There’s a scene in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel that feels like the inspiration for Brightburn, the new film from David Yarovesky (The Hive). After a young Clark Kent uses his powers to save a bus full of classmates, his father explains the significance of who he is and the choices he makes:
“You just have to decide what kind of a man you want to grow up to be, Clark; because whoever that man is, good character or bad … he’s gonna change the world.”
We all know Clark Kent chose to use his powers for good and become a hero. The question Brightburn asks is: What happens if you put that kind of power in the hands of someone who isn’t so kind, selfless, and moral?
Yarovesky’s film, written by Brian and Mark Gunn (brother and cousin, respectively, of Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn, filling a producer role for Brightburn) checks all the boxes of a classic Superman origin story: Kind, midwestern couple Tori and Kyle Breyer, played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, desperately want a child, and miraculously find one in a crashed spaceship. They give the child a comic book-style alliterative name: Brandon Breyer. They raise him in an idyllic Smallville-esque town. They live on a farm. At the age of 12, Brandon starts to develop superhuman powers and wonders where he really came from.
Superman’s origin story has been retold so many times in so many different mediums that it has become baked into our cultural consciousness. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely famously boiled it down to a mere eight words.
But there’s something deeply weird about finding an alien baby in a crashed spaceship and deciding to adopt him. What’s most impressive about Brightburn is how little it takes to shift the narrative into full-blown horror. Here, that one element is Brandon himself, and how he reacts to his developing superpowers and the revelation that he’s not from Earth. Instead of accepting the responsibility to use these powers to protect humanity, Brandon becomes convinced that he is superior, and that he is entitled to subjugate humanity. It doesn’t take much for him to escalate from creepy spying to petty revenge to full-blown murder. And played by Jackson A. Dunn, he convincingly evolves from “nice, quiet kid” to “terrifying sociopath.”
Brightburn goes exactly where you think it will, and how much you enjoy that depends on how much you enjoy watching a grisly, ultra-bleak take on a traditionally wholesome story.
(Seriously, I want to stress how grim and nasty this movie is. There are a couple of particularly gory set-pieces that many audience members will watch through their fingers.)
While the violent latter half of Brightburn is familiar — Brandon stalks people in the dark and then they tend to die — the super-powered approach adds a compelling twist. We’re used to slasher movies in which killer seems to move impossibly fast and appear wherever the protagonists go, but here the killer actually is impossibly fast. Brightburn has a villain who can fly, move faster than the eye can follow, and lift cars into the air, and this raises the stakes. Be honest: if Superman wants to kill you, is there anything you can really do to stop him?
Yarovesky shoots the horror sequences with refreshing clarity, taking the time to ramp up suspense. He likes to hold on wide shots of the victims in isolation, letting a sense of hopelessness sink in as we scan the background for some sight of Brandon. Usually, in horror movies there’s the chance a person might subdue the killer long enough to escape. Here, the only chance of survival is if Brandon decides to show mercy. There’s something more human about this than a traditional horror movie killer, which makes it even more disturbing.
Watching Brandon’s empathy erode is genuinely unnerving, especially when contrasted with how we’re used to seeing the Superman story play out, but it feels like the filmmakers weren’t confident in the arc they were already writing for the character. Ultimately, his final shift into villainy is accompanied by a bit of devil ex machina, and it feels undercooked, leaving us wondering how much of what Brandon does is him, and how much is this genetic programming. It’s not enough to cripple the movie, but it does somewhat undercut the central idea.
While we eventually lose some of our connection to Brandon, at least his parents remain compelling protagonists. Banks and Denman sell the tragedy of the situation, as they are slowly forced to accept that the son they’ve loved for the past twelve years is really a monster.
As the movie builds to its conclusion, there’s a feeling of inevitability to it, but it’s oddly satisfying to see this “what if?” scenario explored, even in such a grim way. Yarovesky and the Gunns clearly understand the iconography well enough to twist it in interesting ways. Like Superman, Brandon’s cape is fashioned out of the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby. The angry, glowing red eyes that Zack Snyder was so fond of are present here, but with a better understanding of how sinister they really look, especially when surrounded by darkness.
I realize I’ve referenced Superman repeatedly throughout this review, but it’s impossible not to. Brightburn exists as a subversion of a specific story we’ve seen play out repeatedly over the past 80 years, and as a commentary on the genre that has come to dominate modern cinema. I’m not sure how much it has to say other than “when you think about it, this idea is actually pretty scary,” but it makes its point well. And if this does kick off a wave of superheroes reimagined as horror movies, there’s plenty more material left to explore.
Patrick Willems is a filmmaker. He lives in New York City, where he makes videos.