In all likelihood, the 2000’s will be looked upon as the decade of the comic book movie, with plenty of vigilantes bouncing around in various forms of outlandish garb, dishing out justice from fists, claws, and expensive gadgets. Of course, when these heroes take the screen, critics take them down, laying bare the genre’s love affair with violence as a problem-solving tool, as well as the recent trend of sexualized female killers (Sucker Punch). I don’t agree with many of these assessments (usually critics are picking on the wrong films), but Super is a superhero film critic’s rantings come to life; reveling in the usual tropes of the genre with a deliciously twisted bent, then showcasing their disturbing nature when placed within a context beyond comic panels or film frames – the real world.
Rainn Wilson plays meek loser Frank D’Arbo, who has somehow managed to marry the beautiful Sarah Helgeland (Liv Tyler). When she slips into the arms of area drug dealer Jacques, (Kevin Bacon), Frank is touched by the finger of God to become the Crimson Bolt, a gimp suit wearing crime fighting machine who only needs his trusty pipe wrench and his Saturday morning cartoon messages (“Don’t molest children!”). Frank’s peculiar research activities at the local comic shop attract the attention of Libby (Ellen Page), who eagerly nips at Frank’s heels to become his kid sidekick. As the duo attempt to put Jacques out of business, the masked hero game moves beyond kid stuff.
Of course, the film never really plays in the kiddie pool. Frank’s initial vigilante pipe-wrenching spree is hilarious for its melding of adult and comic elements, whacking purse snatchers and drug dealers with comic book “POW!”s shooting onto the screen as they lie at his feet awaiting the EMTs. It’s when Frank goes after people for merely being rude, that the character starts to look like Se7en‘s John Doe killer.
It’s been a while since the performances of a film’s entire cast stood out so prominently. Wilson delivers the same dead-pan schlub routine from The Office, but injects it with unexpected heart where it counts; similarly, Page is channeling Juno’s youthful spirit (with more improv and less cutesy arrogance) when she’s gleefully stocking body bags with a sociopathic bent; and finally, Bacon’s gaunt features and menacing demeanor frames his used-car salesman charm, making him a villain to remember.
A Christian TV superhero, the Holy Avenger, motivates Frank to become the vigilante with the code: “It’s more important to fight evil in all its forms rather than just give into Satan, because it’s easier that way.” As Frank’s binary morality reaches the extremes, the film tackles the issue head-on. While we once were rooting for him to defeat crime and save his lady, the final showdown is appropriately disturbing.
Part of which is due to the way violence is showcased. As Frank spirals away from just attacking traditional bad guys, we see the gruesome results in full detail. The reason isn’t out of prurience, but for affect. A montage of baddies getting bludgeoned toward the beginning is funny for the ways in which they avoid showing the damage done to them – but when we see Frank split a guy’s skull halfway through the film, we’re rightfully horrified. If the filmmakers did not show the gruesomeness of such violence, we’d be rooting for this maniac to the end. It’s a perfect illustration of how violence can be used to propel a narrative emotionally.*
Which offers a reality check for our hunger for superheroes. Batman’s beatdowns on mob goons aren’t nearly as realistically graphic as Frank’s bludgeonings, which prompts a re-assessment of violence’s value. Further, Libby’s interest in costumed trysts (also connected to the high of dishing out homicidal justice), seems to finally give critics a clear case of sexualized violence. Start your thesis papers now.
These items, of course, are subtextual and in no way drag the film – it transcends the simplicity of the genre’s trappings, offering intellectual engagement that is normally jettisoned for PG-13 “family friendly” audiences.
And despite some of the heavier material, the film is genuinely funny. Rainn Wilson’s patchwork costume, awkward exits, and cheesy one-liners will have you cackling throughout.
Around this time last year, the first self-aware superhero film Kick-Ass came out and there are sure to be comparisons between that and Super, no matter how unjust. Unlike Super, Kick-Ass avoids the complexities of brutal violence, side-stepping the needless slaughter of various individuals at the hands of a eleven year old girl. Kick-Ass is a comic book movie for adolescent adults; Super is for the folks whose superhero tastes have matured beyond puberty.
Super is one of the best superhero films, period, right next to Unbreakable. The last time a film managed to blend comedy, horror, and drama confidently was called Shaun of the Dead. Super is able to dig deeper than the Brit-zombie flick, which speaks to writer/director James Gunn’s talents in both fields.
When you’re getting exhausted by this summer’s crop of men in tights, know there’s something better out there for you. I’ll be surprised if it won’t be on my Top Ten of 2011.
[You can find out of Super is playing near you, here, or watch it Video on Demand]
*Which is why the filmmakers released the film Not Rated. The Not Rated distinction for a film shooting for a theatrical release is box office poison, since mainstream cinemas aren’t likely to touch something that hasn’t been assessed by the MPAA.