"Is that where we are right now? Between the panels?"
Shot with a big-name cast on a small-time budget, completed in the wake of Kick-Ass (though the films were in production at the same time), Super did not see widespread release until April 2011. Even then, the release wasn't particularly widespread. The film passed faster than a speeding bullet. Many critics savaged the dark comedy about a depressed and disturbed loser who becomes a real-world superhero. Nevertheless, Super soars a little higher than I expected, and earns, at the very least, its cult status. It also has a certain brutal honesty that Kick-Ass lacks.
The story concerns a life-long loser, Frank (Rain Wilson). After his drug-addicted wife leaves him, he decides to become a superhero, applying comic-book conventions and his considerable rage to the real world, with mixed results. When an enthusiastic though deranged young woman becomes his sidekick, they decide to assault the residence of the local criminal with whom the ex-wife now resides.
Bloody violence and dark comedy ensue. Be warned: Super intends to make you uncomfortable, and it often succeeds. Certain portions may prove downright depressing, and you're as likely to wince as laugh at a few of the darker gags.
At other times, you will laugh.
"Why are you wearing a fake beard?"
The film mercilessly mocks superhero conventions, action movie ethics, and romance tropes. Placed in the real world, vigilante violence results in ugly carnage, simplistic moral crusades bring about injustice, and romantic obsession breeds unhealthy lives. Frank's early forays as the Crimson Bolt, in particular, riff hilariously on the absurdity of the superhero. Those outfits wouldn't conceal your identity from someone who knows you, changing rapidly to your costume in public would prove awkward and embarrassing, and going undercover in disguise, unless you're a professional make-up artist, would simply call attention to the fact that you're wearing a disguise.
Alas, the film's tone and sense of reality, like its moral compass, spin wildly throughout. After mocking the absurdity of its source material, the film begins dealing its own unexplained lapses in reality. Why does no one take down Frank's license plate, despite multiple opportunities? How does Frank afford his house and sizable arsenal on a diner cook's wages? Why are so many people conveniently competent at treating wounds?
And why is Libby, who initially seems relatively well-adjusted, so gung-ho to share in Frank's delusions?
If we see the warped logic that motivates Frank, we never entirely understand what drives the youthful Boltie. Nevertheless, Ellen Page turns in a winning performance as the sociopathic sidekick. From the enthusiasm she brings to violent assault, to the energy she invests in creepy seduction, Page is a key reason to see this movie.
And Page and Wilson aren't the only names of note. Super boasts a stellar cast, and they all give strong performances. It's some strange testimony either to Gunn's script or his persuasive powers that Wilson, Page, Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler, Nathan Fillion, and Linda Cardellini all signed on. Fillion makes what amounts to a cameo, but his fans will appreciate his brief appearances as the Holy Avenger, an evangelical creation who inspires Frank's warped crusade.
This film also features surprisingly strong effects. Frank's disturbed visions look great. At other times, deliberately cartoony graphics clash with horrific violence. And make no mistake: we're looking at old-school grindhouse gore, grotesquely rendered.
"Do you really think that killing me, stabbing me to death is going to change the world?"
Ambiguous ending notwithstanding, this film doesn't really buy into vigilante ethics the way Kick-Ass, in the end, does. It's more honest than that film, but not nearly so entertaining-- nor as clever as it sets out to be.
Directed by and written by James Gunn.
Rain Wilson as Frank D'Arbo/The Crimson Bolt
Ellen Page as Libby/Boltie
Liv Tyler as Sarah Helgeland
Kevin Bacon as Jacques
Andre Royo as Hamilton
Nathan Fillion as The Holy Avenger
Gregg Henry as Detective Felkner
Don Mac as Range
Linda Cardellini as Pet Store Woman
Epilogue: Radical Interpretation-- with Spoilers.
An interesting interpretation, though one not particularly encouraged by the film nor (that I can find) suggested elsewhere, accounts for some of the plot problems. Consider the rising number of implausibilities as the film progresses, in contrast to the comparatively realistic (if bizarre) earlier scenes. Consider how easily Frank acquires a sidekick, avoids detection, and draws no consequences for significant carnage, before slipping back into his earlier life—right down to the pet bunny. One might imagine that the beginning and ending are "real" in the world of the film, that Sarah leaves him, that he somehow draws her away from her drug addiction (if she ever fell back into it. Maybe she just left him), and that he maintains some distant part in her life. However, the superhero sequences consist of a fantasy he spins about how these events came about. (We'll put aside discussions of metafiction and the fact that, strictly speaking, nothing in the film is real). I see a number of difficulties with this interpretation, but it does resolve some problems.