Brightburn is produced by James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy fame. The story goes that he was given the script and loved it so much that he agreed to produce it. For genre aficionados, Brightburn has a lot less in common with Gunn’s Marvel work; it hails from the same gore-horror camp as Slither, Super and, in moments where it really lets loose, some of his Troma work.
Gunn didn’t direct this one — that credit goes to David Yarovesky — but it certainly feels of a kind with Gunn’s early schlock-jock oeuvre. Brightburn doesn’t have a lot of surprises in the way it subverts the Superman story. It’s the movie you hope it will be, sufficiently summarized as “What if Superman was an evil little boy?”
Brandon Breyer, an alien boy who fell to Earth and was raised by a humble midwestern couple, is essentially just a play on Clark Kent in every way. His alliterative name calls to mind later superhero characters. His upbringing in Brightburn, Kansas, is filled with kindhearted people, salt-of-the-earth folks who believe in a hard day’s work and a decent night’s rest. His parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), had trouble conceiving and were blessed with his sudden arrival. Nothing is particularly subtle about all of this.
Of course Brandon isn’t a blessing because his species is a violent one, traveling the galaxy and leaving its brood to be raised by local populations before destroying them. On Brandon’s 12th birthday, the ancient spaceship hidden beneath the barn calls to him. It tells him to take over the world. Blood starts to spill in Kansas.
Brightburn’s budget was under $7 million, a paltry amount of money for a film that looks this good. Brandon cuts a tragic swath through the community, using his Superman-like powers to laser, smoosh and drop his victims. There isn’t quite as much wanton destruction as, say, Man of Steel, but all of the impersonal death of big-budget extravaganzas is replaced by ripping fleshed-out characters out of their flesh.
Speaking of Man of Steel: Multiple moments feel like Yarovesky and company are directly parodying the much-ballyhooed 2013 reboot of Superman. I’ve since come around to that entry in the franchise, but what never sits well during any viewing is the climactic moment where Superman kills his foe. That moment remains the legendary misstep by Warner Brothers that killed their nascent superhero shared universe.
Man of Steel‘s legacy is defined by that moment alone; in truth, it’s otherwise a pretty good, if overly somber, take on the Superman mythos and his simple beginnings. The reason the snap defines Man of Steel, besides its absurdity, is that most audiences aren’t clamoring for a straightforward story about Superman anyway. Other big-name franchise heroes do everything audiences want. Fans who like old-school Superman can hate on that ending ad nauseam without ever grappling with the fact that the box-office numbers also reflected a general disinterest in the parts of Superman that Man of Steel got right.
The lessons of Man of Steel make it hard to blame Mark and Brian Gunn, the writers of Brightburn, for wondering why there isn’t just an entire movie of Superman as the violent villain. Their story isn’t a rebuke of the Superman story at large; Brightburn just embraces the grimdark extremes and makes it funny. Thinkpieces are already flowing about the way culture doesn’t need a “murderous Superman,” but pop culture also doesn’t want a classical Superman, so why not have fun with twisting a tale we all know for 90 minutes of Superman wrecking shit and being nasty?
Brightburn fits the bill. Regardless of how it does at the box office, there’s probably a place in the cult canon waiting for it. The gore is sporadic but memorable; some sequences feel right out of a Rob Zombie slasher. Audiences excited by the trailer will get exactly what they sign up for — no more, no less.