“Live as one of them, Kal-El
Discover where your strength and your power are needed
Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage
They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be
They only lack the light to show the way
For this reason above all, their capacity for good,
I have sent them you, my only son.”
Not all superheroes get a portentous voicemail from their dead father urging them to behave once they’ve crash landed on a strange planet, and Brightburn is a film that posits that exact scenario. What if Kal-El had been born bad to the high-density bone? Not in the way it has been tackled before, such as the clunky junkyard showdown of Superman III (an alt-Supes who would have been straight-up eviscerated by Brandon Breyer’s Brightburn lazer beams) but just plain old evil.
David Yarovesky’s chilling superhero film took audiences to a terrifying new place with the story of Brandon Breyer, a young boy with superhero powers and a malign sense of right and wrong. The film is out on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download on the 21st of October and we dived deep into the darker side of superhero cinema.
In fact, the darker narratives of those sent to save us are scattered throughout cinema’s long-standing fascination with characters brought to life from the ink-and-paint pages of a comic book.
You can trace superhero movies as far back as 1936’s Flash Gordon, but things didn’t really slide into the shadows until the end of the 1980s, when Tim Burton decided to apply his distinctive filter to the blood-stained back-alleys and twisted monoliths of Gotham City with 1989’s Batman. It appears that directors with a penchant for horror were partially responsible for the re-birth of comic-book movies, as this was followed shortly after by Sam Raimi’s twisted Faustian tale, Dark Man, which bombed at the box-office, but has since received a retrospective re-appraisal from some quarters. 1990 also saw the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in which the heroes-in-a-half-shell are so far removed from the Michael Bay garishness of the recent blockbuster adaptations, that it was put through the censorship wringer by the BBFC prior to release due to the presence of nun-chucks.
Burton’s Batman was dark, but it still maintained the playful elements of its source material. It was 1995’s The Crow which introduced a deeper shade of black to the genre. Setting aside the tragic death of Brandon Lee, that will forever be synonymous with this adaptation of James O’Barr’s graphic novel, Alex Proyas film is one steeped in iconic Gothic imagery and an overbearing bleakness, the likes of which hadn’t been associated with a mainstream superhero movie. The story of Eric Draven, a rock musician who comes back from the dead to avenge the rape and murder of his fiancee, The Crow was a middling success, and one that probably wasn’t quite right for the world it was born into. It’s no surprise that they’ve been trying to resurrect a character who’s probably more in-sync with the times we live in today; a certain DC villain laughing his way to the top of the current box-office charts will tell you that.
The remainder of the decade contained a series of films that attempted to peer into the darker recesses of the comic-book pages for inspiration – Judge Dredd, Barb Wire, Spawn – all of which were critical and commercial duds.
It wasn’t until the year 2000, when a young director looking to follow-up his $672m grossing debut feature The Sixth Sense decided that he’d use the superhero world as his playground, and in the process created one of the best genre films full stop, with the sombre, slow-burn brilliance of Unbreakable.
A meditative take on the oft-told origin story, Unbreakable deals with both fractured masculinity and failed patriarchy, as well as having ambiguous links to the broader strokes you’d associate with a superhero movie. At times it’s a relentlessly bleak watch. The opening scene not only features a train crash that kills 131 passengers, but a sequence in which the young Elijah Price is born in a department store changing-room, having broken both arms and legs in the uterus. Quite the mood-setter.
Riddle me this, riddle me that, who’s afraid of the big black bat? That was the question for the mid-2000s, as Christopher Nolan slapped the stupid out of the Batman franchise, drenching Gotham in gloom and a weighty tone for Batman Begins. The obvious totem of evil from that franchise would be Heath Ledger’s peerless turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight, but for sheer horror look no further than Cillian Murphy’s terrifying Scarecrow. The final hour of Begins, during which Dr. Jonathan Crane unleashes his fear gas on the city, contains some Dante’s Inferno-level imagery that’s very rarely seen in a tentpole summer blockbuster.
Shortly after, the vibranium was ignited in Tony Stark’s chest, subsequently kick-starting the MCU, so filmmakers sought to tackle the big-budget optimism of Iron Man with cynicism and violence. From the gloom stepped the Armageddon vs. Deep Impact of comic-book counterculture: Super and Kick-Ass.
Tonally they’re worlds apart, but both films chart the struggle of an everyday citizen attempting to walk that finest of lines between superhero and villain, Super takes the harder-edged, Gonzo approach to ‘saving’ the world. Director James Gunn (producer on Brightburn) earns his genre stripes with the adventures of Rainn Wilson’s Crimson Bolt, a man who pushes the boundaries of violence and taste with his tyre-wrench retribution, largely based on the fact he has been dumped by his inexplicably hot girlfriend (Liv Tyler). If you thought the hot takes for Joker were inflammatory, it’s a good thing social media wasn’t as prominent during Super‘s nasty reign of vigilantism.
On the other hand, Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass took the fanboy wish-fulfilment route to superhero subversion, and coated it in a heightened comic-book veneer, which meant the action, despite Hit Girl’s ultra-violent set-pieces, always had the caveat of existing outside the realms of reality.
That reality is a place that the most recent trend of serious-superhero adaptations have strived to be firmly grounded in. Cinema has always been a reflection of our times, so it’s no surprise that even those films we considered to be escapist entertainment have become permeated with darkness. Logan saw Wolverine swap grizzled wise-cracks for even deeper cracks on his weather beaten face, as he rescued illegals in an attempt to smuggle them across the border; Talk about social commentary. He also Skinkted a lot of people in the skull too.
Heck, even Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice killed off Superman! It doesn’t get much bleaker than the ultimate symbol of hope being snuffed out on-screen. In his place, and to paraphrase Gary Oldman’s Chief Commissioner Gordon for a moment, we’re getting the kind of superheroes – or perhaps antiheroes – we deserve.
Let’s hope they’re all as entertaining as Brightburn.