Watching trailers for Brightburn, the new “Superman as a horror movie” from director David Yarovesky, it’s pretty easy to tell how it starts. Trailers have shown us all the elements of a classic Superman origin story, up to the moment that Brandon Breyer, the film’s Clark Kent analogue, develops some psychopathic tendencies and starts using his superpowers to murder people.
But it’s not the beginning of Brightburn where the movie gets totally wild, it’s the ending, and what it implies about potential of Brightburn stories in the future.
[Ed. note: This post will contain major spoilers for Brightburn.]
The solution to Brandon’s super-rampage is telegraphed early on. When the young kid (played by Jackson A. Dunn) discovers the spaceship in which he came to Earth hidden in his family’s barn (another scene present in most versions of Superman’s origin), he cuts himself on the ship’s metal exterior. It’s the first time in his life he’s ever been hurt. His mother, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) is there to witness it. It’s his Kryptonite.
“Aha,” we think, “there’s the ending. Tori will realize she has to stop her son’s evil rampage and use a piece of the ship to kill him.” And that’s exactly where the film’s climax leads … until Tori fails, Brandon kills her, and the film ends.
Then, intercut with the end credits is a final scene: it’s a YouTube video featuring an Alex Jones-esque conspiracy theorist played by Michael Rooker. He’s showing news footage of various disasters and violent events from around the world and ranting about how they were really caused by mysterious super-powered individuals. Rough sketches of these individuals appear, looking a lot like some very familiar super friends of Superman. And that’s when it becomes totally clear:
We’re watching a movie about Earth 3 (sorta).
What is Earth 3?
To answer that we need to get into some comic book history.
DC Comics lore is an astoundingly convoluted subject. The history of that fictional universe has been rebooted and reworked several times in the past sixty years. But here’s the simplest explanation: In the DC Universe, most of the stories we see about characters like Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, take place on the same Earth. But that Earth exists within a multiverse of parallel realities. In current continuity, there are 52 alternate Earths, many quite similar to the main Earth, but with its own unique “what if” premise.
Earth 3 is the “what if the superheroes were evil and the villains were good” Earth. Instead of the Justice League, it has the Crime Syndicate, made up of evil analogues of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. Their Superman is called Ultraman, and if you’ve seen Brightburn, his origin is going to sound very familiar.
Kal-Il (as opposed to Kal-El) was rocketed to Earth from Krypton, and on his journey absorbed lessons and ideology from his father, Jor-Il. He was taught to despise weakness and become the strongest being on his new planet. His ship crashed in Smallville, on the farm of Jonathan and Martha Kent, who he forced to act as his parents. At the age of seven, he murdered them and left home. Eventually, he took the identity of Ultraman, killed the President of the United States, and took over the Earth.
So when the credits roll at the end of Brightburn and the throbbing bass of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” kicks in, it becomes clear that Yarovesky and producer James Gunn have more on their minds than just twisting Superman into a horror movie: They made a supervillain origin story.
Obviously, Brightburn is not officially a Superman movie. It’s released by Sony Pictures and has no direct affiliation with any DC or Warner Bros. properties. When I spoke to Yarovesky and asked about the film’s connection to Superman, he avoided referencing the character by name or citing any specifics about similar comic books.
But by the time we get to the final moments of a wild-haired Rooker screaming into the camera about a witch woman with ropes and an “aqua creature,” there’s no doubt that the movie is telling a story about DC’s superheroes. And considering how much direct imagery it pulls from Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, from the Kansas farm to Brandon Breyer’s glowing red eyes, Brightburn works almost perfectly as the Earth 3 to the current DC film universe. If the plan is to spin this into its own cinematic universe about evil, murderous versions of the Justice League, that will be very familiar to comic fans.
There’s a long tradition in comic books of evil analogues of superheroes. Several classic supervillains are sinister mirror versions of their heroes: Reverse Flash, Venom, Dark Beast. But no character has as many analogues as Superman. There’s Hyperion, from the Marvel series Squadron Supreme (and its R-rated revamp, Supreme Power), who believes the world would be better if he and his fellow superheroes ruled it. The Plutonian, from Irredeemable, is a beloved superhero who loses his mind and becomes a mass murderer.
So, is there a Brightburn 2?
Superman is, of course, the original superhero, the archetypal character who inspired an entire genre. What he represents is so pure, his origin is so universally known, that it’s the perfect material to be twisted and subverted in different ways. While this has been happening for decades in comic books, Yarovesky feels like we’ve reached a point in the evolution of superhero movies where audiences are ready for something similar.
“Fifteen years ago, people didn’t know the rules yet. It would be too inside baseball, it would be too for the geeks only. [...] And thanks to 10, 15 years of huge superhero hit after huge superhero hit, the audience has become very familiar with the mythology surrounding superheroes. And so now we have a chance to take it and turn it on us. Make it scary, and play with it in that way.”
When we asked Yarovesky about the ending and the potential setup for the story to continue, he was ready for the question, and danced around saying anything specific:
“I’m gonna just be completely up front — this is my canned response when anyone asks me about this portion. But it is also very true response. When I made Brightburn, one of the things that I’m very proud of and one of the things that I think was really fun and exciting about this movie is how we had you all learn about it; how we revealed it to the world. No one knew what we were working on. No one knew what it was. And then we sort of dropped this grenade and kind of caught everyone off guard and surprised people with something that they kind of weren’t expecting [...] And I think that if we were going to expand the universe or do anything more with Brightburn, then I would hope that we would be on brand and consistent and you wouldn’t know anything was coming until we dropped some kind of grenade and surprised and kind of flipped up the expectation on what was coming.”
This is sort of a non-answer, but one gets the impression that at the very least, he and Gunn have some ideas for the future of the film’s world. Brightburn only cost $6 million to produce, and it’s clear Yarovesky enjoys the freedom and secrecy that comes with making such a small film. Box office estimates indicate it will more than make back its budget this weekend, so this might not be the last we see of Brandon Breyer and his world.