Every once in a while, there comes a movie with an intriguing premise only to ruin everything by being so lazy in its execution it does the concept a massive disservice. Such is the case with Brightburn, a superhero horror genre mash-up that takes the idea of what would happen if Superman, a paragon of all that is good, used his powers to wreak havoc instead? It has been a conceptual chestnut in comics for some time now, but Brightburn tries to shake things up by injecting horror and slasher movie tropes into a superhero origin story that practically rips every detail off DC’s flagship character.
In the midwestern town of Brightburn, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) are struggling to conceive a child when an alien spacecraft crashes onto their property with a tiny infant inside. Like the Kents before them, they raise him as their own. Twelve years later, their adopted son Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is exhibiting disturbing behavior and manifesting superpowers that climax into an inevitable body count.
In essence, Brightburn combines the Superman mythos with the tropes of the slasher and bad kid horror subgenres and dilutes every aspect of each at the same time. It’s never really established why Brandon turns evil and Brightburn doesn’t bother to have any of the nature-versus-nurture debates present in the good storylines about an evil Superman. It could be the evil voices emanated from the spaceship urging Brandon to “take the world,” but this clashes with the evidence from Brandon collecting grotesque anatomy pictures like a budding serial killer, and if that wasn’t enough to mull over then it’s hinted it might be from his anger at being ostracized at school.
Or maybe it’s just those preteen hormones kicking in, who knows? If any of these aspects had been developed it could have led to an intriguing backstory on how a good kid with superpowers turns into a coldhearted killer, but the movie is content to shrug its shoulders and posit that Brandon is evil by default rather than any kind of character development. For an origin story, it leaves much to be desired and isn’t concerned with answering any questions about motivation so much as it’s fixated on the next tension-free stalk sequence.
Dunn plays Brandon with as much creepiness as he can muster, but it’s a performance that’s all over the map whenever the movie requires Brandon to display any real depth while everyone else falls into the usual horror movie tropes. In typical fashion, it takes a ridiculously long time for the Breyers to realize something is off about their son and even longer for anyone to act on their suspicions. It becomes something of a running gag seeing Brandon’s supportive-to-a-fault mom rationalize and ignore everything that’s going on.
Tori is convinced of her son’s innocence for an unbelievable length of time, even chalking up Brandon breaking every bone in the hand of a girl at school he had been creepily stalking as an accident. Brandon’s aunt sleeps blissfully away while his uncle yells at him for stalking around in his ratty cape and mask getup in the very next room, and about the only person who has any sense is the mother of the girl Brandon injured who recognizes him for the monster that he is.
Brandon’s superpowers ultimately add very little to what would otherwise be a subpar slasher. There’s no difference between Brandon hovering around watching his victims one minute and popping up behind them the next versus seeing Jason or Michael do the same thing. The special effects strain to convey Brandon’s destructive capabilities and they lack the sort of spectacle one could imagine from superpowers gone awry, though there’s enough blood to satisfy the average horror fan.
Brightburn is a boring horror movie with an ambitious premise that is barely explored in its breezy ninety-one-minute runtime. There’s little to enjoy besides some of the gore for gore’s sake. The movie seems to know this as it lingers on a close up of someone picking a glass shard out of their eye, but even then it is just as unimaginative in its sadism as everything else. Stripping away the superhero parallels, Brightburn is just another feeble horror movie with heat vision swapped out for blood-soaked machetes and little else.