Long before he became the alt-superhero auteur of choice, for both Marvel and DC, James Gunn was a proud peddler of niftily produced schlock. He started out at Troma writing their deranged midnight movie take on Shakespeare’s most tragic romance, before working with Zack Snyder on his ferociously satisfying remake of Dawn of the Dead. For his directorial debut, Slither, Gunn paid tribute to 50s B-movies with a gloopy small-town horror about evil alien worms and while he has risen the ranks since, smoothing out his edges to take charge of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Suicide Squad franchises, he remains an unabashed genre fan at heart. He recently wrote 2017’s The Belko Experiment, a brutal workplace horror, and now he has produced Brightburn, an effectively nasty shocker that also acts as an antidote to the deluge of superhero films he’s partly responsible for.
Written by his brother, Brian Gunn, and cousin Mark Gunn, the film flips the Superman narrative on its head, setting us up with an almost identical scenario before taking us in a far darker direction. In the small town of Brightburn, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) are struggling to conceive, and after a meteor falls from the sky with a baby inside, they think their luck has changed. But as their adopted child Brandon (Jackson A Dunn) grows up, they realise that something is horribly wrong.
James Gunn’s involvement in Brightburn has been used as part of a rather cleverly trolling marketing campaign that has teased us into expecting a traditional superhero narrative (even the film’s Memorial Day release date, one that’s often reserved for big-budget comic book fodder, feels like an in-joke). While the actual plot, squeezed into an often rushed 91-minute runtime, doesn’t spend much time pretending, there are some nice visual nods, including some Snyderesque lens flare and a sweeping rural landscape, the central house interchangeable with that of the Kents.
While it’s refreshing that director David Yarovesky avoids the flab that overextends so many superhero films to indulgent durations, events unfold at such a speed that I found myself craving a little bit more meat along the way. For the first act or so, we’re thrown reveal after reveal without much connective tissue. While it might sound unreasonable to expect any emotional depth in a film such as this, more time could have been afforded to exploring the weight of Brandon’s discovery beyond what feels like a montage of trailer-ready a-ha! moments. It’s a film that’s good enough that you want it to be better, a rare genre example of less not proving to be more.
But Brightburn is more interested in the gristle, and to Yarovesky’s credit, and Sony behind him, he has opted for a very hard R rating wrapped up in a cosy PG-13 aesthetic. As Brandon explores his villainy, there are some audaciously grisly deaths, including one particularly memorable car accident that ranks as one of the most inventively gory sequences in a studio movie I have seen for a while. While rushing at times, Yarovesky does conjure a sustained atmosphere and manages to do extraordinary things with a minuscule $6m budget, especially in the later, grander moments. It’s a film that’s taken surprisingly seriously, given both its subject matter and Gunn’s schlocky background, and tonally this gamble pays off, an avoidance of smug meta references proving to be a relief (the film’s one major consolation is a delicious end credits use of Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy). Much of the film’s escalating eeriness is also down to a skilled performance from relative newcomer Dunn (ironically last seen as a 12-year-old Scott Lang in Avengers: Endgame). While the film doesn’t afford as much time to his internal wrestle between good and evil as it should, Dunn has the ability to elevate Brandon from burgeoning supervillain to something more, making us believe that there might still be some humanity behind his homemade mask.
At times, Brightburn risks falling into the all-too-familiar creepy kid horror formula but there’s just about enough to distinguish it from that ever-expanding subgenre, most notably in an ambitious final act as creepiness turns into full-blown chaos. Further subverting our expectations of the superhero narrative, the Gunns also choose to end the film on a staggeringly bleak note over anything more optimistic, with a suggestion that, like the films it models itself on, a sequel could be on the way.
Depending on how you see it, Brightburn’s adherence to the structure of an origins story will either exacerbate or alleviate the ongoing superhero fatigue felt by many of us. For me, it was closer to the latter, the film’s nasty, noxious inversion of a story we have seen too many times proving to be a much-needed shock to the system.
Brightburn is out in the US on 24 May and in the UK on 19 June