Stars: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler, Nathan Fillion
Writer: James Gunn
Director: James Gunn
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Release Date: April 1, 2011
There is nothing whatsoever wrong with being part of a subgenre. For example, despite the existence of ALIEN, it’s perfectly possible to make a terrific new movie about scary extraterrestrials – which SUPER writer/director James Gunn actually did a few years back with his horror comedy SLITHER.
Gunn’s new film SUPER fits into the non-super-powered superhero genre. The giant monolith in this field is obviously BATMAN, but SUPER belongs to an even smaller subdivision: a tale of a truly ordinary (in the economic as well as the physical sense) fellow who is inspired by comic books to become a costumed crime fighter. Relatively recent entries in this arena have been 2006’s SPECIAL, with Michael Rapaport as a drug trials enlistee who wrongly believes he has superpowers, 2009’s DEFENDOR (spelling is correct) with Woody Harrelson as the Average Joe and of course last year’s outrageous KICK-ASS.
SPECIAL, which was very low-budget, went from the standpoint of what it would look like if some poor well-intentioned soul really tried to fight crime. KICK-ASS had a meta aspect, commenting on the glories of comic books while also reveling in what it was discussing. SUPER tries to straddle these two points of view, but rather than bringing them together, it feels disjointed.
Frank (Rainn Wilson), a cook at a diner, sinks into a deep depression when his alcoholic wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him for the sleazy Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Coming to believe that God (voiced by Rob Zombie, no less) has spoken to him, Frank makes a superhero costume, starts reading comic books to figure out how it’s done and, in his guise as the Crimson Bolt, starts bashing local malefactors over the head with a wrench. The objects of his crime-fighting vengeance range from drug dealers to child molesters to people who are simply rude. As Frank never ceases in his efforts to get Sarah back, he picks up a fan/sidekick, Libby (Ellen Page), who is ardent about everything to do with superheroes, though like Frank, she has no previous experience.
The combination of high comedy and bloodbath can be pulled off, and Gunn deserves a lot of credit for trying something different. However, in SUPER, we’re supposed to view Frank as simultaneously really pathetic and righteous. Wilson embraces Frank’s misery and flat affect, playing him as a man who is just bright enough to understand how others see him, which makes him more wretched than ever. However, both Wilson and Gunn do perhaps too effective a job of tamping Frank down – he doesn’t have enough energy to strike us as someone continually on the verge of exploding, which he needs to be if he’s going to be out there yelling “Shut up, crime!” and cracking skulls with a wrench. More, in the tricky calibration of Frank’s self-awareness, we can tell that Wilson is brighter than Frank – we see the strings. He’s neither real enough to be tragic nor surreal enough to be funny.
The audience is urged to consider exactly what it is we’re cheering on when we applaud movie and comic book vigilantes, but most of them don’t brain people for minor social infractions – people who do this tend to be not movie heroes, but either movie villains or the real-life mentally ill who need help and are deeply unfunny – so the comparison doesn’t really work. Another unfunny element is many characters’ use of the word “gay” as a synonym for “stupid.” With all the movie’s departures from reality, this is what the filmmakers used to give the dialogue veracity?
Gunn has brought together some of his SLITHER leads in supporting roles, which all are tonally more of a piece than the main storyline. Nathan Fillion is a hoot as a Christian superhero who keeps defeating a cheesy demon, Gregg Henry is a smug police detective and Michael Rooker is a henchman who’s got the good sense to worry about what’s happening around him.
The casting of Fillion inevitably brings to mind DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG, which also tackled costumed, but non-super-powered heroes and villains, who were more like bullies and picked-on people. (Yes, it had musical numbers, but SUPER has visions of aliens and the hand of God, which works out to about the same thing in terms of reality level.) A lot of DR. HORRIBLE is about the unintended consequences of what its characters are doing as they grapple for what they want.
Without spoiling major plot points, SUPER does address the issue of unintended consequences, but by then, we can’t tell how we’re meant to feel about it – it seems to be going for a gut punch and instead results in the viewer wondering what effect is intended, rather than having any actual emotional impact. SUPER gets points for originality and for attempting wild shifts in tone. Sometimes it works to embrace the absurd and the tragic – in its way, SLITHER achieved this. However, in SUPER, the ingredients just don’t mesh.