What if Superman had turned evil as a kid? That’s the basic pitch line behind Brightburn, a new superhero movie that is much more slasher horror than it is anything Marvel. Comics have explored this idea before using everyone from Superman to Captain America, but this is the most serious treatment we’ve seen in a film. Unfortunately, a clever concept does not make a great film, alone.
Brightburn begins with Tori and Kyle (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) seeing a spaceship crash onto their farm. Inside they discover a baby, who they then raise as their own. As he grows up, he begins to discover he has special powers—everything from flight, to super speed, to controlling electronics, to heat vision. Young Brandon is truly Superman in everything but name only (though I’m not sure Superman ever controlled electronics?). Except, along the way he turns evil. The film smartly starts down a route explaining his behavior due to bullying, but then double backs on itself and instead chalks it up to his alien nature. Having Superman kill people because he was bullied seems cheap.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of the film isn’t as smart as this decision. Instead, the film quickly devolves into a typical horror slasher with Brandon stalking people to only kill them with no possible defense on their part. This is where the film sort of falls apart, for me. Most great slasher films, like the original Halloween or Scream 2, have to feel like both the victim and killer are in danger. Michael Myers works because he seems vulnerable. We feel the teens can prevail if they’re just smart or tough enough. Even the first few Friday the 13th films have the killer more stealthily killing their victims rather than physically overpowering them. But here, much like Superman, Brandon features god-like powers. He could kill anyone with heat vision by simply burning down the building they’re in. Instead, for most of the film, he stalks his prey like he’s hunting them. I suppose it’s the equivalent of still going bow hunting when you have a rifle in your arsenal?
Even with my limited comics knowledge, I’ve seen some cool storylines done with an evil Superman. Brightburn had that potential but tossed it away in favor of a simple slasher. Those opening moments aping Richard Donner and Zack Snyder are fun and foretell a much better film than we receive.