How 'Brightburn' Is Rethinking the Superhero Genre

Instead of making a comic book film, this project is embracing horror, which knows no bounds and splits tropes apart.

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a superpowered child with a grudge to bury. Sony Pictures on Wednesday morning released the latest trailer for the sci-fi/horror movie Brightburn, an unofficial take on the Superman mythos that casts a superpowered boy from Kansas as a force of evil. Think of it as the ultimate Dick Donner mashup, Superman (1978) meets The Omen (1976) with Elizabeth Banks and David Denman as Ma and Pa Kent/Robert and Katherine Thorn, and Jackson A. Dunn giving us the creeps as Clark/Damien. While all Superman films and television shows have asked what would happen if an alien child was raised by humans and instilled with Midwest American values, Brightburn appears to draw inspiration from DC’s Elseworlds line (again, unofficially) to ask, what if that child had a darker origin and hailed from a race not nearly as benevolent as Kryptonians? It’s the old nature vs. nature question, one potentially made all the more interesting by the unspoken idea that the characters in the film are aware of a fictional character named Superman, and thus shape their identities and roles around the expectations that stem from that story. Brightburn potentially opens up a myriad of possibilities for both our perception of superhero archetypes and the territory of horror movies.

Brightburn, directed by David Yarovesky, who gave us the stylish horror film The Hive (2014), picked up buzz late last year, notably because of James Gunn’s involvement. Produced by Gunn and written by his cousin Mark Gunn and brother Brian Gunn, the film makes plenty of allusions to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013). James Gunn and Snyder previously worked together as director and screenwriter for Dawn of the Dead (2004). Brightburn has some fun with that Snyder connection with the font choices, “visionary director” label and the Terrence Malick-esque shots of Kansas wheat fields. The fact that "Brightburn" is the code name for the superpowered boy, the name of the town in Kansas and the title of the film is a reference to the Superman TV series Smallville (2001-2011), which also took a look at the growing problems of a superpowered teenager. But there’s more to Brightburn than just references and connections.

It has become increasingly apparent that audiences have a hard time letting go of certain concepts associated with Superman, many of them popularized by the 1978 film. It is arguably the central reason why post-Man of Steel Superman solo films have stalled. Brightburn provides a unique opportunity to breakdown this iconic character and divorce him from the concerns of comic book canon or fan bases. It’s entirely possible that Brightburn provides a new way of exploring iconic superhero archetypes through the lens of horror. Why stop at Superman? What does a Batman-esque figure look like in a horror movie? The Flash? I bet that even Plastic Man could cut a pretty hellish figure under the right lens. With DC Comics characters being as old as they are, so rooted in mythology and who they are with their capes and cowls on, they seem geared toward the kind of wild reinventions that are too risky for big-budget blockbusters.

There have been numerous superhero movies that, through the basis of their source material, have trod onto the grounds of horror. Swamp Thing (1982), The Crow (1994), Spawn (1997), Blade (1998), Hellboy (2004), Constantine (2005), Ghost Rider (2007), Venom (2018) and all their respective sequels have had their share of notable horror influences. But horror was always a secondary element in these films. With Brightburn, there seems to be an attempt to marry superheroes and horror in a way that we haven’t seen before. Even though we’ve seen deconstructions of superhero tropes before in Chronicle (2012) and M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass trilogy, we’ve yet to see a deconstruction with the central aim to terrify us. As much as these characters inspire hope and are a part of wish fulfillment, there is also something terrifying about the idea of superpowered beings who could violently reshape our world if they so desired. Snyder covered this in Batman v Superman (2016), outside of the realm of horror, but perhaps Brightburn can move forward with that idea outside of the confines of popular expectations.

It seems worth considering the notion that we can’t — whether because of the vision of a filmmaker or the desires of an audience — adequately deconstruct the superhero genre and push it forward within a movie that is first and foremost a superhero movie. But horror knows no bounds and has split tropes apart and reshaped them in films like Scream (1996), Resolution (2012) and Mandy (2018). Horror may be our avenue to once again not simply ask how superheroes can be adapted as close to the source material as possible, but to ask why they are so important to us and what happens when they’re broken apart and don’t match up with our beliefs about who they are. Brightburn appears to be more than just a riff on the world’s most recognizable superhero, but a consideration of how our own preconceived notions about our role in these stories, and a need to hold onto the familiar, can create shocking revelations that will make us believe a man can fall just as easily as fly.

  • Richard Newby