“Now you have no legs!”
Writer/director James Gunn definitely has a unique sensibility. His debut feature, Slither, was a comedic horror than crossed the line into farce often while still retaining a great eye for gore and violence, appealing to both genres equally. So, when I heard his newest film, Super, was a look into the world of a down-on-his-luck sadsack who decides to become a superhero avenger, recruiting a young female sidekick along the way, I couldn’t help think it was the perfect setting to let Gunn’s imagination run wild. Yes, it does sound like Kick-Ass, but the two films couldn’t be more dissimilar. No matter how realistic the violence in Matthew Vaughn’s work, it still existed in a hyper-real universe of high style and fantasy. Gunn, on-the-other-hand, decides to remain steeped in our reality, delving more into the psychological ramifications of who a person needs to be to find himself donning a mask for unsolicited vigilantism. This man is a delusional schizophrenic; a forever-bullied human being constantly drawing the short straw in life with the capacity to dream, hallucinate, and completely detach himself from any semblance of a moral compass pointing North.
No, Frank D’Arbo’s (Rainn Wilson) compass is cockeyed and no matter how well meaning, his descent into The Crimson Bolt consumes his identity, leaving a vicious sociopath in its wake. Thought to be a chosen son of God, the Catholic television character The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) coming to him in a vision to set him on his path, Frank’s recent marital woes become the final step towards leaving societal norms behind. Watching his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) fall back into a world of drugs, led along by pimp/dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon)—or ‘Jock,’ if you prefer—this beaten, tread upon man can take no more. He promised his spouse that he’d save her from the life she wanted to leave behind and refuses to fail in that mission. And so, The Crimson Bolt is born from his delusions and the help of an eager comic book shop clerk willing to give her insight in the world of superheroes without powers. Twenty-two year old Libby (Ellen Page) gets a bit too giddy at the whole idea, though, not only beginning to idolize this strange man, but also allowing her own mental instability to rise, creating her doppelganger Boltie, a girl with a homicidal streak of destruction.
Gunn does not hold back with Super, often delving into very dark territory that can do nothing but make his audience uneasy at the events transpiring on screen. The characters are very damaged and the volatility is at a crescendo from start to finish. We watch these ‘heroes’ beat, maim, and kill for criminal activity spanning keying a car to cutting in line to molesting a child. Our society has rules and actions that just aren’t done. These rules have never changed, they’re enforcement has simply become more and more lax over the years as bullies rose and a kill or be killed mentality was cultivated. Both Frank and Libby laugh maniacally and aren’t averse to dancing a jig after wielding their cruel brand of swift justice. Wilson and Page are so good in the roles that you laugh and cringe simultaneously, realizing your complicity to the events happening by sticking around to watch more—both loving the excited invigoration and disgusted at your own apparent moral ambiguity. Gunn leads his tale to Jody Hill type-uncomfortability, but succeeds where the other has failed. Superheroes are messed up individuals, so this world of chaotic, off-putting malice fits like a glove.
An independent feature with script development going as far back as 2002, this film wears its aesthetic on its sleeve. Shot on the cheap with all actors being paid scale, you can see camera glare in the middle of the frame at times, the angles and shaking prove the operator was using a handheld, and the crude animation utilized in the opening credits and two random, distracting instances otherwise show both budget and a flair to be ‘hip’. There is charm to the credit sequence, however, a “Family Guy” feel with a song and dance number with heavies—Bacon, Michael Rooker, and Gregg Henry—strutting their stuff while a deep red cartoon Wilson wreaks havoc through the frames. Gunn also brings the look and feel of his cult internet series “PG Porn” when showing the poorly budgeted Holy Avenger, (Frank’s inspiration), on the tube, an over-acted soap opera drama where two kids are constantly led astray by the evil Demonswill (Gunn himself, deviled out with an overactive tongue). And like the web-series, Nathan Fillion shows his comedic wit and fantastic face for blatantly winking at his performance’s absurdity, this time as the titular Avenger, clad in crucifixes.
Between Fillion’s fantastically over-the-top role and Bacon’s coked-out villain trying his hardest to be nice—“Are these magic eggs?”—the rest of the supporting players are given enough fun to make their inclusion worthwhile. “The Wire’s” Andre Royo tries to be Wilson’s good angel, giving friendly advice at work; Henry is great as a smarmy cop who refuses to hide his eye-rolling towards Wilson’s weirdness; and Rooker and Sean Gunn are entertaining as Bacon’s henchmen, constantly making barely audible comments when the camera no longer even focuses on them. Each is a tad off-kilter, complementing the central duo of The Crimson Bolt and Boltie, two messed up individuals who get way over their heads carrying out ‘God’s Will’ through cracked skulls and blown-apart appendages. Wilson is perfectly cast as Frank for all his physical and mental shortcomings while Page steals the show in her over-exuberant bloodlust—their father/daughter meets best friends meets creepy love connection relationship only adding to the uncomfortable feeling throughout. And while their journey has good intentions, the path taken is full of pain, suffering, and death. Super is a superhero flick with stakes and I applaud Gunn for never shying away from that fact, no matter the cost.
courtesy of IFC Films