Before James Gunn injected his signature left-of-centre temperament to the Marvel universe (he helmed both volumes of Guardians of the Galaxy), which in turn, no doubt, helped him secure the role of possible saviour to the DC brand (he’s been tapped to direct The Suicide Squad), he was a champion of all things schlock. After penning the Troma produced Tromeo & Juliet, a splatter-heavy horror take on Shakespeare’s classic romance, he assisted Zack Snyder on his 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, before honing his own love of 1950’s monster B-movies on his directorial debut Slither (2006).
Basically it goes without saying that the horror genre runs rampant through Gunn’s veins, so it only makes sense that his unabashed affection for the genre and his newly-found status as a superhero auteur fuse together for Brightburn, a nasty shocker that flips the superhero genre on its axis; Gunn serving as the film’s producer. A Superman tale of sorts that’s run through a filter of gory set-pieces, Gunn’s respective brother and cousin – Brian and Mark Gunn – take the Man of Steel narrative, set it up in a near identical fashion before veering in a dark, often shocking direction that poses the question of “What would happen if little Clark Kent was an unhinged psychopath?”
In the small town of Brightburn, married couple Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are having trouble naturally conceiving a child. They believe their luck has changed however when they discover a baby enclosed inside a meteor that falls from the sky one night. Chiseled American hero-to be their child is not though, as the adopted Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) shows signs of disturbing behaviour upon his 12th birthday; it starts out as a discovery of his super-human strength before graduating to particularly violent bodily harm.
At a slick 90 minutes, one could never accuse director David Yarovesky of storing the fat that so many overextended superhero products tend to do, but his well-meaning intention of voiding Brightburn of indulgence occasionally falters the film as the evil origin hinted at in Brandon’s violent tendencies suggest a backstory worthy of exploration. We shouldn’t expect emotional depth from a superhero slasher pic, but when there’s evident care laced beneath the blood-thirsty surface, a little extra could go a long way.
That being said, Brightburn drops enough story to keep us invested, and it’s clear that the Gunns and Yarovesky are delighted with their ability to genuinely unnerve their audience. As Brandon explores his villainy, the film delivers wholeheartedly on its promise of being a particularly adult-aimed affair with two sequences ranking as the more gruesome efforts a studio film has produced; an incident involving a stray shard of glass and a poor waitress’s cornea being one, the other centred around a jaw-dropping car accident, emphasis on the jaw-drop.
Whilst the film’s own identity and the violence housed within could be an excuse for Gunn to embrace a certain overt campness, Brightburn surprisingly takes its material seriously. This mentality pays off as it means both the script voids itself of any knowing winks to the genre and the eeriness in Dunn’s performance feels alarmingly authentic.
With a narrative subversion that closes the film on a particularly bleak note, as well as one that suggests there’s further stories to tell – the sequel implication perhaps Brightburn‘s only pandering to the expected – Yarovesky’s bloody excursion could very well be the antidote audiences need for the current influx of superhero tales the cinema seems so intent on churning out.