Sometime an idea’s so unutterably perfect that you can’t possibly imagine having lived without it in the first place. How did nobody think of this before? How did you never think of this before? Why did it take until right here, right now to actually have something hit the big screen?
When it comes to movies, I’m an easy sell for two very specific things. For one, I have been a horror fan for as long as I can remember and have yet to find something better to do with my Friday night than to curl up with a good scary flick. For another, I am always up for a superhero movie; from The Justice League to Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, from The Dark Knight to Avengers: Endgame, it’s always been a genre that I could never find a reason to turn my back on.
So when I saw the first preview for the upcoming superhero horror movie Brightburn what seems like a lifetime ago, it was as if somebody in Hollywood (James Gunn, looking at the movie’s pedigree) thought up and made a movie just for me: something that is uniquely hyper-specific to my exact tastes and something that I never new I needed in my life until the very first frame of that very first trailer. Essentially a dark reworking of the Superman mythos, the film is set to follow around an orphaned alien who crashes in middle-of-nowhere Kansas and is raised by a kindly, yet childless, couple. As he grows older, he discovers that he possesses superhuman abilities, but instead of rising to the occasion to become Earth’s beacon of hope in a dangerous and uncaring universe, he gives in to his darkest compulsions. He gets revenge on the kids who bullied them, their parents that made him feel like an outcast and eventually on his own adoptive parents.
Whenever a genre reaches the kind of pop-cultural ubiquity that superheroes already have, it’s only natural for people to come around intent on deconstructing it: on vivisecting the now-familiar characters, narratives and themes that have penetrated our lives and find out what makes them tick or, conversely, to turn them on their heads. And superheroes are hardly new to this either. Even recently, we’ve seen Rick & Morty take on the Vindicators, My Hero Academia take on Hero-killer Stain and One Punch Man take on the existential crisis of the endless mundanity of existence.
Even Marvel-branded outing like Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Endgame (2019) have taken on the idea that superheroism isn’t quite the cut-and-dry, four-colored power-fantasy that everybody seems to think it is. In this context, Brightburn is merely the latest of a long line of conscious deconstructions of superheroes in the 21st century.
But Brightburn looks like something different. It feels like something different. You see, eventually, One-Punch man finds some measure of meaning in his life, even if it’s not in the way that we’d expect him to. My Hero Academia, despite its darker moments, is ultimately a celebration of the boundless joy and force for good that superheroes are, as seen through the eyes of its hero-worshipping protagonist. The Avengers, in the end, do save the day, even if they had to struggle long and hard to get there and make impossible sacrifices along the way. Rick is, as ever, the villain in his own story, and should never be engaged with in good faith (because, in the end, he will always let you down).
Brightburn, though? Brightburn takes the core power fantasy that the entire genre was based on – way back in depression-era New York when two poor Jewish kids thought up some way to feel a little less powerless in the world going to pieces around them – and debases it entirely. Brightburn corrupts the pureness that the genre stems from by bringing it crashing down to Earth with the rest of us. Brightburn shows us the lie in the heart of the genre and rubs our faces in it.