Directed by: James Gunn
Written by: James Gunn
Starring: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon
(Originally written for Youtube Feb 1 2016)
Super, written and directed by James Gunn is an interesting beast to tackle. On the surface it’s comparable to Kick-Ass, the incredibly violent adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic book where someone decides to become a real-life superhero, which came out the same year. But the similarities pretty much end there. Where Kick-Ass uses its violence somewhat to temper what is ultimately an idealist hero origin story played straight; Super uses violence to hammer home how deeply disturbed its characters are, and presents a very dark satire that perhaps gets a bit too indulgent by the end.
Super’s protagonist is Frank Darbo, played by Rainn Wilson, a schlubby loser who’s only source of happiness is his wife, Sarah, played by Liv Tyler. When Sarah abruptly leaves Frank for Jock, the sleazy nightclub owner and drug dealer played by Kevin Bacon; Frank believes her to be kidnapped and dons the new identity of The Crimson Bolt in order to rescue her and tell crime in general to quote-“Shut Up”-unquote. Unfortunately, Frank’s idea of heroism is grievously assaulting petty criminals with a wrench, and Jock isn’t just a corner weed dealer.
What’s really incredible about this film is how it manages to humanize Frank, who, early in the film is literally touched-in-the-head; while never letting us forget the depths of his insanity. An absolutely genius part in the film is when it shows us how Frank and Sarah meet, and the path leading to their marriage as it, A. Perfectly Explains why Frank leans so heavily on the narrative of “rescuing her”, and, B. Averts the tired loser-guy/hot-girl cliché. And as soon as it’s done rationalizing his behavior, the film hits us over the head with the idea that it’s still not a justification for the violence he’s committing.
Another stroke of genius was the casting of Ellen Page as Libby, the bubbly comic book store employee who ends up becoming Frank’s sidekick. Her whole character is another perfectly executed bait-and-switch that uses Page’s nerd-dream-girl image to sneak in the film’s most aggressively upsetting character. It’s a role that Page completely commits to, and the couple of scenes where we see exactly what her character is capable of are jaw-droppingly and wince-inducingly incredible for the juxtaposition she brings.
Super does not let up over its runtime with displays of assault, gunshots, pipebombs, vehicular murder, sexual violence, and a frankly ridiculous amounts of blood. And all of it slides Super way closer to the Taxi Driver end of the idealism-cynicism scale, and shows the audience exactly what it thinks of its characters acts of justice. Which is why the ending doesn’t work for me. The ending is, disappointingly enough, the only part of the film that doesn’t fully commit to the world and characters its built. It flies past tragedy and lands uncomfortably into satire with a happy ending that doesn’t feel earned, and even seems to double-back on itself in order to justify what looks like indulgence on Gunn’s part.
Other than the ending, Super is a darkly comedic film steeped in Gunn’s Troma roots; and barring those last few minutes, an incredibly disturbing look at the people who take justice into their own hands.