Film critic, academic and podcaster Dr Vincent M. Gaine grabs the cape of David Yarovesky’s superhero horror…
If you’re a fan of Marvel, you may have been watching the animated series What If? on Disney+. Within these self-contained spin-offs, Marvel deliver some pretty dark stories, distinct from the generally bright and colourful tone of the MCU. However, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn also contributed to a ‘what if?’ scenario, as producer of Brightburn (2019). And while Brightburn is an original property, David Yarovesky’s film combines tropes of both the superhero and horror genres, creating something that is super good with its horrific hero.
One of the film’s taglines gives a pretty good indication of what to expect: Evil Has Found Its Superhero. This is an immediate contradiction: a hero, by definition, is good rather than evil. But how do we define good, and by extension, a heroic figure? Is a hero determined by their ‘good’ qualities of courage, resolve, generosity, altruism? Or by their adherence to – and indeed manifestation of – particular social conventions?
It is perhaps notable that many public figures have been held up as heroes in their own time, only to be subsequently condemned as villains by the narrative of history. Similarly, while Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America and their ilk are generically referred to as ‘superheroes’, critics of these figures highlight a conservative – typically white male – fantasy of individualism, indeed a fascist ideology that might makes right. Yarovesky and co-writers Brian and Mark Gunn (brother and cousin of James) pursue this conceit in their superhero horror film.
It may be reductive to describe Brightburn as Evil Superman, but that is the film’s starting point. Various shots early on present a homestead surrounded by fields, an open sky, stalks waving in the wind, a mailbox with the name Breyer, while a child’s swing creaks and sheets flap on a line. The film’s setting of Kansas draws obvious parallels with Superman, and the early images echo those in 2013’s Man of Steel. These similarities continue as young Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) discovers his abilities: hearing mysterious voices, an inexplicable draw to his parents’ barn, and exceptional strength. Much as the young Clark discovers he can leap great distances in a single bound, 12-year-old Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower a huge distance, breaks the spinning blades with his hand and can bend a steel fork by chewing it.
This story could go either way, but rather than encountering tragedy, Brandon causes it. He stalks Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), the pretty girl at school, and breaks her hand when she spurns him. He destroys his family’s chicken coop and slaughters the birds. And when adults tell him what he can and cannot do, they meet decidedly nasty ends.
It is worth noting that the film is committedly nasty, earning its restrictive rating. Wince-inducing body horror occurs throughout with grisly emphasis. A hand is crushed; an eye is pierced; a jaw is separated; a head is blasted through. These kills are as elaborate as those in any slasher, and place emphasis on suffering. A fundamental aspect of horror cinema is the expression of victimhood, and here the victims are presented in all their agonised glory. In the aforementioned sequence of eye trauma, we are treated to a point-of-view shot partially obscured with blood from the victim’s eye, the viewer sharing the perspective of the victim. Another victim has a slow and drawn-out death, trying to hold his body together before he succumbs to his injuries. While these sequences are visual effects set pieces, common in superhero cinema, the emphasis is on pain in the best tradition of visceral horror.
For all the physical anguish inflicted, however, a more disturbing aspect of Brightburn is the logic behind the killer. Horror movie monsters often have tragic or violent backstories – Jason Vorhees nearly drowned then saw his mother killed; Freddy Kreuger was burned alive; Jack Torrance struggled with alcoholism; Norman Bates had a difficult relationship with his mother. Brandon, however, has been raised by loving and supportive parents Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), who were unable to conceive but found a tiny infant in a space craft that mysteriously crashed on their farm. Once again, this parallels Jonathan and Martha Kent, and Brandon has been raised in the same heartland of America, instilled with similar values and beliefs. Therefore, surely, he should be a good, caring person. And yet Brandon is arrogant, entitled and violent, every parent’s worst nightmare. His violence could be as senseless as that of Michael Myers – lurking behind these eyes is pure evil – but there is something more satirical at work here.
Brightburn exposes the central premise of the superhero genre to be wildly optimistic and naïve. If a person acquires superpowers, or indeed a super-powered extra-terrestrial comes to Earth and is raised in American society, what if all the good old American values don’t make them into an upstanding citizen? What if they embody greed, entitlement, do whatever they like simply because they can? Or does that actually sound so different to good old American values after all?
Across the film, references are made to archetypal American ideology and its problematic associations. Brandon’s first display of superpowered entitlement comes when he is given a gun for his twelfth birthday, and Kyle forbids him from using it. Brandon slams his fist on the table and disrupts the local electricity. A gun, something idolised in American culture, instigates violence (shocking, of course). When Brandon meets with a school counsellor, her office features a poster that informs children: ‘The World is Your Oyster’. In Brandon’s case, it really is. Tori tells Brandon that she and Kyle prayed for a miracle, that Brandon was a gift and ‘came here for a reason’, that he is special and will do incredible things. These seem like good things to tell a child, but they turn out to be true in ways that are destructive and horrific. As Brandon becomes more dangerous and Tori and Kyle argue about what to do, Kyle espouses traditional American values, insisting that ‘This is on us!’, displaying an individualistic, bootstrap mentality; he is the man of the house who will take responsibility. This responsibility involves anger and violence, doing what he knows to be right, and resorting to a gun. His faith in firearms proves to be false, as Brandon is impervious to bullets and vaporises Kyle’s head, before launching into the film’s finale.
Like many a superhero film, the final set piece involves ample destruction including a house, barn and (offscreen) an airliner, but like many a horror film, we follow the victims as cops are splattered and Tori is terrorised before, in a final cheeky wink to Superman, Brandon drops her from a great height – no caped saviour catching you in mid-air, mother.
Brightburn is a fun, gory horror romp. But it also offers a fascinating counterpoint in contemporary discourse. The mythic powerful and righteous individual has persisted for centuries, the cinematic superhero simply a current incarnation. But Batman, Superman, Iron Man and the like are prominent at a time where the US especially has experienced multiple cultural traumas: 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the financial crash, and COVID-19 and the rising nationalism and xenophobia manifested by the presidency of Donald Trump still ongoing. The figure of the superhero, like the hard body action hero of the 1980s and the cowboy of the 1950s (among others), represents the strong, independent American male who resists the dangers that threaten America. As contemporary myths, superhero narratives privilege the individual’s moral compass, suggesting that if we (especially men) believe something to be right, we should ignore other concerns. But the notion of a strong independent American male also contributes to racial discrimination, police violence, the restriction of women’s bodily rights and the insurrection at the US Capitol. Traditional American values can produce entitlement, savagery and violence, especially in the almost sanctified figure of the white male. Arguably there is no greater monster than white patriarchy, and in Brightburn this ideology does indeed find its superhero.
Dr Vincent M. Gaine