Saturday, March 26, 2011

James Gunn's "Super"

This post originally appeared online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

In James Gunn’s twisted take on the superhero genre, Super, Dwight Schrute repeatedly bludgeons strangers in the head with a pipe wrench, Juno commits rape, and Kevin Bacon has a gold tooth.  Inevitably drawing comparisons to last year’s Kick Ass, Gunn’s film tackles the genre with an unrelentingly brutal take on how tragic it would actually be if normal people decided to fight crime as costumed avengers.  Rainn Wilson takes a completely different approach to sadsackery than what we’ve seen from him on The Office or Six Feet Under, and the results are confronting, outrageous, and hilarious if you’ve got the stomach for hyperreal violence.
After a lifetime of never being respected, Frank ( Wilson) reaches his breaking point when his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him for the seedy leader of a small crime ring, Jock (Bacon).  Desperate and alone, Frank has a vision of God telling him to become a vigilante and stand up against the evil in society.  While researching how to do this, Frank meets comic book salesgirl Libby (Ellen Page), who becomes his only ally, and eventually his sidekick Boltie, in his journey as The Crimson Bolt.  After viciously beating a number of random criminals – drug dealers, pedophiles, and even someone who butts in line at the movies – The Crimson Bolt and Boltie eventually prepare themselves for a showdown at Jock’s crime headquarters to try to save Sarah, who has backslid into drug addiction and become victimized by Jock and his associates.
Wilson’s portrayal of a man so trod upon by life lacks all vanity, and it is simultaneously relatable, depressing, and hilarious when Frank watches himself weep in front of a mirror, while his voice over explains how stupid people look when they cry.  Where Frank is a gentle, well-meaning man, The Crimson Bolt is arguably insane, with a tenuous grasp of what can be considered appropriate justice.  Wilson believably embodies both in a way that makes sense in the not-too-unrealistic world of the film.  Page also does an excellent job of portraying mental instability in a context that could blend in to society, with her obsessions and manic tendencies leading her to find ecstasy as Boltie, after a lifetime of boredom as Libby.  Even as a masked ‘kid sidekick,’ this character is definitely more Hayley from Hard Candy than Kitty Pryde from X-Men: The Last Stand.  Bacon’s role is small, but he is a pleasant surprise cast in a role that could have gone to an unknown.  The same goes for Liv Tyler, whose sad face as a relapsed addict is heartbreaking.  Nathan Fillion channels Captain Hammer in a small cameo as The Holy Avenger, a character from Christian local television.

The film has a very low budget, which it rations for a few impressive effects, from some very James Gunn-signature hallucinations, to a spectacularly violent climactic showdown.  The pared-down directing and technical work is complemented by the well-chosen sets, which keep everything feeling so real that when the less believable story elements come out, it’s not offensively jarring.  Kudos to Gunn for writing enough backstory to give Frank sufficient motivation for the actions of The Crimson Bolt, especially in regards to understanding the gravity of Sarah’s situation.  He also keeps Frank rooted in a world that does not blithely accept The Crimson Bolt’s vigilantism, and metes out some consequences.  Mary Matthews’ costume design also effectively grounds the movie in the real world, with amateur stitching and an awkward fit being such glaring missing elements from most superhero origin stories.

The film’s biggest structural flaw is that it tries very hard to have the best of both worlds, often aspiring to be so grittily realistic that it is startling how unlike any other movie Super is, but also leaving too many questions unanswered or providing no resolution for certain story beats in an effort to allow for the fantastical elements of the plot.  In the end, this is an unsatisfying turn for a film that doesn’t seem to be able to commit fully to the outcomes that it sets up.  It could have really raised the stakes and demanded more of the audience, which could have made for a more impressively told story, but instead it comes off more as the low-budget superhero movie answer to Enchanted.  There are also some very uncomfortable scenes revolving around Libby/Boltie’s sexuality, and it is important to warn viewers that a (potentially debatable) rape scene takes place.  I have a hard-line about sexual assault played gratuitously for comedy, but in Super, I believe that it is used with purpose in the context of the characters’ personalities.  Most importantly, it is not glorified, though some viewers may be uncomfortable with how the action is excused.

Super is frequently very funny, but is smart enough to rise above broad comedy, even when bloody violence accounts for most of the laughs.  This is a movie that may have a hard time finding the right audience, as it will likely be too offensive for moviegoers who know only who’s cast and that it’s a superhero movie.  It’s also critical enough of the pathology of superheroism that it will probably alienate some comic book fans while delighting others.  Fans of Kick Ass, Shoot ‘Em Up, and Bad Santa will likely find this movie to hit the right combination of violence and dark comedy.  While I consider myself in that category, I’d say I appreciated the actors’ talents and the film’s fresh elements more than the sum of its parts.  If only Super had been able to reconcile its competing intentions, it could have transcended to a more impressive level.

6.5/10 – Liked, Didn’t Love

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