Film review by: Witney Seibold
While James Gunn‘s “Super” is structured like a comedy, it is, in fact, an unbearably tragic film. It is a superhero film, yes, about a masked vigilante who smacks around bad guys with a wrench, but “Super” takes the time to show how painful it is to be smacked with a wrench; there are shrieks of agony and bawling and large bleeding gashes. It shows how really uncool it is to be a superhero. You may be on the side of justice, but operating outside of the law is not an “edgy” thing to do.
And that’s another thing: Our hero in the film is not on the side of justice. Most superheroes are motivated by some desperate need to do good in the world. Spider-Man pontificates about how power and responsibility go hand in hand. Batman is a bit broodier these days, but is ultimately driven by a need to end crime. The Crimson Bolt, the alter ego of “Super’s” Frank D’Arbo ( played by Rainn Wilson in sad-sack overdrive), is driven only by his horrible loneliness. He is a pathetic creature who is upset that his recovering drug-addict wife (Liv Tyler) left him for a slick criminal (Kevin Bacon). He considers buying a rabbit to alleviate his utter solitude, but feels, rather genuinely, that such a prospect is doomed to failure. This is a not a weepy, Byronic kind of self-pity. This is a true sadness.
Frank works as a fry cook at his local diner. The two biggest moments in his life were when he married his ex-wife, Sarah (Tyler), and when he once told a cop “He went that way, officer!” No one gives him much attention. Rainn Wilson, an actor known for his comedy, comes dangerously close to making Frank into a lovable sad-sack buffoon along the lines of the self-unaware assholes on “The Office.” For a few moments, it seems that “Super” will become an insufferable comedy of pathos. The film, however, backs off at just the right moment, making us see Frank as a glowering outsider. He meets the pretty Sarah (Tyler) at his diner, and she, in a desperate need to date a decent guy, marries him, and just as quickly, leaves him.
Frank, inspired by the vapid, oddball Chick-like Christian superhero programs he watches on TV (which are not too far from the mark, given the existence of “Bible Man”), begins to have visions. God appears and touches his brain. He realizes he’s been chosen, and uses his new found mite of confidence to become The Crimson Bolt, complete with costume and wrench.
Along the way, he accumulates a hyperactive 22-year-old comic book store clerk named Libby, who is played by the indispensable Ellen Page. Libby, perhaps infected by too many years of reading comics, has become something of a maniac, and is endlessly titillated that a real superhero now exists. Indeed, it’s not long before she’s making her own costume, and insisting that she be The Crimson Bolt’s teen sidekick. She takes too much glee in beating people. This also leads to a really, really unsettling sex scene where Libby reveals just how far she’s willing to take this game.
Not once to you really root for these characters. You don’t necessarily want them to win. You only pity them. In my mind, this makes “Super” a stronger film. Had “Super” added a layer of panache, a layer of cool… well, you would have come out with something closer to Matthew Vaughn‘s horrible “Kick-Ass.” That was a film that wanted to put superheroes in the real world, and give them real-life reactions to wearing a costume and beating up bad guys, but then glossed itself with a misguided patina of “cool,” making the colors bright, the music fast, the violence awesome, and the characters heroic despite their various mental illnesses. “Super” keeps us grounded. There are a few stylistic flourishes, but Gunn is careful to keep the palate muted, the characters sad, and the violence horrifying. What he offers us with “Super” is the first superhero tragedy. Forget the teen angst of Batman. “Super” is about genuine pathos.
A lot of credit is also due to Wilson for playing it straight. Here is a man who could have winked at the camera, and given us hints that we were to laugh at Frank. He, instead, keeps his brow lowered and his confusion and hurt right on the surface. He is willing to don tights and do damage, but he is also willing to cry and vomit and live in abject fear.
Gunn previously made a sticky alien invasion flick called “Slither,” which followed the exploited of an army of interstellar slugs. That film was wild and fun and delightfully gooey. “Super” is sad and serious and very good. I look forward to seeing what other notes he can play. I have the feeling he is capable of a lot.