What if the super baby that Ma and Pa Kent took in turned out to be, in addition to an offspring of steel, Damien from the Omen movies, with a dash of Jason Voorhees thrown in for good measure?
That’s not just the log line for Brightburn; it’s the whole movie. The process of development that is traditionally undertaken in Hollywood by an entire office wing of executives—a sometimes fraught undertaking where ideas are made into stories with arcs and characters are given actual personalities and purposes—seems to have been entirely skipped over here. It is as if the film was pitched in an elevator and then the doors never opened.
Which is a shame. If the filmmakers had a modicum of curiosity about the implications of their own idea, the movie might have had something interesting to say. After all, a reimagining of the Superman myth has the potential to address a variety of hot-button topics ranging from the nature of what bonds a family to the toxicity of our culture’s current obsession with otherworldly beings capable of doing impossible things.
Instead, the movie has nary a thought in its red-hooded head, only a lot of blood.
Failing to meet the most basic requirements of the two genres it is trying to meld, Brightburn is little more than a collection of gory shocks that have zero emotional impact. The film’s muddled set pieces—in which the victims of its lead character (Jackson A. Dunn) get their eyeballs slashed and their jaws crushed—lack both the suspense and tension required of horror and the cathartic derring-do of superhero movies.
But the biggest surprise and disappointment of the film, given that it was produced by Guardians of the Galaxy clown prince James Gunn and written by his younger brother Mark and cousin Brian, is that it has zero interest in leavening the mood with humor, mordant or otherwise.
We first meet Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and The Office‘s David Denman) when one of their futile attempts to conceive is interrupted by some sort of alien ship crashing in the wood behind their small, ramshackle farm. (Like The CW’s Smallville, the film is named after the fictional Kansas community in which it is set.) There is a baby on board, and in their fever to become parents, the couple decides to take it in, name him Brandon, and raise the child as their own. That decision-making process, which may have been fascinating to explore, happens off screen.
Everything is hunky dory until Brandon’s 12th birthday, which is around the same time he discovers he can bend fork tines with his teeth and stick his hand in a lawnmower and remove it unharmed. (How do they mark his birth anyway? When he landed on the planet?) Shortly after, and without much prompting, Brandon starts using his powers—a standard issue superhero potpourri of laser eyes, flight (though he tends more to hover), invulnerability and super strength and speed—to start grotesquely offing townsfolk as if they were unsuspecting coeds at Camp Crystal Lake.
Why does Brandon become a killing machine? Perhaps, he’s the first emissary of an invading alien army (in a notebook where he draws graphic cartoons he sometimes writes the words “take the world,” which could be the motto of a prep school for super villains). Maybe he’s just a jerk. It seems a little silly to care about the answer to that question because clearly the screenwriters never did.
In truth, the answer is cynical, obvious and has nothing to do with the story the movie purports to tell or the motivations of its tragically undeveloped characters. It’s because horror movies and superhero movies make a lot of money these days, and while that might explain why this not even half-baked genre mash up was hurried into existence, it’s not a good enough reason to actually sit through it.