Saturday, September 10, 2011

Review: Super (James Gunn, 2010)

Super, written and directed by James Gunn (Slither), has made its way around the festival circuit since it’s opening at TIFF last year, culminating with its selection as the opening night film of the 2011 Sydney Underground Film Festival. This is both a difficult film to praise and recommend, but not a film I can't say I didn’t enjoy for the most part. Demented, perverse and vile, Super is a film that many viewers will find sickeningly inappropriate and likely be turned off by when they consider the similarities to the much-beloved Kick Ass, another recent film about every-day citizens who transform themselves into costumed crime-fighting vigilantes.

In Super, Frank D’arbo (Rainn Wilson, The Office), is a plump, uncoordinated geek who possesses no powerful weapons or physical skills. While Matthew Vaughn’s film – though horrifically violent at times, and indulged in a little kid using the C-word - was much more cartoonish, you got the sense that the world depicted was distant from our own. Here, there is something more sinister about Frank, who clearly has mental health problems, with the film displaying just how far a director with the guts to ‘go there’ for jet black comedy can play with sickening violence unashamedly.

Super tells the tale of Frank, the sad, bitter low-life and diner cook whose recovering alcoholic and drug addict wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), has recently left him for a drug dealer named Jock (a wickedly brilliant turn from Kevin Bacon). Sunken in depression, Frank is inspired by the Holy Avenger (an All-Jesus Network television superhero played by Firefly star Nathan Fillion) and has a vision that he is touched by the Hand of God. This is an odd sequence, to say the least – it features tentacles appearing from the sky and Frank’s head being unceremoniously cut open. 

Frank becomes convinced that his calling in life is to become the powerless superhero, ‘The Crimson Bolt’. He makes it his mission to hunt down the evils of the world – ranging from thieves, child molesters, drug dealers and line butters – and deliver them savage beatings with a wrench, his weapon of choice. While initially viewed by the media as a violent psychopath, when news of his victim’s criminal backgrounds come to light, he gains some moderate public appreciation. 

Requiring assistance after being shot by Jock’s thugs, who recognize him under the costume, he seeks shelter with the unhinged and foul-mouthed Libby (Ellen Page), a comic book store clerk. Admiring Frank’s agenda, Libby designs her own costume and self-appoints herself his sidekick, 'Boltie'. After ironing out a few misunderstandings; Libby almost kills a guy she thought had keyed her friend’s car, the pair arm themselves with bullet-proof vests and pipe bombs and set out to reclaim Sarah.

While there are plenty of laughs, Super is ultimately an uneven mix of comedy and psychopathic thriller that works on a number of levels – and I think this depends on film taste - but unfortunately fails on many others. While Frank’s goal is to exert revenge on Jock for introducing his wife to drugs once again and drawing her away, he 'practices' his craft by first taking it to the streets. 

Most of his malicious violence is arguably more sadistic, and it reaches an unbearable level when Frank takes down a line cutter (and his female partner), and when Libby plunges a car into the legs of an assailant and proceeds to laugh hysterically. This is unsettling, and not particularly amusing. As we see Frank handle his implosion by exerting pain on others, it makes one feel quite awful about sympathizing with his character. Somehow Rainn Wilson, whose performance displays the peak of his abilities here, makes Frank D’arbo just that. Above all, this is a spiritual journey of a man who has been down-on-his-luck for his entire life, and whose motivations are honest ones. 

The supporting performances are not as strong, unfortunately. Kevin Bacon is the pick of the bunch. Playing yet another villain (though he was disappointing in X-Men: First Class) he hams it up again, but has some of the best lines. Ellen Page's character is the film’s biggest weakness. Her crude dialogue is a poor fit, and her volatile personality seems to appear out of nowhere. Liv Tyler played a role that could have been given to anyone, and has such a short amount of screen time, that it becomes nonsensical to believe Frank’s desire to have her back – other than the crayon drawing of his ‘perfect moments’. What has happened to Michael Rooker too? Seriously, that guy is terrible now. Andre Royo (who viewers will recognizes as Bubbles from The Wire) was horribly underused. He was hilarious whenever he was on-screen. 

While there are some genuinely funny moments, whether it is Jock inviting himself in for breakfast and declaring how much he loves Frank’s eggs, Frank trying to get a rise out of Jock by ‘fingering’ his car, Andre Royo telling the story about the guy who came into the restaurant with a condom in his beard, or Ellen Page exclaiming, “it’s all gushy”, some weak writing, and the frequent gritty violence push this film onto the verge of ‘bad taste’ and will likely distance a lot of viewers. This is sure to be a cult hit, but those interested should proceed with caution. 

My Rating: ★★★ (C+)


  1. Ooohh...this film is not what I first imagined when I heard about it. I still think I'd like to give it a go, I'd like to see more of Rainn Wilson's talents showcased. Great review!

  2. I liked this movie! It's hilarious, sometimes shocking, and has a real message. It is not for everyone, but for the geeks among us, it's witty and solid to the end.

  3. I liked it a lot more than you did, but I can definitely see your points.

  4. @ Ruth - I had read a couple of reviews before the film and I, too, was surprised by what I heard about the film. It is quite sickening at times, but also hilarious. I don't know if I can recommend it though, because it is certainly not a 'good' film, but there is something oddly watchable and intriguing about it. There are odd moments, like when Rainn Wilson's vomit morphs into an image of Liv Tyler. Yeah!

    @ DTG - Thanks for visiting! Yeah, it's the sort of film I usually find some enjoyment in. I did, but I was repulsed almost as much as I was entertained, which speaks of the boldness of the filmmaker, and the 'fucked up' things he throws into this film.

    @ Vik - I think the film took a downward spiral when Libby was introduced as his sidekick. Before that...GOLD!

  5. Sigh. I wish I'd read this review before I saw it. Maybe then I wouldn't have seen it. I can understand where people would enjoy it but, I don't know, the older I get the less I want to feel THIS unpleasant while watching a movie. In fact, just thinking about this movie again makes me want to dump a bucket of cold water over my head.

  6. Yeah, I was amused quite a lot, but I was mostly unsettled. Rainn Wilson was great, but I found the whole endeavour to border on pointless.