.

From the details of Brandon’s powers (strength, invincibility, heat vision, super-hearing, the ability to fly) to his caped get-up (creepy mask aside), Brightburn makes no bones about him being lil’ Superman in all but name. It’s all the more effective for it, an awareness of the full potential of his powers as an adult and their intoxicating nature being discovered by a 12-year-old making him all the creepier, and establishing broader stakes than the ones explored in the film’s immediate setting. Alongside the aforementioned goriness, Brightburn boasts some sequences of well-escalated dread, and more than a few good jump scares (Brandon gets off on some weird stuff, apparently including freaking people out before fucking them up).

It’s a bit Chronicle, a bit The Omen then, but its also telling that this is the first thing James Gunn has his name on since he became the target of an alt-right smear campaign and the shit hit the fan. He produces, brother Brian and cousin Mark write, and David Yarovesky (who’s been in Gunn’s orbit for a while now) directs—collectively they show a fondness for genre, a sporadic appetite for the nasty, and have delivered a bloody watchable superhero-horror mash-up.