The very first thing that happens in Brightburn is- well, technically¸ it's an establishing shot of a rather nice Kansas farmhouse. So the second thing that happens in Brightburn, I should say, is a tracking shot up a bookcase with several titles about fertility and then one prominently-located book on emotionally dealing with the knowledge of infertility, and while we're seeing these books, we hear a man and a woman getting amorous offscreen, and the first line of dialogue is "maybe we'll get lucky and make a baby." And at this point, I'm like, goddamn, how much redundancy can you pack into the first ten seconds of a movie, anyway? I would maybe have been sufficiently annoyed at this to mention it anyway, but what sealed it was that this is exactly the approach to dialogue that cousins Mark & Brian Gunn display throughout their screenplay. To wit, whenever it is possible to spell things out in the most artless way with the most lifelessly small vocabulary possible, and stop the momentum of the thing dead as people deliver these ungainly blobs of exposition, well Misters Gunn & Gunn will always be certain to take that opportunity.

Brightburn, as we officially learn way the hell too late for it to be of any use, is a small town in Kansas where the Breyers, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), live in their miserable sterility. Here, on the night we meet them, their hopeless, infertile sex is interrupted by a meteor crashing in the woods. Cut to a montage of them welcoming a new baby boy into the world, and raising him up to the age of 12, at which point he has been the dearest angel a parent could hope for. And at this point, I am curious. The whole reason Brightburn exists is to pose one single question: "what if Superman was evil?" I suppose the other part of the reason is to supply the answer, "then he would kill people", but let's not get too far ahead. "What if Superman was evil?" is, like, it. There's nothing else animating the movie - it maybe thinks that it has some character drama, and it possible thought at one point about having some social commentary, but neither of those things really land.

So why be coy? The reason the movie exists, and the reason any of us see it is because Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunne) is basically Superman (but evil), so we know that he landed in a space ship and that's what's glowing red in the woods as Tori and Kyle wander in the Kansas dark. Yet it's presented as something mysterious, or at least something conspicuously unexplained. I don't know, maybe I should just be glad that there was something that the Gunns' screenplay didn't hopelessly overarticulate.

Anyway, back to the question at hand: so now that we know that, if Superman was evil, he'd kill people, what else? And somehow, Brightburn doesn't have an answer to that. It's entirely easy to point to all the things that the film might have done. It's definitely thinking about being a hugely on-the-nose metaphor for puberty, specifically being the loving parent of a boychild entering puberty, unprepared for the wild mood swings and erratic propensity for hormonally juiced-up aggression that entails. In a couple of scenes, after he discovers that he's an alien demigod, Brandon talks about being better than foolish normies, and his descent into villainy starts by making stalkerish gestures towards the classmate he has a crush on, both of which suggest that somewhere, one of the drafts had "make it about toxic masculine sexuality!" written smudgily in the margins. Plus, in the Year of Our Lord 2019, with pop culture having more or less given itself entirely to the loving worship of superheroes, there's no doubt that a story about Superman being evil has to do little more than exist to raise questions about why, exactly, we get so excited by these tales of nigh-omnipotent beings doing all the work for us in making the world a better place.

Brightburn could be about any or all of those things pretty easily. But somehow Brightburn isn't actually about any of them. It can't be. For one thing, it's confused and ill-conceived: basic plot questions like how much of Brandon's wickedness is innate, and how much is instilled by the demonic voice coming from the spaceship, hidden in his adoptive parents' barn, is something the film leaves entirely unclear, and pretty much anything to do with character or theme gets kneecapped as a result. Characters make endlessly stupid decisions for no reason: at one point, Brandon's aunt Marilee (Meredith Hagner) firmly and sensibly demands that he walk the several miles back to his own house at 10:30 in the evening, not thinking to mention to his parents that he's doing so, and the film unambiguously views this as her being a level, mature adult. Kyle, especially, functions largely so that the film can have plot points, and though Denman does his absolute best to make that somehow work as an emotional throughline (he and Banks are both perfectly cast, and it is a shame that they're both stuck in unplayable roles), it never, ever comes together.

The other thing is that Brightburn is a horror movie through and through; a slasher movie, practically. I mean, it makes sense: if Superman was evil, and killed people, it would indeed be pretty horrifying. But it means that everything that Brandon does comes pretty much straight out of the Jason Voorhees handbook: stand as menacing silhouette in the background, glare angrily through your mask (Brandon has red-orange eyes and a weird burlap sock on his head when he's in Evil Mode, a genuinely effective and unnerving image), move very fast offscreen in order to enact jump scares. Director David Yarovesky, a hanger-on in the Gunn Family Cinematic Circle (in addition to the screenwriters, James Gunn - the most famous one - serves as producer), stages pretty much every instance of a notionally scary scene the same way, which is just as well; the script sets them all up the same way, too. Anyway, my point is that reducing Evil Pubescent Superman to the status of a psycho killer comme une autre means that Brightburn has even less hope of doing anything with its big hook. And so we get the same damn thing over and over again; it's cool the first time, but increasingly rote and repetitive, and while I am thrilled Brighburn is a mere 90 minutes long, this is not remotely because it is an efficent, tight bit of storytelling.

It is not, to be fair, a complete washout. Banks and Denman are good, I mentioned, and Dunn has a great look, all ethereal features that are uncomfortably angular. The moody nighttime vibe can be reasonably atmospheric. The only actively worthwhile thing, though, is the film's gore effects: Brightburn is a stunningly messy film, with one scene of eye violence that would make Lucio Fulci himself proud, and a car accident that leaves nothing whatsoever to the imagination. Even the less-showy moments (I am especially thinking of a splatter that appears against a post when Brandon flies into one of his victims at top speed) still have a sense of grandiosity and excess that serves them well. So yes, my big pitch for the movie is "it's terribly written, wastes its premise, and tediously repeats its one idea endlessly, but at least it has thoroughly depraved violence!" Which at least tells you if you're the sort of person who'd benefit from bothering with the movie; for myself, anytime a mainstream American film gets away with something like this, it warms my heart, and that's why I can't really hate Brightburn even though I think it makes virtually every wrong choice that a film with such a terrific hook could possibly make.