Followers of geek news sites or “news of the weird” sections of papers may have noticed that incidents of real-life masked vigilantism have been on the rise in recent years. The idea of anonymous “everymen” out there, fed up with an ineffective law enforcement and judicial system, taking matters into their own hands and answering to no one is something that most everyone has probably thought of at one time or another, but not something that anybody actually wants, especially considering that anybody who would actually go and do this would no doubt be somewhat mentally unstable to begin with.
Followers of such stories may also have noticed a rise in the number of movies being made about said unstable masked vigilantes – last year’s glossy, big-Hollywood Kick-Ass comes immediately to mind, but also grittier, “indier” movies such as Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore’s Special, Peter Stebbing’s Defendor, and now, James Gunn’s Super.
In Super, Rainn Wilson plays Frank D’Arbo, a schlubby, sad-sack everyman who is nonetheless (though the reasons come to heartbreaking light as the film goes on) married to the beautiful-but-damaged Sarah (Liv Tyler). One day, Sarah leaves him for drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon), and Frank, in a moment of hopeless despair at his situation and at the world around him, gets the idea to put on a mask and costume to try to fight crime and fix the injustices of life around him. Calling himself The Crimson Bolt, and with the advice and unwanted assistance from comic store clerk Libby (Ellen Page), Frank goes on a “crime-fighting” spree which he hopes will ultimately defeat Jacques and “save” his wife.
Writer/director James Gunn succeeds not only in telling an engaging story, but manages to get good, unexpected performances from Rainn Wilson and all of the other actors as well. Wilson, for whom I usually don’t much care, here gives a master class in self-loathing, existential dread, and in the end, transcendence. Much of the humor and pathos in Super derives not only from Frank’s ineptness at fighting crime, but also in his single-mindedness. Frank has no sense of reason or proportion, and will attack with equal force purse-snatchers, drug dealers, or people who cut in front of him in a movie line. I’m curious if it’s just a coincidence that his initial crime-fighting inspiration came from a Christian television program – a belief system based on a set of rules which (depending on who you ask) gives equal weight to murder as it does to skipping church or admiring your neighbor’s new car.
Supporting Wilson are a scenery-chewing Kevin Bacon in full villain mode (he has frosted tips!), while Ellen Page tones down her usual bitter, brooding self while playing up a manic energy and eager-to-please innocence, giving us something akin to a young, psychotic Janeane Garofalo. In speaking of supporting performances, I’d be remiss in not mentioning fangeek favorite Nathan Fillion in a hilarious cameo as Christian superhero The Holy Avenger – these whole segments may seem like easy, cliché parody but if you, like me, have ever been trapped at your parents’ house for days on end over the holidays and made to watch endless hours of bad Christian television (particularly that aimed at kids and teens), you’ll know just how spot-on it is.
You should be warned that Super is quite violent – not in a fun, Hollywood way, but sort of halfway between “real” and “Troma”. This violence, however, serves a definite purpose: the disconnect between the comic aspects of the script and story and the gritty setting and surprising, at times disturbing violence not only gives the entire movie a refreshingly off-kilter feeling but also adds to the satire, succeeding where I personally felt Kick-Ass fell short – Kick-Ass begins as a satire of comic book stories, violence, and mind-numbing action but, by the end, becomes just another example of it. This to me is no different from the guy at the bar making fun of all the drunk douchebags, then getting drunk and becoming a douchebag himself, but thinking that’s okay because he’s already “called himself out” on it.
Super is currently making its way to smaller theatres around the U.S. (and is also available on-demand from a variety of cable providers), and is certainly worth your attention if you find it playing on a screen anywhere near you. With its uniquely funny/sad tone, it’s doggedly low-fi ethic (including one of the most joyous opening credits sequences ever committed to film), and excellent performances, Super is a movie unlike any other you are likely to see this year.
Super, in a word, is.