James Gunn-produced ‘Brightburn’ turns ‘Superman’ into a gory parental nightmare (Movie review)

T

he New Mutants” has been drawing buzz for a few years for being a superhero/horror mash-up, but as it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that movie will ever be released, “Brightburn” – from James Gunn’s (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) production team – steps in. In the “Superman” and “Roswell” sagas, the kids from other planets are benevolent and the humans are potential threats, but “Brightburn” asks “What if the roles were reversed?”

Although the trailer makes the premise a little too clear, causing my interest to wane, I gave it a shot and “Brightburn” held my attention as a tight 90-minute riff with great gore effects and a strong performance by Jackson A. Dunn as 12-year-old Brandon Breyer. Following “Superman” so closely out of the gates that it’s arguably a rip-off, “Brightburn” chronicles Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman), who live on a farm in Kansas and adopt this alien baby whose spaceship crash lands. They then stash the ship in the barn, and hold off telling Brandon about it until he’s older.

Brandon is at that awkward stage where he’s starting to notice girls, but the way he goes about attracting Caitlyn is probably not the best strategy: hiding in her bedroom curtains and breaking her hand in gym class.

Written by Brian and Mark Gunn, who also co-wrote the fun “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” (2012), “Brightburn” is at its best when it emphasizes the Weird Kid angle. Brandon is at that awkward stage where he’s starting to notice girls, but the way he goes about trying to attract Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter) is probably not the best strategy: hiding in her bedroom curtains and breaking her hand in gym class. We also get an amusing scene when Kyle takes Brandon hunting and gives him The Talk.

In his first big movie, director David Yarovesky creates a charming small-town atmosphere with people such as Brandon’s loving aunt Merilee (Meredith Hagner), who is also his guidance counselor, because she’s the only one in the district.

(Spoilers follow.)

The film might’ve been better if it had focused on Brandon standing up for himself against bullies, but it’s ultimately interested in being the comic-book-style origin of a supervillain; indeed, this is one of those rare genre movies that does not have a superhero in it. So the final act makes a spectacle out of the Breyers’ nightmare family drama, but it’s really good spectacle if you’re into shocking gore and supernatural abilities.

I wonder if the Gunns and Yarovesky are building a little franchise here. I’m reminded of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable” universe as we see news footage of Brandon destroying buildings and leaving “BB” symbols burned into farmlands. Over the closing credits, Michael Rooker cameos as a shock-jock screaming about this mysterious entity, and a graphic shows Crimson Bolt from writer-director James Gunn’s “Super” (an excellent 2010 dark superhero comedy, but not one you have to watch to follow along here).

“Brightburn” is a straight-up anti-“Superman” in the early going, so I can’t give the premise much credit for originality. (Even the actual “Superman” franchise has done several Dark Superman stories, as you might expect from something that’s been around for 81 years.) But I admit some of the happenings surprised me once that foundation is in place, including a shocking “Of Mice and Men”-style moment. If more movies are made in this supervillain universe, count me as intrigued.

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