Prior to getting the chance to view Super, I had heard good things from like-minded friends, but read less than kind words from critics. Metacritic sports a composite score of 50 with a majority of the reviews being mixed, each exhibiting certain levels of vitriol. After watching the latest effort from James Gunn, a director that isn’t for everyone—he came from the house of Troma, where he unleashed his first writing and directorial (uncredited) adventure, the cult classic, Tromeo and Juliet—I can certainly see where the hate or dismissive attitude comes from. That being said, I couldn’t disagree with their assessments more violently. Gunn has managed to make a personal super hero movie, one that celebrates societies “losers” as much as the films of Todd Solondz and John Waters. Gunn directs Super with such a clear-eyed vision that the viewer is able to immediately infer the love and respect the director has for his characters; a fact that is made all the more impressive since he also refuses to compromise or whitewash them to make the audience more comfortable. His choice to embrace all the ugliness and contradictory aspects of the film’s leads and to throw out likeability is a bold one, especially when one considers the staggering amount of vulnerability and passion they still manage to retain.
Super follows its antihero, Frank (Rainn Wilson), a man that hit rock bottom early in life and took up residence there. He works in a greasy spoon-style diner, a short order cook and husband to a recovering drug addict (Liv Tyler). He can count all the good things that have happened to him in his life on one hand, and the fact that he considers being married to a woman with the shadiest of connections and the darkest of demons as one of those good things should paint you an accurate picture of just how maligned Frank is. The worst of his wife’s so called friends is a drug-dealing, strip club owner (Kevin Bacon, giving a hilarious performance) who his wife runs off with due to that large cache of drugs he stores in his McMansion. The loss is too much for Frank to bear, and he begins to hallucinate (or go crazy?) disturbing, surreal visions, which he interprets as a sign to become the Crimson Bolt, a masked super hero, determined to protect society from all types of injustices, be they small (cutting in line) or large (drug trafficking, murder, the abuse of a child), and rescue his wife from his nemesis, hopefully bringing normalcy to his life for the first time. Along for the ride is a terminally bored comic book store employee, Libby (Ellen Page), who becomes the Crimson Bolt’s sidekick, much to the dismay and protestation of Frank. The pair are obviously in way over their heads, but they are to inspired to notice, they continue to use their low-tech weaponry—a wrench and makeshift Wolverine claws—to take down perps, and even develop the catchphrase “Shut up, crime!”
Now might be a good time to issue a warning. Gunn’s film is violent; actually, it’s abnormally violent, but somehow it manages to never cross over the line of excess by never being flippant in its staging and execution of the scenes that require behavior of this nature. By mixing the super hero genre with a vigilante justice film, Gunn has managed to make an updated version of Taxi Driver, only this time, spandex takes a prominent role in the proceedings. By doing so, Gunn is able to comment on “justified” violence in a way that isn’t normally seen in cinema or television. Instead of taking the sensationalistic route, Gunn favors a style of violence that turns one’s stomach rather than elicit cheers from its viewers. In his film, this type of violence is just as hard to take as any other type, which is how it should always be, and kudos to him for having the gumption to take that stance. While Super is comparable to Taxi Driver, it does differ from Scorsese’s classic in one major, all-important way—it allows its characters to wear their hearts directly on their sleeves. Frank and Libby are damaged, emotional individuals that have been chewed up and spit out time and time again by the shityness their lives have served up to them. Rife with uncertainties and insecurities that are too numerous to mention, the reassurance of this fantasy life they build together is not to be underestimated. The audience can relate and fully sympathize with both of the characters and still cringe at the random cruelty the pair are capable of inflicting, each one acting as retribution for all of life’s hardships—a difficult tightrope walk that the movie successfully navigates.
While Gunn deserves accolades for Super’s success, the actors also deserve a lion’s share of the credit. The wild card in the production is Rainn Wilson, an actor-comedian that I enjoy on The Office, but I was unsure if he could handle a role like Frank, one that requires a depth in performance that he had not previously displayed the capabilities to perform. Not only did Wilson quickly put those fears to bed, he turns in a brave performance, choosing not to play the character as a dismissible laughing stock but as a fully rounded human being, one whose feelings are true to real life and valid in every possible way. His character arc is emotional and his performance in the third act of the film is powerhouse, resulting in a cathartic release for its audience and his character as Frank finds meaning and validation in his life. In the role of Libby, Ellen Page turns in another solid performance, expanding her role in the film Hard Candyinto the comedy arena, tweaking it slightly, all the while bringing an over-the-top, disturbing exuberance to their misadventures. Despite the fact that her character is 100% misguided, she still imbues Libby with charm and an authentic sexuality that helps make her relationship with Frank/The Crimson Bolt pop.
I was a big fan of Gunn’s previous effort, the 2006 homage to creature features, Slither, but remained unprepared for the emotion and insight that imbues Super. Gunn makes a leap from a fun, talented filmmaker to a director with a serious cinematic voice, a welcome surprise. I just hope Hollywood recognizes the talent that is on display instead of focusing on the meager box-office of the film. It would be a shame for the director to struggle, or worse yet, be cast aside, just as he comes into his own.