Is that where we are right now? Between the panels?
–Libby/Boltie

We missed this movie when it hit the theatres. You probably missed this movie when it hit the theatres. Shot with a big-name cast on a small-time budget, completed in the wake of Kick-Ass (though the films were in production at the same time), it did not see widespread release until April 2011, and even then, the release wasn’t particularly widespread. Super passed faster than a speeding bullet. Most critics savaged the film, a dark comedy about a depressed and disturbed loser who becomes a real-world superhero.

Nevertheless, Super soars a little higher than I expected, and earns, at the very least, its cult status. It also has a certain brutal honesty that Kick-Ass lacks.

Title: Super

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by and written by James Gunn.

Cast

Rain Wilson as Frank D’Arbo/The Crimson Bolt
Ellen Page as Libby/Boltie
Liv Tyler as Sarah Helgeland
Kevin Bacon as Jacques
Andre Royo as Hamilton
Nathan Fillion as The Holy Avenger
Gregg Henry as Detective Felkner
Don Mac as Range
Linda Cardellini as Pet Store Woman

Full Cast and Crew information is here.

Available in Blu-Ray, DVD, and Amazon Instant Video.

Premise:

After his drug-addicted wife leaves him, a life-long loser decides to become a superhero, applying comic-book conventions and his considerable rage to the real world, with mixed results. When an enthusiastic though deranged young woman becomes his sidekick, they decide to assault the residence of the local criminal with whom the ex-wife now resides.

Bloody violence and dark comedy ensue.

High Points:

“Why are you wearing a fake beard?”

The film satirizes the conventions of superhero comics, particularly during Frank’s early forays as the Crimson Bolt. Those outfits wouldn’t conceal your identity from someone who actually knows you, changing rapidly to your costume in public would prove awkward and embarrassing, and going undercover in disguise, unless you’re a professional make-up artist, would simply call attention to the fact that you’re wearing a disguise.

We never entirely understand Boltie’s motivation, but Ellen Page turns in a winning performance as Frank’s sociopathic sidekick. From the enthusiasm she brings to violent assault, to the energy she invests in creepy seduction, Page is a key reason to see this movie.

Low Points:

The film’s tone and sense of reality, like its moral compass, spin wildly throughout. The opening (like Frank’s later flashbacks) prove more depressing than comedic, and you’re as likely to wince as laugh at some of the darker gags. The film mercilessly mocks superhero conventions, action movie ethics, and romance tropes, often by placing them in the real world. Ultra-violence results in ugly carnage, simplistic moral crusades bring about injustice, and romantic obsession doesn’t breed healthy relationships or lifestyles. However, the film then starts dealing its own unexplained lapses in reality. Why does no one take down Frank’s license plate? How does Frank afford his house and sizable arsenal on a diner cook’s wages? Why are so many people competent at treating wounds?

Why is Libby, who initially seems relatively adjusted, so gung-ho to share in Frank’s delusions?

Whatever our answers to those questions (I suggest one in the conclusion, though it comes with spoilers), the meandering tone and shifting context of reality result in a movie that isn’t nearly as consistently entertaining or enlightening as this one should have been.

The Scores:

Originality: 2/6 We’ve seen variations on real-world superheroes many times before.

Effects: 5/6 This film features surprisingly strong special effects, both in Frank’s disturbed visions, and in the cartoony graphics that clash with real-world violence. And make no mistake: we’re looking at old-school grindhouse gore with convincing visuals.

Story: 4/6

Acting: 6/6 Though this film has independent-pic financing, it boasts a stellar cast, and they give strong performances. Rain Wilson’s character is rather dull, but he’s believable, and the supporting cast members do an excellent job. Look for Nathan Fillion’s cameo as the Holy Avenger, an evangelical tv-show creation who inspires Frank.

Do you really think that killing me, stabbing me to death is going to change the world?

Kevin Bacon gives the most ill-advised comeback to a vigilante since Chris Bauer in 8 mm explained to a gun-toting Nick Cage why he does vile things to other people.1

Production: 5/6

Emotional Response: 4/6 An uneven film receives an uneven response. Please be warned the film intends to make you uncomfortable, and it succeeds.

Overall: 4/6 Ambiguous ending notwithstanding, this film doesn’t really buy into vigilante ethics the way Kick-Ass, in the end, does. It’s more honest than that film, but not nearly so entertaining.

In total, Super receives 30/42.

Radical Interpretation

An interesting interpretation, though one not particularly encouraged by the film nor (that I can find) suggested elsewhere, helps account for some of the plot problems. Consider the rising number of implausibilities as the film progresses, in contrast to the comparatively realistic (if bizarre) earlier scenes. Consider how easily Frank acquires a sidekick, avoids detection, and draws no consequences for significant carnage, before slipping back into his earlier life—right down to the pet bunny. One might imagine that the beginning and ending are “real” in the world of the film, that Sarah leaves him, that he somehow draws her away from her drug addiction, and that he maintains some part in her life. However, the superhero sequences consist of a fantasy he spins about how these events came about. (We’ll put aside discussions of metafiction and the fact that, strictly speaking, nothing in the film is real). I see a number of difficulties with this interpretation, but it does resolve some problems.

Notes

1. That exchange is possibly the only reason to watch the train wreck that is 8 mm— unless you’re naturally drawn to detective films that explore the seamy underside of the porn industry, or you’re having trouble sleeping at 2 am and some station, somewhere, had nothing else to run.