Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re bringing James Gunn’s Super back from the dead.
Director: James Gunn
Starring: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon
IMDb rating: 6.8
Metacritic rating: 50
With generations of comic book mythology available for commercial pillage, and franchises unlikely to ever abate thanks to their unashamedly premature reboots, the superhero movie, Hollywood’s latest infatuation, seems destined for box office immortality. But as its conventions become increasingly, almost farcically tired, subversion of the genre has burgeoned in the form of films about ‘ordinary’ people turned superhero. Self-referential and therefore self aware – superhero fiction about people influenced by superhero fiction – these films drag actions previously blunted by fantasy under the scrutiny of real world morality, bestowing them, potentially, with a social conscience and manufacturing an environment perfect for satire.
Super’s James Gunn questions not only the motives of its ‘hero’ in doling out violent justice, but the motives 0f its own audience for being consumers of such violence
Whilst there are only a few examples to date – Kick-Ass, Defendor and Super – it feels as if this is a genre off-shoot predisposed for growth. And whilst Kick-Ass has been heralded by audiences and critics alike as a success, in reality it succeeds only in sacrificing true satire for broad appeal. James Gunn, of Troma fame, makes no such sacrifices in Super, refusing to crowd-please, stylise or glorify, questioning not only the motives of its ‘hero’ in doling out violent justice, but the motives 0f its own audience for being consumers of such violence.
Raiin Wilson surprises as Super protagonist Frank, one of life’s victims, the embodiment of the term ‘loser’. A magnet for bullies and bad luck, Frank’s hangdog face conveys the life of pain, humiliation and rejection behind him. In typical comic book style, tragedy is the catalyst for his superhero transformation, when the only positive thing ever bequeathed to him – beautiful, ex-addict wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) – is lost to both drugs and cruel druglord/pimp Jacques (Kevin Bacon).
Unlike many superheroes, however, Frank is not wealthy, physically fit or even certifiably sane, and his only powers are his ability to wield a pipe wrench. Against a grim inner city backdrop and as the shoddily-costumed Crimson Bolt, he deals out punishment to paedophiles and people who cut in line in equal measures, cracking open skulls with the aforementioned wrench. The latter is an example of Super’s most audacious quality – just when the audience feels comfortable laughing at the B-movie-esque, cartoonish violence, Gunn suddenly snaps them out of the comic book world and into the real one, where vigilantes are potentially just psychopaths, and right and wrong are wholly ambiguous.
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Frank’s sanity first becomes questionable at the onset of his decision to fight crime, when, after divulging that he has been “plagued” by biblical-themed visions throughout his life, he experiences a ‘visit’ from God that he interprets as a superhero ‘calling’. In a scene that is simultaneously ludicrous and horrifying, giant tentacles tear through Frank’s wall and remove the top of his skull so that God may deliver a single touch of his finger to Frank’s exposed brain. Manifesting at the crux of Frank’s breakdown, the vision is disconcertingly schizophrenic in nature, resembling images he recently saw on television. One of these images is a biblical-themed superhero called The Holy Avenger, played by Nathan Fillion in a cameo that will make Firefly fans giddy.
This religious element also provides a very subtle subtext. Biblical morality is attractive because it gives us a clear cut battle between good and evil, and a simplistic notion of justice – if you sin, you deserve punishment. The world of heroes and villains is also governed on this concept, and Frank adopts it to shield himself from the truth – that Sarah is not an angel in need of rescuing from the villainous devil Jacques, she is a victim only of her own addiction and she has simply left him. This is backed up by a series of flashbacks that reveal their courtship to be rushed and tenuous, based on mutual vulnerability rather than mutual love, Frank a kind of temporary life raft for Sarah in a sea of addiction.
A complex and unusual film, with uneasy juxtapositions of comedy and horror, Super is a challenge to our emotions and intellect
A skewed, secondary love interest is Libby, or ‘Boltie’, a 22-year-old comic book clerk and fellow outcast who becomes Frank’s sidekick. Played by Ellen Page, the character produces some of the funniest and most tragic moments of the film, including a terribly uncomfortable sex scene and a blunt, brutal death that hammers home the reality of violence. Although Page adopts the role wholeheartedly, somehow managing to remain adorable whilst being exuberantly homicidal, it’s sad that such an audacious film felt it necessary to retain geeky attractiveness with Page, rather than producing a true female equivalent of the unappealing Frank.
A complex and unusual film, with unease-inducing juxtapositions of comedy and horror, it’s difficult to unravel Super’s myriad tones and themes and grasp the message at its core. It is a challenge to both our emotions and intellect that may not be a comfortable experience, but it’s a worthy one nevertheless.
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All images: IFC Films