If you think Brightburn sounds like Superman fan fiction, you’re mostly right. There are unapologetic parallels to a DC or Marvel comic book story. However, let us be clear, it is a horror film.
The protagonist crash lands on Earth inside a meteor, gets adopted by a childless couple in rural America who name him Brandon, grows up feeling like an outcast and eventually dons a cape. It is a Superman origins story that gradually goes in a very different direction. But ultimately, the common thread throughout the movie, from the script to the screenplay, is horror.
Brightburn also deviates from a standard superhero comic book narrative in other regards. The movie is a science fiction story of an entire family watching their child spiral out of control rather than a superhero film. It focuses on Brandon’s adoptive family members almost as much as Brandon himself.
Tori and Kyle, played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, find Brandon as an infant inside a meteor that lands close to their house. Unable to have a child of their own, they keep him and raise him as their son. At first Brandon seems like a perfectly fine kid that has a positive relationship with his parents. It’s even hard to picture him turning into an evil super villain. After one night when he seems almost possessed to try to get into the room containing the meteor he was found in, his powers begin to manifest themselves. At the same time, he becomes increasingly belligerent towards his parents. He only grows more defiant, and his behavior more violent.
But while the physical abilities he starts to demonstrate are clearly extra-terrestrial, the disrespectful behavior he starts to exhibit isn’t. They are behaviors you might expect from any adolescent boy testing the boundaries with his parents as he struggles through the preteen years. Plenty of parents can relate to Tori and Kyle’s experience of having a child lie about why they came home late, behave inappropriately with the opposite gender or become defiant when they’re told their too young for something. Unfortunately, many parents can also understand what it’s like when their child becomes dangerous. That’s the most admirable part of Brightburn. It’s much easier to relate to than most superhero films. Plenty of kids who have been bullied will see themselves in Brandon. His parents are not blatantly evil nor are they candidates for sainthood. They, like most parents, just make a lot of mistakes.
But that’s reality. You don’t have to beat and viciously abuse your child for them to turn into a criminal. Kids can go down the wrong path when their parents fail to set boundaries and establish firm rules. Too often, parents don’t realize their mistakes until years later. By the time Tori realizes she shouldn’t have downplayed those early warning signs to her husband and Kyle realizes he shouldn’t have used candy to stop Brandon from crying as a toddler, it’s too late. In that respect, Brightburn asks the question “What if Superman was a normal kid?” as much as it asks the question “What if Superman was evil?”