“Superman” meets “The Omen” in “Brightburn,” a watchable but super-silly mix of superheroics and evil-child horror that mashes together singularly uninspired ideas from both. Offering R-rated fantasy competition to “Aladdin” this Memorial Day weekend, it should do OK with undiscriminating audiences seeking familiar, forgettable genre thrills. But the franchise prayers that an open-ended fadeout dangles seem unlikely to be answered, unless they’re heard in the realm of cheaper, direct-to-streaming sequels.
Not that this hopeful kickoff is exactly deluxe, though it does rep a modest budgetary leap from helmer David Yarovesky’s prior feature, 2014 sci-fi horror “The Hive.” The advertising for “Brightburn” prominently bills James Gunn, “visionary filmmaker behind ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’” That it turns out he’s just a producer here (relatives Brian and Mark Gunn are the scenarists) may lead to some annoyance among those expecting more than B-movie-level spectacle.
But as is so often the case in this kind of film, the real problem isn’t its production limits so much as a lack of imagination. The premise isn’t bad, even if the evil-Superman origin story was done better in “Chronicle.” The execution, however, is lacking, particularly in freshness, humor or style. If what can make an otherwise clock-punching popcorn entertainment memorable are its idiosyncrasies, this movie offers only some gratuitously dwelt-upon gore.
Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) are a semi-credible Kansas farming couple whose childlessness gets a most unusual fix when a spaceship/meteor drops in their backyard, apparently with a human-like child inside. Ten years later, Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) knows he was adopted, but remembers nothing else of his mystifying past. Upon turning 12, however, he begins acting “special” in the wrong ways, angrily hurling a lawnmower over the distance of a couple of football fields, terrorizing a classmate he likes (Emmie Hunter), and perhaps slaughtering the entire population of a chicken-coop — behavior his parents are initially inclined to write off as, y’know, puberty.
But then Brandon begins to occasionally levitate, his eyes glowing red, the better to pounce on those who might tattle on him and his malevolent new superpowers. Among his enemies: the aforementioned classmate’s disapproving mum (Becky Wahlstrom), his schoolteacher aunt (Meredith Hagner), her husband (Matt Jones of “Breaking Bad”) and, eventually, the by now wised-up Breyers themselves.
These victims are foreshadowed in stock slasher-pic terms, with the requisite blood-soaked payoff when each one’s time is up. Why does Brandon want to kill people? Well, being from outer space, of course he wants to “Take the world!” as the simpleminded script duly has him utter repeatedly. Deprived of the kind of slow narrative buildup and atmospherics that helped make other evil children (from “Omen” to “Orphan” and “Joshua” et al.) at least passably chilling, Brandon can’t scare us much; with no graduations between ordinary kid and Malevolent Force, he just see-saws rotely from one extreme to the other.
Nor are the adults given a lot to work with. This is the most substantive role for Banks (who’s been busy directing and producing her own projects) since “Love and Mercy” five years ago, and that should be very good news. But the maternal instinct meant to emotionally ground her role (and the story in general) fast curdles into ridiculousness within this cartoonish narrative. Denman fares a little better for having to run a less hysterical gamut of emotions. Still, one is mostly impressed that they were able to keep a straight face at all during exchanges like: “I will never turn against our son.” “He’s not our son! He’s something we found in the woods!”
With Georgia standing in for Kansas (though a year from now we’ll probably stop seeing those “Made in Georgia” logos onscreen), “Brightburn” sports decent production polish, including VFX. Yet even these depict sights that aren’t unusual onscreen these days — mostly characters in flight, whether on their own power or as hurled by a super-powerful brat — and no other design contributions distinguish themselves.
The most that our antihero has going for him is that he’s created his own logo, a double “B” frequently left scrawled in some unfortunate’s blood at a murder scene. He also seems to have sewn his own costume — a ratty cape and modified ski mask. As supervillain starter kits go, it’s not much. But then, the briskly paced yet pedestrian “Brightburn” is pretty low-watt in inspiration all around. Its evil kid can fly. His movie, however, never achieves liftoff, not even into the smoggy sphere of guilty-pleasure trash.