The pitch for Brightburn must have been irresistible: “Hey, let’s do a horror movie like The Omen, but instead of the little kid being the Antichrist, he can be, like, the Anti-Superman! You have these Kansas parents — like the Kents but less corny — who find this extraterrestrial baby in a ship, but the baby grows up to be, like, a psycho supervillain?” “Can we franchise it?” “OMG, we do an origin story, we do a sequel with teens getting royally wasted, then we do a prequel with a whole planet of psycho supervillains!” “Then a superhero baby could arrive from space to kill the supervillain baby!” “Green light! Green light!”
Hey, I’d have been afraid not to green-light it, especially with Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn (back from his ridiculous hiatus) as a producer and two more Gunns (Brian and Mark) writing the script.
How’s the movie? It plays like a pitch. Maybe you won’t be expecting the yucky gore set pieces, but this is, after all, a horror film, like M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass but with no ponderous speeches about comic books being “an ancient way of passing on history.” Elizabeth Banks is Tori Breyer, the Mrs. Kent equivalent. (What was Mrs. Kent’s first name again? It escapes me.) Tori is a painter who finds herself torn between loving and fearing her increasingly weird son, Brandon, played by Jackson A. Dunn (not Gunn!), who has a blank mask of a face until he starts disemboweling people. Then he gives us a smug little smile.
I wish there were more to Brightburn. (The title is the name of the town.) The director, David Yarovesky, puts the camera behind the mom as she hurries around the farm hunting for her son (“Brandon? Where are you? Brandon???”), only to find him squatting over a mysteriously pulsating hurricane cellar. (Cue the low bass in the front speakers and the fluttering chickens in the back ones.) There aren’t a lot of annoying false scares, at least, and there’s a good, creepy scene in which Brandon materializes in the bedroom of a cute girl in his class and she doesn’t seem pleased. (Is he trying to frighten or court her? He evidently makes no distinction.) But most of Brightburn belabors the obvious. Meredith Hagner plays Tori’s sister, who’s also Brandon’s school guidance counselor. Eager to hear that he’s sorry for crushing a classmate’s hand to dust, she listens instead to a paean to his own superiority that concludes, “Sometimes when bad things happen to people it’s for a good reason.” Supposedly, Brandon’s intelligence is in the top one percent of the top one percent, but his cover stories need a lot of work. So does his supervillain mask. Maybe he’ll come up with something better in art class.
Elizabeth Banks is, as usual, very good and un-gimmicky, but she has stiff competition in the terrorized-mom department from Lee Remick in The Omen, never mind Toni Collette and her auto-decapitation in Hereditary. Earlier this year, Nicholas McCarthy’s The Prodigy had a lot more going on, but no one much saw it. It needed the supervillain angle, I guess. Or someone in the Gunn family.