12:00pm PT by Richard Newby
How 'Brightburn' Opens Up a Larger Universe
[This story contains spoilers for Brightburn]
“We believe that you came here for a reason,” Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks) tells her son, Brandon (Jason A. Dunn), with a gentle yet firm resolve, as though her will for this to be true will make it so. And why should she expect any different? It’s a story that has become ingrained in our collective consciousness: A kindly couple in rural Kansas are unable to have children of their own, and thus are blessed by a star child with amazing gifts and a destiny upheld through the teaching of midwestern values. But what if nurture can’t curb a darker nature, and that child’s destiny isn’t to save the world, but to destroy it? That’s the question at the center of Sony’s Brightburn, the latest horror film from David Yarovesky and producer James Gunn, that takes an unofficial “what if” look at the Superman’s origin mythos.
The allusions are obvious, yet no less affecting in an emotional and visceral sense as Tori and her husband Kyle (David Denman) learn to believe a man can fly, and leave a trail of bodies in his wake. It’s a concept so obvious it’s a wonder it hasn’t been done before, but in many ways, with superhero and horror films bigger than ever, now is the perfect time for a union. Yet Brightburn doesn’t feel like an endpoint on this dark consideration on superheroes. Rather, like Action Comics No. 1, the film feels like a beginning, an opportunity to take the universal language we’ve built around superheroes and weave stories just as worthy of campfire tales as a comic books.
We’ve long witnessed our classic horror characters evolve, their misunderstood and tragic natures begetting something more noble. This concept of the virtuous monster really took off in the '90s and 2000s. From Buffy (1997-2003) and Angel (1999-2004) to Underworld (2003), Van Helsing (2014), I, Frankenstein (2014) and The Mummy (2017), we’ve watched the things that used to go bump in the night take a stand in the light. We watched our monsters become superheroes. It only makes sense that now we should watch our superheroes become monsters, especially as we’ve come to learn that “the other” isn’t responsible for the evils that plague our society, but instead those we’ve elected to put our trust and faith in. Superheroes are more popular than ever, perhaps because our sense of heroism in the global stage is collapsing. Brightburn doesn’t go all the way with this concept, opting instead for a take on Smallville by way of a slasher film. But the tracks are laid, and the essay by Brandon’s classmate Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), “The Decline of Truth and Justice in the Modern Era,” is more than just lip service. There’s franchise potential, not only in Brandon’s story, but in the horrification of classic superheroes that unveils a reality about us just as prescient as our stories of hope and optimism.
The ending of Brightburn, which subverts the classic Superman emergence act of saving a plane with the destruction of one, suggests that Brandon Breyer’s story is far from over. But just as Brightburn came as a surprise, a sequel would also go that route. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Yarovesky said, “If we were to do another piece of this world, if we were to expand the story in some way, I hope that we could continue the trend of being completely silent about it and dropping it like a grenade one day.” It’s a method that has serve the Cloverfield franchise well, and Brightburn will hopefully carry the novelty of a surprise movie forward.
There’s a number of forms that a sequel could take, using Superman stories as a basis. But perhaps the most efficient way, in terms of establishing a cultural shorthand, would be to create a tethered (it’s in the lexicon now) version of Dick Donner’s Superman (1978). We could presumably return to Brandon a little older, a little stranger and possessing a secret identity along with knowledge of where he came from. There’s that great monologue in Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) that the late David Carradine delivers about Superman and Clark Kent, “Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak, he’s unsure of himself, he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.” While I don’t think Bill’s cynical take is accurate of Superman, it would make perfect sense for Brandon Beyers to adopt this kind of performance that exposes the weakness of human beings. And oh what fun it would be to see screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn’s take on Lois Lane and Lex Luthor caught in this nightmare.
Brightburn doesn’t limit its franchise potential to just Superman allusions either. The credits scene features Michael Rooker as a conspiracy theorist discussing a manfish terrorizing the seas, and a witch who strangles people with a rope to make them tell the truth, both clear references to Aquaman and Wonder Woman. We see concept drawings of other heroes made monsters, suggesting a much larger world and a potential for a number of franchises, maybe one that could coalesce in some gruesome version of the Justice League, a modern response to the monster cinematic universe Dark Universe failed to launch. Gunn confirmed these plans with The Hollywood Reporter saying, “I think it's not an isolated experience. There are other things happening like that in the world,” and that he’d be up for the next chapter. Hopefully audiences will be, too.
Brightburn is one of those rare summer surprises where a modest budget has the potential to launch a massive creative endeavor. It’s a film that manages to combine two of our most popular genre mediums, horror and superhero story, into something that feels tailor-made for this current era. It juxtaposes our 20th century myth with a 21st century horror geared toward our enthusiasm for creepy pastas and conspiracies. In Donner's Superman, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) said “some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.” Brightburn isn’t at the height of universal secrets, but its concept and potential certainly give us something to chew on.