When Netflix announced that they were producing the urban cop fantasy Bright, it came with a heavy price tag and plenty of expectation. The streaming giant shelled out $90 million for the movie, and lined up a formidable team: stars Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, Suicide Squad director David Ayer, and a script from Max Landis, for which they paid $3 million (a notably high price). And it seems like the financial gamble paid off, with Variety reporting that Bright was watched by an estimated 11 million viewers in its first three days. As always, Netflix itself has not released any official figures, but the company did reveal it was its most-viewed film ever in its first week, and a sequel has already been greenlit. Landis isn’t coming back, but Ayer is taking on script-writing duties himself.
Of course, if you had only read the reviews for Bright, you could be forgiven for thinking the whole enterprise had been a big mistake on Netflix’s part. The movie was hit by terrible reviews, and currently boasts a pretty dismal 27% on Rotten Tomatoes. Ayer is no stranger to bad reviews–he is the director of Suicide Squad after all–and was so taken by one particular vicious takedown that he stated that “the highest compliment is a strong reaction either way” and that the review was “going on my fridge.”
While Ayer’s reaction is somewhat passive-aggressive, he does have a point. Bright has indeed provoked a strong reaction, whether it’s the critical panning, or what seems to be a far more positive response from Netflix subscribers. And we’re getting a sequel, whether the haters like it or not. So what did the filmmakers get right, and what changes can make Bright 2 a better movie?
Look who’s orcing
There’s a lot going on in Bright. It’s a buddy cop comedy, an urban action movie, a fantasy epic, and a social satire. It takes elements we’ve seen a seen a dozen times before in other movies, and throws them together in a way that is often unfamiliar. It’s not surprising that the film is a tonal muddle, but in an age of cookie-cutter sequels, endlessly repeating franchises, and a general dearth of originality, the ambition and imagination of Bright is to be applauded, even if the end result was flawed.
The world that Ayer and Landis built is fascinating. This is an alternate Earth populated by races and elements familiar to World of Warcraft players and readers of Tolkien–Orcs, Elves, Fairies, wands, and magic. But instead of mystical woods and mist-shrouded mountains, this is the urban Los Angeles that Ayers documented in his cop movies Training Day and End of Watch. We learn enough of the history of this world to provide context, but ultimately Bright is a character-driven film with little time for history lessons beyond beyond what is needed for the story.
So there’s plenty for Bright 2 to dive into. There are races that we have not seen yet, and others glimpsed very briefly. One fleeting shot shows a centaur officer–half cop, half horse–while in another, a dragon is seen flying high above the city. Dwarves are mentioned but do not appear, and at one point Jakoby, the orc cop played by Edgerton, mentions that there were once “nine armies” who united against the Dark Lord. In 2016, Landis provided a handy infographic that broke down the racial make-up of Bright’s America, revealing that goblins, giants, and lizard-like brezziks are also part of his world.
Speaking of the Dark Lord, we learn little about him, beyond that he’s a terrifying Elven presence whose return is feared by all. An evil overlord is a fantasy standard , and the expectation is that he’ll play a bigger part in Bright 2. There’s an early exchange between federal agents and the magic-user that they capture, in which the latter explains that modern military weaponry would be no match for his return. This certainly sets up a spectacular confrontation if he does make an appearance in the sequel. But it would be a mistake just to deliver a conventional motion-captured CG bad guy, the likes of which we’ve seen too many times over the past decade, mostly at the end of superhero movies. The Dark Lord needs to be something seriously scary, not just a big dude with a purple face.
Where there’s a Will
Both Smith and Edgerton are returning for the sequel, so expect further mismatched buddy cop comedy. Both actors are charismatic, but much of their relationship fell into cliché; we’ve seen this dynamic play out in any number of movies, from Lethal Weapon to Smith’s breakout movie Bad Boys. But there’s room to do something more interesting with these characters.
Jakoby in particular is fascinating, an orc who’s not accepted by either his own kind or the humans with whom he works. By the end of the movie he’s “bloodied”–accepted into the orc world–by orc gangsters. What does this mean for him? There’s opportunity now to set up some serious moral conflicts, as he is now fully a part of a community that is considered a lower class, who are targeted by police daily and compose much of the criminal underworld.
And while audiences obviously want to see Will Smith wisecracking and shooting bad guys, hopefully he can bring additional dramatic weight to his role as the jaded, veteran cop Ward, caught between duty and providing for his family, and not just the Bad Boys-style mugging of the first movie.
Ayer would also be smart to dial down the thunderingly-obvious class and racial analogies too. Science fiction has long had a tradition of mirroring real-world concerns through speculation and satire. But it’s really heavy-handed in Bright, from the scenes of cops beating orcs on the street to Smith’s cringeworthy line “fairy lives don’t matter today!”. The themes of division and prejudice are as relevant today as ever, but a more subtle approach that trusts its audience to get the point might ultimately deliver a more powerful message (and elicit more positive reactions from critics).
Ultimately, Netflix cares more about keeping their subscribers happy than pleasing a handful of critics, and perhaps we shouldn’t expect the follow-up to deviate massively from its predecessor. But while Bright was not a great movie, it was also not a dismal failure, and showed enough ambition and originality to potentially lead to something genuinely great in the sequel. Here’s hoping.