Brightburn isn’t Brightburn enough. Early on, it suggests some truly freaky angles to the familiar Superman story. We all know the Superman story. An alien child comes to Earth, is adopted by wholesome parents, discovers his superpowers, saves world. But Brightburn suggests we can’t assume that last bit because children can be evil little shits. Which, really, isn’t very provocative. “I gave you Lord of the Flies for your birthday,” a father tells his bullied child in the movie Cold Pursuit, “All the answers you’ll ever need are in that book.”
Despite the suggestion that Brightburn is going to upend superheros — with great power comes great pubescent angst, it hints darkly — it gets cold feet. It opts to be just another bog standard horror movie about an evil kid. You could watch any ten seconds of Brightburn and know that you’re watching a horror movie about an evil kid. The tone is ominous, the pace is plodding faux suspense, the characters are dumb, the kid is creepy. Even his mask looks like something out of a horror movie. The only connection to superheroes is that he sometimes wears a cape. Take away the cape and you’re watching The Prodigy.
And even as a horror movie, it’s got very little to recommend it. A couple instances of R-rated gore, I suppose. But it mostly relies on the same trick. Creepy kid is standing there threatening someone. The person looks away and when he looks back up — oh no! — the creepy kid is gone. Then ten or fifteen seconds of supposed “where did he go?” dread, followed by a jump scare as the creepy kid attacks. Repeat for ninety minutes. Why didn’t the creepy kid just attack before the victim looked away? Because the director of Brightburn has nothing up his sleeve. No new tricks, no interesting angles, and hardly a memorable kill among them.
Brightburn is particularly disappointing since it flaunts its connection to James Gunn, who made Super in 2010. That bold and very R-rated deconstruction of superheroes established Gunn as someone with a unique perspective on comic books. But James Gunn is only producing here. The script is from his brothers Mark and Brian, whose previous credits include the straight-to-video sequel to Bring It On and a Dwayne Johnson family adventure about CG dinosaurs. The Gunns have one foot in Troma Pictures and the other in Hollywood. The best case scenario at this intersection is bold stuff like Super and joyous stuff like Guardians of the Galaxy. The worst case scenario is Brightburn, which is missing any Troma subversiveness and represents Hollywood cookie cutter horror at its least imaginative. You might as well watch The Prodigy, which is a terrible thing to say about any movie.