There’s slow, there’s slow burn, and then there’s Brightburn.
Nepotism can get you far in or out of Hollywood, but in the case of Brightburn, a rote, routine “What If?” Superman-as-supervillain origin story co-written by onetime schlock purveyor-turned-A-list director James Gunn’s brother and cousin, Brian and Mark, respectively, it’s not far enough. Gunn produced Brightburn, but he obviously played a key role in getting the Brightburn script in front of studio executives eager to capitalize on the lucrative superhero genre. He just as likely helped Brian and Mark to shape its not-quite-clever Superman-as-supervillain storyline. Gunn should have given the underwritten, undercooked script four, five, or even six more passes before deeming it worthy of actual production. Brightburn takes a steep dive off a short cliff, repeatedly failing to meet any of the Gunn trio’s supposedly subversive intentions, taking an old-to-comics-new-to-movies premise with promise and potential and instead delivering a flaccid, turgid, ultimately disposable contribution to the genre.
When we meet the alliteratively named Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn), he’s a “normal” preteen, a bit shy, a bit introspective, occasionally mocked and lightly bullied by his classmates for his behavior, but otherwise loved and treated fairly and affectionately by his rural-dwelling, farm-owning adoptive parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denham). He’s basically Superboy before Superboy discovers his true heritage as the “Last Son of Krypton,” his superpowers, and his destiny as humanity’s first, best protector, but once puberty hits – the Gunns and director David Yarovesky (The Hive) connect raging hormones to Brandon’s transformation into a superpowered stalker/slasher and promptly do nothing with the idea – Brandon becomes a literal and virtual alien, acting out at home and at school, stalking an unfortunate classmate, and gradually ramping up his “bad seed” behavior from obnoxious to deadly. And since he has all of Superman’s powers (flight, super-strength, super-speed, laser vision), his worst impulses and instincts result in an ever-increasing body count.
The script suggests Brandon’s transformation from a shy, introspective pre-teen to monstrous killer fueled by toxic, masculine desires happens vaguely in part to programming – genetic, psychological, or otherwise – activated by the damaged alien ship conveniently stored behind locked basement of the Breyer’s farmhouse. It’s the same alien ship, of course, that brought Brandon from parts unknown to the Breyers, who like the Kents before them, promptly adopted him as a two-year-old rather than contacting the federal or state governments. That decision, baked forever into Clark Kent/Superman’s origin story, proves to be the first of many bad, borderline idiotic decisions made by Brandon’s adoptive parents. At first, they’re predictably protective of Brandon’s increasingly disturbing, violent behavior. Before long, though, Kyle’s growing doubts about his surly, adopted son start to get the better of him. Tori, ever the perfect maternal figure, refuses to believe Brandon could be anything except the kind, good-hearted son she’s known for over a decade even when the mounting evidence tells an entirely different story.
After Brandon turns into anti-Superman, Brightburn devolves into a standard-issue slasher, albeit a slasher with Brandon’s superpowers adding a sci-fi element to a horror sub-genre. He’s super-fast, super-strong, and super-pissed, so once he decides one of Brighburn’s 10 or 12 residents need to exit their respective mortal coils, there’s only one real, gory, gruesome outcome for his prey. (And once Brandon decides humans are inferior and therefore, insect-like prey, there’s literally no stopping him in his hand-made, blood-red mask and tattered cape.) It doesn’t help, of course, that Brandon’s victims shed IQ points as dictated by the script. Aside from the painfully bungled premise, a couple of end-credit shots that hint where Brightburn could and should have gone, but didn’t (likely due to budget limitations), and the R-rated gore – with two notable set pieces meant only for horror fans with seriously strong stomachs stand out – there’s nothing else in Brightburn that can be considered even close to worthwhile. Less like Brightburn in the future, please.