James Gunn’s Super is daring me to call it super. You don’t call your movie ‘Super’ without secretly hoping that some film critic, one on a deadline perhaps, or just one who isn’t feeling particularly clever one day, just writes down “Super… It sure is that thing.” Yeah, I just wrote it down myself, but I did it ironically so they can’t use it. I might let them though, because Super is all kinds of awesome. In fact, it’s probably the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight.
The Office’s Rainn Wilson stars as Frank D’Arbo, the poorest of poor schlubs. He’s only had two perfect moments in his entire life: the moment he aided the police in apprehending a criminal (he heroically pointed in the thief’s direction), and the moment he married his beautiful wife Sarah (Liv Tyler). By the time we meet him his marriage is already in trouble. It turns out that Sarah is a recovering drug addict, and has fallen off the wagon thanks to a charismatic strip club owner named Jacques (Kevin Bacon). She abandons Frank, who falls into a pit of deep despair until the Finger of God, aided by the tentacles of shokushu goukan, touch him in a very inappropriate place: his brain. It seems that some of God’s children are chosen, and that Frank himself has been chosen to be a superhero. He dons a homemade costume and roams the streets calling himself ‘The Crimson Bolt,’ savagely assaulting drug dealers and folks who cut in line with a large red wrench.
There is no glamour to speak of in James Gunn’s film. Frank’s assaults are not amusing, except in their conception. Being hit on the head with a large metal object is not a wacky prospect, and his victims – many less deserving than you’d think – inevitably collapse to the ground, clutching their bleeding skulls and crying pathetically in pain. It isn’t cool, what Frank is doing. It’s a tragic cry for help from a tragic, crying man. But it’s entertaining as hell, and not purely out of schadenfreude. Frank’s mental instability is crouched in good intentions, and represents a genuinely positive change in his existence. For the first time he’s dominating his own life, and for the first time life is submissive in return. When fate finally turns against his hero’s journey, placing The Crimson Bolt in battle with well-armed, career criminals, Frank gets knocked down a peg but eventually rises to meet the new challenge, in a happy montage of purchasing firearms and making homemade explosives that would make the Unabomber applaud.
Super has a dour, low-budget look that plays nicely off of Gunn’s insightful, clever script that treats people who put on a costume and fight crime surprisingly fairly. There’s an argument to be made that Frank is simply insane, or at least lashing out from grief after being unceremoniously dumped. But his motives are a combination of selfishness and purity: he believes his actions will save the woman he loves, whose goodness he alone believes in, from the temptations of selfish people. The other side of the coin, the kind that just likes playing dress up and living out one’s outlandish desires with the benefit of anonymity, comes courtesy of Frank’s sidekick Libby (Ellen Page), a comic book store employee who aids him in his research and later insists on donning a sexy outfit and calling herself ‘Boltie.’ She’s not a normal girl, but she’s fun, funny, has friends and even gets laid once in a while. She doesn’t have Frank’s calling, just a desire to experience something new and exciting, and even embraces the eroticism of fetish outfits in a manner alien to most superhero movies. You can pretend being a superhero is an altruistic act, but wearing a skin tight costume and flaunting yourself about town has an undeniable kink appeal that Super alone seems to acknowledge in the world of cinema. (Comics have been doing it for decades, of course.)
Gunn’s second film after the hilarious and grotesque Slither is an exceptional one, character-driven but full of action, and a complex examination of the psychological hang-ups that most superhero movies are afraid to touch with a ten-foot pole. It’s everything Kick-Ass claimed to be, before it rapidly descended into the very genre clichés the concept of a normal guy trying to be a costumed hero should have precluded. Death is not a joke in Super, and when characters do die or get maimed there’s a sense of genuine tragedy. The action is not stylized but brutal and unforgettable, and there’s nary a jet pack to be found. The protagonists are not heroes but troubled souls with no proper place in the world. Super makes Kick-Ass look like Suck-Ass. It’s one of the best superhero movies ever made, and a proper contender for one of the best films of the year.
Crave Online Rating: 9.5 out of 10