I really was not planning to see this. When I first saw the trailer to Super, it looked to me like it was going to this geek reference comedy with Rainn Wilson doing his thing from The Office, which had become extremely tired for me (I quit watching The Office a couple of seasons ago). Even knowing that this was written and directed by James Gunn, who has previously made Slither which I had a good time with, wasn’t enough.
What made me want to see it was the recent review that Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and Christy Lemire gave it on Ebert Presents At The Movie. Their review convinced me that there was more to Super than what it’s trailer gave off, and it certainly intrigued me enough to want to seek this out when it came to St. Louis. Awhile back, I’d posted on a messageboard about one of the original iterations of At The Movies going away, and it was followed by someone talking about the idea that the concept for this show was going the way of the dinosaur thanks to the internet and the barrage of reviews that you can get through that. I thought that was just kind of sad. Yeah, sure, you can get reviews all over the internet for everything, but they’re faceless, they have no sound or inflection and unless it’s someone you trust completely, they’re all over the map. Of course, there’s a lot of good reviewers out there on the internet, who you know you can completely trust, just due to their consistency. But with that said, nothing will ever really replace for me the idea of an actual television show devoted to it. I can’t begin to tell you how many movies I was opened up to by actually seeing and hearing intelligent conversation thanks to the various iterations of At The Movies. Sorry for the long digression in the midst of this, but I can’t push Ebert Presents At The Movies enough. You may not agree with every review in the end, but the one thing that it does have is a consistency of voice and intent. To me anyway, that’s invaluable in deciding what to see.
But back to Super. This opened here in the St. Louis area this past weekend at one of my favorite theatres in town, the Tivoli. When I heard it was coming, this got fast-tracked for me right away, thanks to the above. I saw this last night, and think it’s one of the best movies that I’ve seen so far this year.
Frank D’Arbo is seemingly just your average ordinary guy who at the start of the film tells you about the only two perfect moments in his life- marrying his wife Sarah and pointing out to a policeman where a criminal went. Frank’s devoted to Sarah, but Sarah’s got a past history of substance abuse. That history begins to catch up to her when she gets involved with a slick guy named Jacques. In a matter of days, Jacques leads Sarah back to her old ways, and soon she out-and-out leaves Frank, leaving him hopelessly distraught. Frank’s at the end of his rope and doesn’t know what to do until a divine vision comes to him. This vision inspires Frank to become a costumed crimefighter named The Crimson Bolt and from there, the inevitable hijinks ensue.
As I said above, writer/director James Gunn is best known for 2006’s Slither. But before that, he had a long association with Troma Studios, known for their low-budget, extremely over-the-top exploitation films. A lot of Super is a flat-out salute to those movies, but there’s a lot more to this as well. It’s really difficult to pin any sort of singular label on this movie. On it’s surface, it looks like it’s going to be a broad comedy, when in it’s actually an extremely black comedy. With Rainn Wilson’s presence, I at least originally had the feeling that he was going to be of one note, but he goes to some places emotionally that are extremely dark, so this could also carry the label of being a psychological investigation. And then there’s the whole super-hero element that initially gets compared to Kick-Ass, but combined with other factors more puts this on the same plane with what I think Sucker Punch was trying to achieve. The difference being that Super actually does achieve it. The end result, to me anyway, actually has more in common with Taxi Driver more than anything else.
Oh, there’s certainly some broad comedy, and it’s not ineffective. It’s also not what this will be known for, that gets overshadowed by the very dark overall tone and the extreme violence within. The violence is quite graphic and feels “real” and that is certainly something to keep in mind if you decide to see this. That factor alone is something that could be a huge turn-off for someone coming in and expecting this to be like what I’d originally thought it was going to be.
Gunn’s Troma roots are certainly on display in the shooting style. The look of the film feels like there was a lot of guerilla filmmaking going on while shooting this, and it definitely works. It’s authentic feel makes the evident darkness even more pronounced.
There’s even more to it than that. Other highlights include a terrific animated opening sequence, a very Troma-esque way in which Frank gets his divine vision, and a great score from composer Tyler Bates. I’d mentioned Sucker Punch above. Sucker Punch does something with it’s ending that tries to flip the whole thing that just doesn’t work primarily due to just not being set-up that well. Well, Super does the same sort of thing, but when it happens it’s not forced and it does still come back to Frank, making for quite the poignant ending.
The big revelation for me here though was Rainn Wilson. This isn’t Dwight Shruite by any means. Frank is off-balanced, to be sure, but he’s also, at least to me highly relatable. He’s had his life turned upside-down, with one of his perfect moments tarnished. He externalizes a lot of pain that I know I can certainly relate to. Those scenes might at first seem a touch over-the-top, but I thought they were very honest and certainly made him to be a much more sympathetic character than what I had originally expected.
Liv Tyler plays Sarah, and Kevin Bacon plays Jacques. At first, the big question looms, how does someone who looks like Liv Tyler get involved with a guy like Frank? Another movie might be very superficial with something like this, but James Gunn actually goes there and tells you how. Tyler shines in these scenes, and again, it feels honest. Kevin Bacon is very slick and right off the bat you know that Jacques is going to be this sort of scum that everyone has come across in their lives in their own way.
Ellen Page plays Libby, a comic book store employee who helps Frank get on his track and later becomes his “kid” sidekick, Boltie. I tend to think that Ellen Page is one of the best young actresses out there today and seeing her in Super further supports that. As unbalanced as Frank is, there’s even darker stuff at work for Libby, she’s just not as cognizant of it as Frank is. Page is quite good at subverting that making this part something that has more in common with the first movie I saw her in, Hard Candy.
The casting also includes some other nice touches. Veteran actors Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker and Nathan Fillion (all also in Slither) have key roles here and play perfectly into Gunn’s big picture. Other nice acting touches include William Katt (from TV’s The Greatest American Hero as an on-screen police officer and Rob Zombie as the voice of God. Their appearances are really brief, but very nice winks to the intended audience.
Super is a terrific movie and just this extremely huge surprise. It’s not for everyone, for instance if you’re a parent who’s seen the trailer and think that this will be something your children will enjoy, you just might want to hold off. It’s dark tone and extreme violence could also be very off-putting to some, so I can’t give this a blanket recommendation. But if you think you can get into the combination of blacker-than black comedy, psychological unbalance and a very big heart, then you might find something very special with Super. I know I did.