Trope rolls off the tongue like a dirty word when discussing film. It reeks of stereotype, repetition and outright plagiarism; nobody wants to hear that their movie is based on tropes. But what if trope is embraced as a guiding principle to subvert the form and mesh two popular geek genres at the same time? Cousins Mark and Brian Gunn took a look at several iterations of Superman’s comic book beginnings and decided that collection of tropes might come together nicely with the horror genre—after all, a meteor crashing into earth with an invulnerable alien baby inside doesn’t actually lend itself to sunny predictions out here in the real world, does it? They’ve crafted a screenplay that deftly jumps between throwing a dark mirror in the face of the shopworn superhero origin story to working every twist and turn of the story like a classic monster movie. It’s a neat trick, pulled off with the help of a relatable cast and sturdy direction from David Yarovesky, telling a comic book tale using every horror movie trick in the book. And for the most part, it works.
I say for the most part because some tricks do in fact cross into the realm of truly overplayed trope—this movie has so many jump scares, based on the same trick (surprise surprise, the kid can move really, really fast) that you might be reaching for seizure meds by the end of it. Still, most of the scares are quite fun as we watch Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) overcome fertility problems thanks to a cosmic bolt that, in the very early going, appears to be nothing but a blessing. One of the grounding graces of Brightburn is this pair’s performances. Their small town red state world feels lived in and authentic, a place where everyone has a big house surrounded by bigger fields and a hunting rifle is a fine present for a 12 year old boy. The boy in question, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn), hits puberty as the story truly begins, and we’re hit with another trope subversion as Superbad turns into The Omen. Dunn has the right look and acting chops to pull Brandon Beyer off; a cute urchin with just enough isolation to his presence that you could easily see him turning into the next school shooter, or, in this case, overpowering serial killer.
Make no mistake, the moments that would usually introduce challenging opportunities to discover heroic uses for newfound abilities here present themselves as a monster increasingly capable of terrorizing its prey before the kill. Over the course of its fleet runtime, Brightburn earns a big bloody R rating thanks to the sequences of increasingly violent mayhem, working the tropes of the horror genre while playing switcheroo with familiar superhero moments—those who’ve seen the likes of Superman Returns and Man of Steel will get a dark chuckle out of some of Brandon’s interactions with vehicles here—and a stomach churning third act reveal is slyly telegraphed from early on. The Gunn cousins, working with production support from James Gunn himself, no stranger to horror and comic book films, have gone all in on this queasy, nasty concept and reminded us all that yes, there are still strange, unexpected and satisfying corners of tropes to be mined for our cinematic dreams—and nightmares.