The multi-talented James Gunn has made a career of telling stories that both amuse us and scare the heck out of us in good old-fashioned, B-movie ways. This week, putting on his producer hat, Gunn brings audiences Brightburn.
The story can be summed up simply as “What if a young Superman was bad?” Elizabeth Banks and David Denman star as Tori and Kyle Breyer, a farmer couple who discovers a mysterious alien craft has landed on their land. They raise the boy inside the craft as their own, hoping to bring him up right. But as Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) gets older he begins acting out and using the incredible powers he’s developing to terrify those around him, confused and angry by the mysteries that surround him with no answers but incredible abilities.
Brandon hovers over the ground with a makeshift cape on his back and a strange alien mask on his head on the first poster. It’s an ominous image, not a heroic one, especially given the black and red colors used in the design. The second is even creepier, featuring a close-up of that mask. Both communicate that the movie comes from the team behind Guardians of the Galaxy
Gunn, working with the artist agency Talenthouse, judged a fan art contest that had designers creating their own posters for the film. The winning designs can be seen here, some of which are quite good.
The trailer, which Sony debuted at last year’s Brazil Comic-Con, starts out looking like it’s selling an updated version of Richard Donner’s Superman, with a young boy struggling to figure out who he is with the help of his mother. We see he fell to Earth in a pod that crashed into a farm field and was adopted by a kindly couple who wanted a son of their own. He develops powers that make him special but seems to be using those powers to terrorize the locals, all while drawing a strange, alien symbol everywhere he can.
Early March saw the release of the second trailer, which shows that a young boy with super powers who’s been bullied is a dangerous individual. Brandon deals with terrible adults and kids and, as he figures out what he can do, begins to exact some revenge, giving into his darker impulses even as his adopted mother continues to believe there is good in him. Gunn later debuted an extended version of that trailer that contained a bit of new footage.
A final short trailer came out earlier this week that doesn’t offer much that’s new but does make the case again for the movie being filled with super powered frights and scares.
Online and Social
After the second trailer plays when the front page of the official website loads, the only information you’ll find there is an “About” section and details on the “Fan Art Contest” mentioned above. The page shows the key art with prompts to buy tickets with links to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram profiles in the upper right corner.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Online banner and other ads have used the key art to drive traffic to the official website where people can buy tickets and find out more. I haven’t seen any promoted posts on Twitter or elsewhere but it wouldn’t surprise me if there had been some run to increase the reach of the trailers. Short versions of the trailer were used as pre-roll videos on YouTube and it’s safe to assume at least some of these could also be found as TV spots.
IGN shared a video of people stuck in a room under the pretense of being in a “research project” that turned terrifying and was actually a sponsored promotion for the movie.
A sponsored Facebook Lens allowed people to add Brandon’s eye laser powers to their videos.
Media and Publicity
Gunn had been teasing the project for a little while and a big announcement was planned for Sony’s panel during last year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Those plans were discarded when the bad-faith controversy over Gunn’s decade-old Twitter jokes erupted, resulting in this being taken off the promotional schedule at the same time he was fired from Guardians of the Galaxy 3. A month or so later rumors began emerging the movie would be essentially dumped by Sony in theaters in September. It sat there for a while until it was finally given its current release date at the same time the actual title was announced.
Gunn described the movie as the perfect one for summer audiences, with others offering some details and background on the characters and unusual story.
An extended clip released in early May freaked everyone out by showing a key scene from the movie where Brandon terrorizes a lonely waitress at a local diner. It’s a tense sequence meant to show how powerless the average person would be against someone with super powers who decided to be a villain. Another shorter clip released a bit later has Brandon experimenting with his newly-discovered invulnerability.
Denman was interviewed about the movie, including how the drama around Gunn and Guardians 3 might have helped by giving Sony some breathing space to reconsider its initial release plans.
A Fandango-exclusive featurette had the cast and crew discussing the movie and setting the expectation that it was unlike anything audiences had seen before.
Sony released a brief “motion comic” that is quite intriguing, offering an overview of the story and showing some of the terror Brandon inflicts on those around him in animated form, which is often more disturbing than the footage from the actual film.
Banks stopped by “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to share her thoughts on scary movies and more. She also appeared on “The Late Late Show.”
It’s not as if there haven’t been plenty of Elseworlds-type stories that use as their premise the idea that Superman or other all-powerful heroes might have turned out to be evil (or at least less good) if the situations around their origins and upbringing had been different in some way. DC itself has long published comics featuring Ultraman, the Earth-3 version of Superman who uses his powers to become a crime boss. And the “Red Son” story wondered what would have happened if Kal-El’s capsule had landed in Soviet Russia.
None of those have been as flat-out scary and what’s presented in the Brightburn campaign. What’s shown here isn’t the big, bold threat to humanity that Lex Luthor has often feared, but a smaller, more intimate danger that comes from someone terrifyingly powerful being right beside you. All the mysteries that compel Clark Kent to learn more about his Kryptonian heritage and become the good person his adopted parents have raised him to be are here shown to be psychological scars Brandon doesn’t have the emotional or mental tools to deal with. The symbols he draws, used generously in the marketing, are a recurring image he can’t shake or explain. So his actions are the result of being driven somewhat mad.
Whether or not Sony made the right decision in giving the movie a bigger release platform in summer as opposed to dumping it earlier in the year remains to be seen. The $13 million opening predicted would be totally respectable for a horror film of this kind, especially given the box-office competition. Regardless, the brand-consistent marketing has created a strong identity for the film that makes it intriguing, especially to those who enjoy cross-genre stories like this is shown to be.
Picking Up the Spare
A short featurette released after the movie was in theaters had Gunn and members of the cast talking about how it’s a horror twist on the super hero genre. Another emphasized how Brandon isn’t a hero who’s here to help us.
An interview with the other two Gunn brothers who wrote the film had them talking about how they didn’t want audiences to identify or empathize with Brandon in the story.