Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn has made a career out of tinkering and twisting the conventions of the superhero genre, and Brightburn might just be his darkest turn yet. Gunn, who produced the upcoming film, said he looked at the supervillain origin story in the same cockeyed way he did his previous efforts — as a character study filtered through the conventions of genre increasingly familiar to audiences.
"Brightburn really is what do you do if that superhero that you've adopted into your family ends up not being the greatest thing in the world," Gunn told SYFY WIRE last weekend in Los Angeles. "You expect him to be a world savior, but he's quite the opposite of that."
Written by Gunn's brother Brian and his cousin Mark, Brightburn explores the villainous awakening of a young boy named Brandon (Jackson Dunn) whose adoptive parents Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) did not tell him that they rescued him from a meteor that crashed behind their farm. Gunn explained that he's always worked backward from recognizable human foibles to explore fantastical ideas in his superhero projects.
"I think that most of the superhero stuff that I've done is always coming at superheroes from a different angle than they usually are in cinema," he said. "A movie I made — that's not a very well-known movie — called The Specials was simply about a group of superheroes on their day off — it was about their interpersonal relationships and has nothing to do with fighting crime, it just has to do with their problems with each other."
Gunn continued to lay out his filmography as evidence, running through his pre-Guardians body of work.
"Super was the second superhero movie I made, which was about a guy who's a vigilante, but it also examined what drives a person to go beat the crap out of people," he added. "And, of course, the Guardians come in from their own strange version of an alien family and what it means to be a completely lost alien child who doesn't feel connected to other people."
Elizabeth Banks, who previously worked with Gunn on the sci-fi-horror film Slither, acknowledges that the two movies shared themes in common, even if the stories they tell are markedly different.
"This honestly was all about being a mom," Banks says. "[It was about] the idea of coming in and having to parent a problem child, as we like to say nicely about Brandon in the movie, and what are the limits of unconditional love for this woman. But the denial that we can put ourselves in is certainly something that we explored in Slither … just the denial of the reality of what's going on when you want to present your family a certain way to people."
"When we put our hopes and dreams into people that we love, hoping that they're going to live up to them, what do we do when they don't?" she asks. "This takes it to the furthest degree possible."
Gunn notes that both films explore the emotions beneath these heightened circumstances rather than just their narrative ramifications. "In Slither, at the heart of that story is a story about the dissolution of a marriage," he says. "That alien disease represents the character of Starla, played by Elizabeth, her marriage breaking down and being torn apart. And I think in this movie, it really is about if you have a child that maybe is not a good kid, how would that feel?"
"This is obviously not real -- if we had a child, he wouldn't be flying around blowing up buildings," he says. "But I think it would feel that big if your kid was one of those kids who was out killing cats and stuff."
Brightburn opens in theaters nationwide on May 24.