Hey, fellow longtime comic-book readers. Remember how, over the past decade or so, you would squeal with delight whenever some obscure but beloved character/artefact/vista would show up on the cinema screen?
Things like “OMG that’s Howard the freaking Duck!” or “Whoa! The Collector!” or “Wait – that’s the Cosmic Cube. What is this Tesseract B.S.?”
Even in the recent Shazam! movie’s post-credits scene, moviedom at large was staring blankly at the “talking caterpillar” while fans delighted at the sight of Mister Mind on the big screen.
With superbeings saturating the movie and TV scene, it was as inevitable as Thanos that a beloved sub-genre of comics would end up in the cineplex as well: the alternate reality story.
Marvel fans know these as “What If?” stories, while DC readers would term them “Elseworlds” (at least from the 1990s on) – situations in which familiar characters are reimagined, taking into account a tiny variation in their origin stories or formative events.
There are many terrific stories in this fringe area of mainstream comics, more under DC’s belt than Marvel’s.
So it is only appropriate that Brightburn is set in one of these (non-licensed) “elseworlds” where a strange visitor from another planet turns out quite … deranged, instead.
How similar is it?
Try this on for size: alien baby lands on Earth – in rural Kansas, no less – and ends up being adopted by a childless couple. Only as he grows up, it turns out he has a pretty dark aspect to his nature. And the viewer soon realises that this is more of a crimson-soaked horror movie than a four-colour fantasy.
Brightburn also has geek credentials. Guardians Of The Galaxy’s James Gunn is the producer and the GOTG Inferno music video director David Yarovesky helmed the film. (The screenplay was written by Gunn’s brother Brian and cousin Mark.)
Elizabeth Banks, who starred in Gunn’s directing debut Slither, plays this movie’s version of Ma Kent; and David Denman, from the Robert Kirkman TV show Outcast, is the Pa Kent substitute.
The school scenes were shot on the same location as Netflix sensation Stranger Things, and I swear it was Negan’s whistling I heard during the scenes of the mother playing hide-and-seek with her son.
Not enough geek connections? Well, if you didn’t blink during Avengers: Endgame, you may recognise Jackson A. Dunn, who plays the alien foundling here, from the moment when Ant-Man was de-aged to a tweener in the quantum time-travel experiment sequence.
If there’s any part of Brightburn that works really well, it is Dunn – his calm, almost beatific expression provides a strong counterpoint to the deeds he commits (and makes them seem even more disturbing, upon later reflection).
Dunn brings just the right level of conflict and complexity to the role, convincing the viewer that he is indeed a volatile and scary figure without overplaying the part or acting too detached.
As Brandon Breyer (a name concocted purely for the alliteration, we’re sure), he is indeed the film’s brightest-burning component.
Not so the more derivative aspects of the movie. For one, the strange symbol Brandon keeps drawing looks way too much like the Brand of Sacrifice to this fan of the Berserk manga and anime.
Banks and Denman’s characters are so stereotypical it’s like they’re reading from the ABCs of Adoptive Cinematic Parenting (by the end, Banks sounds like she’s quoting from the Luke Skywalker Book of Paternal Redemption, only with the situations reversed).
Actually, the amount of screen time spent on their cluelessness, denial and … whatever, just makes a relatively compact film actually feel like it has been padded. The filmmakers could have just focused on Brandon’s dance between Nature vs Nurture – Dunn certainly does seem up to the task of handling more heavy-duty drama.
The plus points: a fascinating central performance, some striking visuals and also a few horrifying images (it is a horror flick at heart, after all) that Yarovesky allows the camera to linger on just enough to chill us to the core.
It is also an interesting flip-side exploration of the whole comic-book scenario where incredibly powerful beings live in our midst, but does not go deep enough to challenge conventions or expectations of the genre.
My point in bringing up the whole thing about comic fans being no strangers to worlds of wonder is that, well, we’re also all too familiar with these what-ifs and alternate/parallel world tales.
And as such, Brightburn seems a little too laboured (despite its breezy 90-minute running time) and shallow to a reader exposed to gems like Kingdom Come, Justice League: The Nail and Superman: Red Son (wherein Kal-El’s rocketship crashed in the Soviet Union instead of the United States).
But still, just like during the MCU’s formation – brave baby steps, eh?
Director: David Yarovesky
Cast: Jackson A. Dunn, Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Matt Jones, Jennifer Holland