James Gunn | 96 mins* | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R
If Kick-Ass was the fantasy version of “ordinary man becomes superhero” then Super is the hard-hitting, suitably-silly, ‘real’ version. And it’s not often you get to describe a film in which God rips the roof off a house, reaches down with anime-inspired tentacles, slices open a man’s head and plants an idea in his mind — literally — as “hard-hitting” and “real”.
It stars The Office’s Rainn Wilson as odd diner cook Frank, whose wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a local drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). Inspired by a cheap TV show starring Christian superhero the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) — and the aforementioned finger of God — Frank sets out to fight crime as costumed hero the Crimson Bolt. Researching power-less heroes at the local comic shop, Frank meets Libby (Ellen Page), whose equal weirdness leads to her helping him and becoming his sidekick.
Super seems ready-made for cult status. Not in the self-conscious way of something like Snakes on a Plane, but in the genuine way of a film that’s quirky and different. It’s a comedy, but one with brutally realistic violence and visions of demons and faces in vomit. Unlike Kick-Ass (the blatantly obvious point of comparison, not least because they were made and released around the same time), which moves fairly swiftly into the fantasy of being a successful superhero, Super stays quite grounded. The ending allows itself to be a little more triumphantly heroic, but not far beyond the bounds of realism (unlike Kick-Ass).
It emphasises the likely real-life difficulties of being a ‘superhero’. Frank has to get out books on sewing to make his awkward patchwork costume; he goes out on patrol, only to find no crime whatsoever; when he finds out where the drug dealers are, he gets beaten up; other crime he fights include “butting in line” (or, as we’d call it on this side of the Atlantic, queue jumping) or car-keying; and half the people recognise Frank despite his mask. No mob-level gangsters played by Mark Strong here.
Realism is the overriding principle throughout, from characters to dialogue to acting to fighting to direction. Obviously Frank’s visions (the tentacles, the demons, the vomit-face) are extremely not-real, but as representations of his mental delusions thy get a pass. Gunn’s direction has a rough, ultra-low-budget feel, yet can be quite stylishly put together when it needs to be, suggesting he’s made a choice rather than isn’t capable of something slicker. It’s even more effective at making the film seem real-world than the usual Hollywood handheld-and-grainy schtick that passes for realism.
Gunn says that his film is “about the deconstruction of the superhero myth. Who is Spider-Man or Batman? We assume that they are heroic characters but, really, they are deciding something is right and something else is wrong”. The psychology of superheroes has been a factor to one degree or another for decades now, not least the Batman films making the parallel between the hero and his villains, but the difference in Super is it’s not a parallel — it’s primarily the heroes who are messed up. The villains are criminals and quite nasty at times, but they’re mostly quite normal. They may deserve their comeuppance, but wisely — and interestingly — they’re not over-written or over-played to heighten them to the level of the psycho-hero. The Crimson Bolt is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, even more so than Batman in Begins or (of course) Kick-Ass. Those two are at least going up against the top of big organised crime; Crimson Bolt just faces a local drug dealer.
The heroes are disturbed even outside their chosen vocation: Frank has weird visions, odd catchphrases, extreme reactions to relatively trivial things; Libby is secretly ultra-violent, gets off on their costumes, etc. Gunn says the film asks if it’s “psychotic for someone to put on a mask and a cape and go out and battle what they perceive as being ‘evil’?”, but I don’t think it sets out to specifically psychoanalyse these people. Still, it makes clear how barmy you’d have to be to give the superhero thing a go yourself. That said, Gunn argues that “I don’t think [Frank] necessarily is crazy. Super is about a troubled human being and his relationship with faith, morality and what he perceives as his calling… I think that is part of why we gave him Ellen Page as a sidekick — because her character, Boltie, actually is insane. The Crimson Bolt is not doing what he does because he enjoys hurting people but Boltie is and that is the difference between the two of them. It starts to become a concern when you enjoy the violence.”
A great cast brings these factors out with ease. Wilson does deranged hero well, not overplaying the comedy side of it. Page is suitably hyper as Libby, capturing a particular facet of The Youth of Today perfectly (again). Bacon is a fantastic villain, not so much menacing or psychopathic as just… I don’t know. That’s almost why it’s so good: it’s hard to say where he’s gone with it. Also worth singling out is Michael Rooker, playing Bacon’s top henchman, Abe. It could have been quite a basic henchman part, but he makes it more with expressions and line delivery (certainly more that than the lines themselves). He’s the only one on the villain’s side who realises the Crimson Bolt might actually be a threat. You kind of want him to cone through in the end, to turn good and live; but he does his job, which is probably truer.
For all its grounded reality, Super lets loose in the final fifteen minutes, creating a punch-packing sequence that’s the rival of any comic book movie. It’s emotionally-charged action, all the more powerful for its semi-amateur-ness and realistic brutality. It climaxes in a face-to-face between our hero and the villain which is as good as any you’ll find in such a film. Is it revelling in the extremity of its violence? You might argue it is, but I don’t think it’s celebrating its gore so much as the triumph of its hero. And that’s followed by a neat epilogue, which I won’t reveal details of but is a kind of ending I’ve been wanting to see for a while.
Between the comedy, the ultra-violence, the rough edges, the slick climax, the characters’ silly catchphrases, the well-worded climactic face-off, you could argue Super has an uneven tone. I would disagree, as would Gunn: “I agree that the structure and tone of this film is very atypical… I enjoy films that surprise me and which are not formulaic and take twists and turns that I do not see coming. My life doesn’t roll along to just one ‘tone’ — one day it might be a comedy and the next a tragedy”. I’ve said in the past and I’m sure I’ll say it again: I wish more po-faced dramas would realise this.
All the technical elements come together to support the film’s main thrust. There’s a great soundtrack, mixing some choice bits of score by Tyler Bates, finding the appropriate quirky tone generally but adjusting to an action vibe for the climax, with an obscure selection of songs that seem well-chosen but not too heavy-handed. As an example, it includes a decade-old track by Sweden’s 2007 Eurovision entry (they came 18th of 24. Don’t laugh — we were joint 22nd). And, despite the low budget, there’s great special effects. The tentacles are the rival of any big-budget movie; the blood and guts are all gruesomely realistic, not filmicly censored or reduced or cheaply fake; handdrawn-style Batman “kapow”s (etc) are very effective. The title sequence, in a similar style as the latter, but with a dance routine, is also a ton of fun.
So, to the big question: is Super better than Kick-Ass? I’m not sure. Personally, I loved them both. Some people will hate both, perhaps for different reasons. Gunn acknowledges there’s a definite connection: “I understand why people keep mentioning Kick-Ass… but let me clear this up. I wrote the script to Super in 2003 and worked on it for a long time… I think that the similarities are apparent, but I still wanted to get this story out there. I think what works in our favour is that people think it looks like Kick-Ass on the outside but when they see it they realise that we are less cartoonish and maybe a little more unpredictable.”
I certainly agree that it’s to Super’s advantage that it’s quite different to a regular film; more uniquely styled than Kick-Ass’s mainstream aims. Indeed, as Gunn also says, “I think that so many movies today try to be everything to all people and I’m a little sick of it. Super is not for everyone. It is for some people.” And for the people it’s for, I think it’s exceptional. If you were to compile a list of the greatest superhero movies, I believe Super’s unique style and perspective — plus its excellent climax — would earn itself a place right near the top.
Super is on Sky Movies Premiere from tonight at 12:15am, continuing all week.
Super placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.
All quotes taken from an article by Calum Waddell in Judge Dredd Megazine #313.
* I first watched Super on the UK Blu-ray, where it runs 92 minutes thanks to PAL speed-up. The US BD (my second viewing) runs the correct 96. Image quality was better too, I thought, though if you’re considering a purchase do note it’s Region A locked. ^