BRIGHTBURN arrived in theaters in the United States back on May 24th of this year. It wasn’t a huge hit, either commercially or critically, but it did bring in $32.3 million dollars, more than five times its $6-million budget. Daily Grindhouse’s Claire Holland and Jon Abrams both saw the movie during its theatrical run. One of us liked it, quite a bit, and one of us didn’t. One of us didn’t like it much at all. That’s a solid 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, if our math is right. While neither of us wrote a straight-up review during its original run, given the genre(s) this one may easily be a candidate for rediscovery down the line, and again, it more than made back its budget. So the rumored sequel(s) aren’t all that far-fetched. Figuring the movie might have some added shelf-life, and with both of us charged up by some of the ideas it raises — regardless of whether or not it drops ’em — we decided we need to talk about BRIGHTBURN.
Superhero movies are the biggest business in the movie world right now. When a genre has that much cultural dominance, genre deconstruction is inevitable. It’s been going on in superhero comic books for years, so why not superhero movies?
BRIGHTBURN is about a young couple from flyover country who are unable to conceive and get a miracle from above when a small spacecraft carrying an apparently human baby lands in their backyard. Obviously it’s the Superman origin story, but this movie spins it on its axis and asks the question, “What if Superboy was a bad seed? What if he became the worst of us, instead of the best?”
It’s as much a horror movie as a superhero movie. Since I’m as much of a horror fan as a superhero fan, if not more, so this should have been right up my alley. I was excited about it, and was even into it for the first half hour or so, but soon enough, I wasn’t. I know you had a different experience.
As two of the people who saw BRIGHTBURN theatrically, I thought we could talk a little about why you liked it and why I didn’t. Honestly I’d rather hear more from you: This is a movie I wanted to like. I’m not sure my current opinion of why it’s not for me can be nudged, but I’d like to try.
What did you like about the movie? What worked for you?
As much as I enjoyed this film, I’m afraid my reasoning for doing so might almost sound like a putdown, which I can assure you it’s not. Essentially, though, I had a great time seeing BRIGHTBURN in theaters, because it felt like somewhat of a throwback to simpler times.
To understand where I’m coming from, you should probably know that I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER is one of my favorite horror movies – and I mean that sincerely. I’m a huge fan of all slashers, but I grew up in the 1990s, and those silly slashers are the ones most near and dear to my heart. I love I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER’s glossy sheen and its generically attractive cast. I love its jump scares and its melodramatic “What are you waiting for?!” moments. I love the movie’s authentically tense moments, like Helen’s final, devastating chase scene. And I love that the movie allows me to divorce myself entirely from real life and real problems for 100 minutes or so, because nothing in that film is realistic or prompting you to ponder actual societal ills.
Circling back to BRIGHTBURN – to me, it feels like a popcorn movie from an earlier time, when the general public expected much less in terms of “big ideas” from their horror movies. Right now we’re in a horror boom, and as a lifelong horror fan, that’s obviously an incredible joy. But the theater is packed these days with horror films fueled by huge ideas that not only force us to think about the worst aspects of modern society, but to reckon with our own roles in perpetuating those problems.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I am absolutely not calling for an end to these wonderful, history-making films. I hope it’s obvious that I’m living the horror lover’s dream right now. I’m simply saying that when I went to see a horror movie as a teenager, all I hoped for was for a slick movie that would make me feel genuinely excited or frightened for as much of the runtime as possible – and BRIGHTBURN gave me the same thrilled/scared/elated feeling I always felt watching slashers as a teen. BRIGHTBURN is a pure slasher, focused entirely on being scary and fun – and it succeeds. It’s full of tense moments, definitively R-rated violence, and plenty of truly gruesome deaths. I was on the edge of my seat, dreading (with delight) whatever gory set piece was to come next, all while knowing that none of it mattered, beyond the theater I sitting in, at all.
I think many people who were disappointed with BRIGHTBURN were hoping for a movie that explored bigger ideas, like nature versus nurture or toxic masculinity – and honestly, the movie seems to be disinterested in delving into any of that. And, well, I’m fine with it.
I mean… I can’t argue with any of that! Except definitely the cast of I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER being “generically” attractive, but that’s incidental to the point. But yes, I was disappointed with BRIGHTBURN precisely because I was expecting it to explore bigger ideas, and because it failed to really delve into any of them. If all you wanted from BRIGHTBURN was a diverting slasher in the mode of I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, that’s what you got, and again, I wouldn’t ever begrudge you or anyone a happy moviegoing experience.
If I can talk a little more about why it’s so disappointing to me, though, I’d say that the movie is a disappointment exactly because it RAISES the bigger ideas, indicating the filmmakers were aware of the genre tropes and thematic elements they were exploring, and then the movie drops those ideas as callously as its main character drops another character to a certain doom. There’s a side of me that can enjoy the cheaper thrills of a superpowered child going to town on the adults who tried to restrain him with rules and morality – of course there is. But there’s also the side that is obliged to ask, “Why this movie? Why now?”
If you’re making a movie about a killer Superboy, not only in the era of the superhero movie having total dominance over the box office, but also in a much scarier era of near-daily school shootings and of near-absolute apathy from authorities in a position to curtail them, I’m going to have to pose these questions. I don’t want to. I’d love to turn my brain off. I can’t. I’m living through this moment, after more than three decades of living and of solid moviegoing, and it’s near-impossible to go back now.
In, say, 1997, I wouldn’t have expected more from BRIGHTBURN, but there have been 22 years of superhero movies since then – at least four of them starring Superman, in addition to at least three (by my count) live-action TV series starring Superman. If a movie wants to engage with the mythology of this particular character – again, I don’t think you’re wrong for not minding that it doesn’t, we both paid for our ticket – but also I don’t think I’m wrong for asking for more and better ideas than “He’s Michael Myers,” and being disappointed in not getting them. I feel like we get plenty of good slasher films. Why waste the notion of a remorseless pre-teen alien god, something we see less often, on that rote framework?
BRIGHTBURN is literally no more complicated than this: Baby lands on earth, kindly couple raises him as their own, kid hits puberty and goes bad, kid kills almost EVERYBODY. Then the movie ends. The movie ends right when the story gets halfway interesting! What happens next? Does it ever weigh on him, all the terrible things he’s done? How does the world react to the discovery of this kid? Who tries to stop him? It’s been said thousands of times that a hero is only as interesting as his or her greatest villain – I happen to believe the inverse is true.
Most offensive to me maybe is how in the last few minutes of the movie, BRIGHTBURN begins to answer these questions. “How does the world react?” Well, we get a funny cameo from a beloved character actor as one of those right-wing conspiracy-theorist types (that part I liked) who then starts reporting on the potential existence of more evil-kid superheroes, including an Evil-Kid Aquaman and an Evil-Kid Wonder Woman (to which I said, “Oh, come on.”) This is the kind of thing that made me weary of Shyamalan movies. If this movie is disappointing me, why are you teasing a sequel? And a sequel promising more of the same? I wasn’t satisfied by Evil-Kid Superman, and now you’re offering Evil-Kid Justice League. Pretty presumptuous to serve poop on my burger and expect me to want to come back to the restaurant. A far better tease might involve the inclusion of a brilliant and altruistic super-genius, a Good-Guy Lex Luthor. A teenaged Tony Stark. Promise me some fireworks. That’s why we keep going to these movies.
BRIGHTBURN takes an intriguing notion: The superhero genre by way of bad-seed and slasher films, and goes full-speed ‘grimdark’ with it. The pleasures (including a better-than-average child-actor performance from Jackson A. Dunn, a typically solid performance from Elizabeth Banks, a well-deserved leading role for David Denman, several admittedly creative and admirably gory super-murders, and some genuinely unexpected narrative zig-zags, like the fate of the noble sheriff) were relatively minor, in my opinion, in comparison to the pop-cultural resonance a movie with this set-up could have had. It’s like if Matt Damon kept on being a janitor, drinking at bars with Wings Hauser Jr. and the Affleck brothers, and occasionally solving math equations at night. I guess some people would still enjoy watching that, but can you imagine how disappointed Robin Williams would have been?
I think these are all sound points, and I can absolutely understand your frustration. I don’t think BRIGHTBURN will go down in history as a groundbreaking or even particularly great horror film, or superhero film for that matter. It’s full of unexplored potential and more than a couple of dubious plot points. And yet, for me it was an all-too-welcome respite from real-world problems, serving up gore and suspense in equal measure, touching on timely issues but refusing the bash the audience over the head with them.
Because the film did touch on some bigger issues, albeit with an exceedingly light hand. We saw the effects of toxic masculinity in Brandon’s obsession with his female classmate, Caitlyn. As Brandon’s power grows, so does his fixation with Caitlyn and his desire to get her to like him – and if not that, then to possess and control her. The film also touches on nature versus nurture by examining the parents’ often-questionable parenting decisions. Could Brandon have been steered toward a better path? Perhaps, but not with a mother trapped in denial and a father who sees no solution to your problems but homicide. But the main focus of the movie is the scares, and I can’t fault the filmmakers for that when what I wanted most was to be scared.
The ending of BRIGHTBURN calls to mind the ending of CHRONICLE (2012). It’s another superhero/supervillain origin film of sorts that concludes by taking a small story to a much larger, global stage – but only teasingly so. We’re left to wonder what will happen to a world suddenly infiltrated by and aware of superhuman people, and we’re given few answers. I imagine that ending aggravated a lot of people, as the ending of BRIGHTBURN annoyed you, but I thought it was perfect. I like a small story. I like keeping it local. Once the story moves to a larger stage, my interest wanes.
Ultimately, though, I think it comes down to mere expectations. Those who go into BRIGHTBURN looking for a think-y superhero film will, almost certainly, be sorely disappointed. Those who love a good slasher that isn’t afraid to focus on and indulge in gore-riffic murders, however, might be as delighted as I was, despite the lack of a larger message. Aren’t we all, sometimes, just here for the killings?
Soon you can play at home! BRIGHTBURN will be streaming on Amazon Prime on August 6th! (The Blu-Ray will be out on August 20th.)
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Tags: Blu-ray, Brian Gunn, David Denman, David Yarovesky, Elizabeth Banks, Gregory Alan Williams, Horror, Jackson A. Dunn, James Gunn, Kenneth Huang, Mark Gunn, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Michael Dallatorre, Michael Rooker, Rainn Wilson, Steve Agee, streaming, Superheroes, Timothy Williams