That being said, where idea ends and expression begins isn’t always clear. Granted, we’ll probably need to at least read the script, if not actually watch the entire film to definitively state whether Brightburn goes too far. That said, some glimpses of the marketing, informed by legal precedent, demonstrate that Gunn’s new project walks dangerously close to the line.
For example, we know that purely superficial changes, like character names and minor plot details, aren’t enough to escape Copyright’s wrath. In the early 1900s, German filmmaker Albin Grau wanted to adapt Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but the family refused to sell him the rights. He produced 1922’s Nosferatu anyway, and was promptly sued. Because it was obvious that Grau started with Stoker’s novel and made only minor changes, he lost in spectacular fashion and was even ordered to destroy all copies of his film.
How close does Brightburn come to the same fate? Taking a look at the trailer, we can already see a number of familiar story beats. We open on a farm in the plains of middle America, not unlike the ones you’ll find in Kansas. A crashing meteorite disrupts the lives of a loving, but apparently sterile, couple, gifting them with the child they prayed for.
They hide his wrecked spaceship under the barn, while their “son” is inevitably drawn to it. He hovers while adorning what appears to be a bedsheet as a cape … I’ll let you guess the color. A mysterious symbol, possibly indicating “hope” or perhaps “Bluetooth compatibility,” haunts the alien child. Socially, he’s an outcast. Ostracized from other kids, he struggles to find his place, and eventually struggles to understand his abilities.
Gunn’s forecasted story beast are eerily reminiscent of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Hell, even the font is copied right out of the Man of Steel trailer. However, that may not be enough to warrant a visit from the copyright po-po. Brightburn is very unlikely to copy Snyder’s out-of-sequence editing, and the story should begin to diverge substantially at around the half-way mark.
But even if there’s nothing to be done legally, does Warner Brothers—and DC fans—have a legit creative beef? At what point would fans decide that “inspiration” looks an awful lot like straight-up “copying”? Sony is unquestionably banking on the overall success of the Superman franchise to generate interest in this project when, quite honestly, it looks good enough to succeed on its own merits. Is poking the proverbial bear worth the risk? Are hardcore comic book fans likely to be turned off? Is John Q Moviepublic–the folks who don’t understand things like “studios” and “rights holders”–likely to be fooled into thinking this is a Superman movie?
Honesty, we may have to wait until Memorial Day 2019 to find out, and I, for one, can’t wait.