Superhero movies have been gaining popularity ever since the first X-Men movie debuted in theaters nearly two decades ago. In the years since, they’ve become massive pop culture events and it’s to the point where my mom now understands what I’m talking about if I say things like Doctor Strange, which is crazy. But after nearly two decades, and with the release of movies like Avengers: Endgame, we’re at a point where these movies can’t just simply continue to get bigger. So, instead, it’s time for reinvention. Enter BrightBurn, which turns something strongly resembling the familiar Superman origin story into a straight-up horror movie. And it works.
Brightburn works with a very simple premise. A married couple who is having trouble conceiving a child through traditional means has their prayers answered one fateful night when a strange alien ship crashes in on their farm. Inside the ship, they find a child who looks suspiciously human and they raise it as their own. Sound familiar? As that child grows up, he begins to learn he’s not like us and, as his powers grow, so does his threat to mankind.
While this isn’t officially a DC movie, it’s clear that the pitch for this movie in the room was, “What if Superman, but bad?” It’s an interesting question and it’s a little surprising nobody decided to explore it on a big pop culture stage prior to this. Seriously, what if a Superman-esque alien, instead of becoming a hero to the human race, decided to go the evil route? It wouldn’t be pretty and this movie does not shy away from the ugly that comes along with such a scenario. It’s brutal, fascinating and tragically horrifying, yet entertaining all the while.
This comes, in part, from the mind of James Gunn, the filmmaker behind the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Gunn, long before he started crafting big-budget superhero movies, was making horror offerings like Slither. The best of both worlds is at play here. But credit to director David Yarovesky, who isn’t afraid to make this movie downright gruesome. There is perhaps a version of Brightburn that leans closer to PG-13 and, while keeping the core “bad guy Superman” idea intact, would perhaps be more palatable for a wider audience. They weren’t interested in making that version. This is the most hardcore, bloodied up version that a mainstream studio would make. And while that may be off-putting to some viewers, for those who are craving a fresh story centered on caped, superpowered figures, this is it.
Writers Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn (yes, this is a Gunn family affair) clearly wanted to approach the idea of a Superman-like figure with some cynicism. Clark Kent was inherently good. It’s an optimistic view of an alien crash landing on Earth. It’s a comforting thought for many. This is the opposite. It’s, in some ways, perhaps speaking to deeper truths about humanity, or some version of the truth. Outsiders who feel isolated and different often don’t find healthy ways to deal with their misplaced and confusing feelings. Imagine an adolescent boy wrestling with such problems who figures out he can level a truck without lifting a finger? That’s what’s at play here.
The cast, toplined by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman as this boy’s parents, help ground the unconventional and, at times, difficult to watch tale perfectly. But the real selling point is the young Jackson A. Dunn, who plays our tragic anti-Superman. He’s got to juggle a lot and he knocks it out of the park. This movie may not be a home run overall for certain viewers, but it’s hard to argue against Dunn’s performance.
This movie does perhaps have some cracks in the armor. It’s a bit haphazard at times, maybe a bit slow to start and, for some, the sheer over-the-top violence may come off as a bit much. That said, it’s hard to not get excited about what this means. What reinvention like this can possibly do for the genre in the future. This is a movie that absolutely should exist and now, thanks to James Gunn and Sony Pictures, it does exist. Hopefully, this paves the way for more creative approaches to superhero tales in the future, but this is an awfully compelling place to start.
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