I just finished watching the film Super, written and directed by James Gunn. I’m having a hard time characterizing how I feel about it. Normally, if I were going to write something about a film, I would spend some time trying to develop the best way to get across my opinion of the movie. This case is different: I genuinely have no idea what I think of it, but yet I can’t stop thinking about it. So, tonight I write this review in the hope that it will help me understand my own emotional reactions to the movie.
Warning: I’ve revised this a little to take out spoilers, but I will be discussing some plot and character elements. Deal with it.
There are four key words that come to mind when I try to characterize Super: funny, bizarre, sad and shocking. It tells the story of an apparently unremarkable man of middle age named Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson). When his wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a drug dealer named Jock (Kevin Bacon), he tries to understand how this injustice has been done to him and inspired by a religious superhero on TV (played by Nathan Fillion), he decides to become a crime fighter. Unfortunately, he’s a bit of an idiot so his brand of crime fighting is wandering around town in a costume and beating the criminals he finds with a monkey wrench, before eventually getting in totally over his head.
That sounds like a simple premise for an action/comedy, right? Here’s where the bizarre comes into play.
You see, Frank is a little strange. He’s had visions all his life, and he believes they come from God. Sometimes he sees people as demons, and sometimes he sees Jesus. In a moment of desperation, he has a vision in which God gives him a sign that he must become a fighter of evil, and so he goes to buy comic books in order to learn how to become a hero. As I mentioned above, Frank goes a bit too far and backed by the conviction that he is chosen by God, not to mention all the pent up frustration from a life of being ostracized, he goes too far even to the point of putting two people in the ICU for cutting in line at the movie theatre.
Things start to get out of control when he decides to try and confront the drug dealer who stole away his wife, and uncovers a major heroin operation. They immediately recognize him in his costume, and now on the run from them, he’s forced to seek shelter with the friendly comic book store clerk Libby (Ellen Page), who is immediately enamored with the idea of becoming his kid sidekick. She’s overly enthusiastic, and nearly kills someone she suspects of keying her friend’s car. It isn’t until this moment in the movie that Frank begins to realize how messed up his life is becoming. Unfortunately for him, he’s in too deep to pull out of it now, or he will wind up a dead man.
Now, I mentioned that this film is shocking, but I want to stress that it is not just because of the gore, though there is a lot of that. It’s what it reveals about its characters that is truly shocking. The movie does not pull any punches with regards to how bad the situation becomes over the course of the story. As the film progresses, you see the worst of absolutely every major character, and the depths of their depravity. Whether it’s how bloody-minded and ruthless Frank becomes, totally in contrast to his own ethics, or Libby’s selfish enthusiasm for her superhero fantasies, which result in some of the most shocking scenes in the movie. And these are the supposed heroes of the piece.
So what about their opposite number? Here is where I was a bit disappointed, because if I have one character-related complaint, it is that most of the villains of the piece (including Jock) are just that. They are just bad guys, and don’t have a lot of depth beyond a few one-off lines in the script. There is one notable exception to this though, and that is Abe, the lead henchman and Jock’s second in command. Michael Rooker brings Abe to life with a marvelously subtle performance. It’s clear that Abe is the only one who really understands the gravity of the situation, but he never needs to say it. It’s in his eyes, a slight change in his usually flat expression that is more effective that 15 minutes of dialogue ever could be.
Ultimately, I think the core problem with Super is how it treats its characters. It’s clear that the bad guys are going to go down, but the movie can’t seem to decide how it feels about its heroes. In one moment, it will be trying to highlight how terrible Frank’s life has become and his broken heart. In another scene it will highlight his violent depravity and almost childish joy at beating someone unconscious with a wrench. In the beginning of the movie, these shifts make the film feel a bit uneven, and it strips some of the pathos from Rainn Wilson’s performance. In one scene, he’s seen weeping in prayer to God, but even here Frank is awkward and so it’s almost as if the scene is meant to come across as both sad and funny at the same time, but the result is that it doesn’t completely succeed at either.
Still, there is a clear progression for each of these heroes across the arc of the film. Frank becomes darker and more vicious than ever, but it’s really Libby that shocks the audience. What the viewer initially mistakes for youthful exuberance becomes a selfish disregard for ethics as she attempts to live out her own dreams of being a superhero, no matter who she hurts in the process of acting out her fantasies. She’s quick to make excuses for herself, but only after she has gotten what she wants. She’s a problematic character, and she’s played fearlessly by Ellen Page, who doesn’t hold back even when Libby is at her worst.
Now, while I’ve resisted bringing it up so far, I think it’s fair that so many people compare this movie to Kick-Ass (though Super supposedly began production before it). After all, they are both about a normal person trying to become a superhero and getting out of their depth. They are distinct entities though, and Super definitely stands on its own. If I were to make a comparison, it would be this: Kick-Ass understood clearly how it felt about its characters and presented them accordingly, while still exploring the moral implications of what they were doing, but Super seems a little unsure of how it feels about Frank, and as a result the audience isn’t sure what to think either. The former makes for a movie that is easier to enjoy, but the latter is more thought-provoking, at the risk of losing the audience altogether.
Ultimately, Super is a bit of an uneven film, and the four elements I mentioned above are not always blended smoothly, making some elements feel a little bit tacked on. In many ways, deep down I think that Super doesn’t want to be a comedy, but it puts the humor in so that you don’t spend the whole film crying.
Final Verdict: Super is worth seeing, and it will definitely give you something to talk about besides just quoting lines to each other after the film is over. It’s a movie I like despite its flaws, and if you don’t mind films that won’t cut your steak for you, you will enjoy it as well.