Once upon a time in Great Depression-era Cleveland, Ohio, two friends, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, turned the world onto a visitor from a strange planet. Rocketed to earth from the doomed planet Krypton and raised by the American as sliced bread Martha and Johnathan Kent, mild-mannered Clark Kent would go on to fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way as Superman.
By now, anyone who has bought a ticket for director David Yarovesky’s new movie Brightburn or who has access to internet ready spoilers will have no doubt figured out that the story as written by Mark and Brian Gunn is something of a dark-mirror version of everyone’s favorite do-gooder, Superman. The idea of the superhero gone wrong trope is an old one and can trace its own roots back to Supes in 1938 with the premiere of Action Comics issue one. Simply put, every hero needs a bad guy to challenge him or her and a hero is only as good as their worst mustachio twirling arch-nemesis.
But what road does a Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom have to wander down to not become a bright and shiny god adorned in tights and a cloak and adored by millions, but instead a dark and eerie creature feared and reviled by law abiding citizens everywhere? What are the fine lines that create and separate an Hourman or a Johnny Thunder from a Vandal Savage or Solomon Grundy? If Lex Luthor had been in on the ground floor of Rogaine might he too have leaped tall buildings in a single bound and pose admirably in front of an American flag with an eagle perched on his biceps?
Brightburn attempts to answer some of those questions by layering in the secret origin of a villain amidst the iconography of a Norman Rockwell-esque Midwestern landscape of Brightburn, Kansas. At first, everything seems to go by rote but even in the scenes of so-called normal something always seems slightly off, belaying the thought that bad times are soon upon us. A farming couple – David Denman (Big Fish, Logan Lucky, The Office) and Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games, The 40 Year Old Virgin) discover a crashed spaceship and an infant boy inside. Unable to conceive themselves, the couple decides to adopt the child and they name him Brandon. This is all familiar landscape but brought to you by way of an unsettling nightmare: Strange voices begin speaking to Brandon when he hits twelve and the lad plunges his hand into a powered up lawnmower blade at their request. He starts sleepwalking towards his hidden away spaceship and acting all not Clark Kent-like to his adopted parents, bringing a disobedient menace to the wholesome family dinner table.
Things grow increasingly dire as Brandon’s parents realize they haven’t adopted Steven Spielberg’s E.T. but rather Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World. Big difference, that.
Without getting too spoiler-ish here, it’s impossible not to see Brightburn almost as the next stage in the metamorphosis of mainstream American superhero movies. Does the turn to dark fun house mirror projects such as Brightburn, Venom and Todd Phillips’ upcoming film Joker from the formerly bright and shiny worlds of Shazam, Captain America, Iron Man and Superman The Movie indicate our own growing cynicism with the state of our world at the moment and a desire for something less hopeful and more pragmatic in cinema?
I for one hope not. For while I appreciated a slightly new spin on a genre that is beginning to feel more and more overplayed, I like to think that there is still room for something more optimistic than the ending we are presented with in Brightburn, something more befitting the work and struggles of the two teenage creators of an entire genre in Cleveland, Ohio. Watch this one for the spin, not for the final execution.