Before He Was Put in Charge of Superman, James Gunn Gave His Origin Story a Dark Twist

Don’t trust the babe in the woods.

Written by Eric Francisco
Sony Pictures Releasing
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You don't need to explain superheroes to James Gunn. The filmmaker, who cut his teeth making splatter-core pictures for Troma and is now directing Superman while overseeing the new DCU, has long been open about his adolescent diet of Silver and Bronze Age comic books. His bonafides include transforming Marvel's obscure Guardians of the Galaxy into Disney mascots via a trilogy of acclaimed tentpoles, and helming a compulsively watchable Suicide Squad movie for Warner Bros. There was no one more qualified to take charge of DC's latest rebirth.

But five years ago, in the aftermath of a one-time exile from Marvel Studios, Gunn produced a darker film that felt sourced from the director's repressed instincts. With the novel logline of Superman's origin story retold as a slasher film, Brightburn is a gruesome horror movie that comes off like a bloodied rebuke to superhero monoculture. Before audiences witness Gunn's supposedly joyful and inspiring Superman, Brightburn serves as an entertaining counterpart that reminds us not all who fall from the sky are benevolent beings of hope.

Brightburn hit theaters under the shadow of Marvel's unstoppable billion-dollar juggernaut Avengers: Endgame. Written by Brian and Mark Gunn, and directed by David Yarovesky, it explores the paralyzing uncertainty of parenthood as an infertile Kansas couple, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) are visited by a UFO containing a humanoid baby. Desperate to be parents, the Breyers take him and name him Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn).

In concert with its Aesop Fable-like lesson about selfishly taking what doesn't belong to you, Brightburn traffics hard in the nightmare scenario that many parents fear, but few verbalize: what if you raise a monster? As Brandon enters adolescence all messy and gross, his hormones collide with his unknown alien heritage. His latent superpowers manifest in violent ways, most obviously when his affections for a girl at school go unrequited, prompting him to crush her hand and viciously murder her mother.

Brandon gives off some serious incel vibes, but his wormy weirdo aura and terrifying strength come from an otherworldly place his parents and counselors are incapable of understanding. A recurring image drawn by Brandon is his "superhero" symbol, two stylized Bs that bear an unmistakable resemblance to the Norse runes fetishized by the far-right. Angry men are drawn to simple displays of strength, and as Brandon adorns his notebooks and grisly crime scenes with his sign, the movie suggests Brandon isn't just a vain would-be supervillain, but an impressionable youth whose toxic influences are too rooted within him for intervention to undo.

So next time, just leave that baby in the woods.

Sony Pictures Releasing

In the lead-up to Gunn's Superman, the writer-director has said almost all the right things. This new Superman will have deep pockets of "kindness" and "compassion," he told Variety in a 2023 interview, adding, "Superman has to be somebody who you want to give a hug." Such an image stands in direct contrast to the DCEU's baroque and oiled-up Man of Steel.

Gunn has also name-dropped All-Star Superman, Superman: Birthright, and Superman for All Seasons, seminal comics that portray an uplifting vision of Superman as a beefcake who soars in vanilla skies. While Gunn's sensibilities historically skew darker and more sarcastic, as evidenced by the sensual monster comedy Slither and his pitch-black superhero satire Super, Gunn has both the passion and the professional interest to conjure up a Superman who ushers audiences into a better world.

But whether Gunn succeeds or fails, there will always be Brightburn, a movie that dips his vision for Superman in thick crimson. Though it isn’t quite a misunderstood classic, lacking muscle beyond its exercise in genre cross-breeding, it never stops being interesting. It's a standout piece of modern American gothic horror, one that makes the most of its rural midwestern atmosphere as exactly the place where an alien could become either our savior or our doom. Gunn's Superman may lift us all high into the skies, but Brightburn can bring us back down to Earth with crushing force.

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