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Non-Review Review: Super

Super is pretty much one joke, extended over a movie runtime. It’s a funny joke, and it’s told well by a great cast and a witty director, but it feels a little stretched, even at under a hundred minutes. It also suffered a bit from being released in the same year as Kick-Ass, a movie that dealt with similar themes in a much more compelling manner, but Super remains an interesting examination of geek power fantasy, and some of the more sinister undertones of the conventional superhero narrative.

Not so super, hero…

Of course, pointing out the none-too-subtle moral ambiguities of superheroes is by no means a new thing. Alan Moore and Frank Miller both explored the idea in the eighties, suggesting that the kind of people who dress up in fetishistic outfits to combat “crime” might not be the most stable individuals. Indeed, anybody who assumes to target those guilty of wrongs outside the law while dressed in a body stocking is probably on some creepy ego trip. Super explores that idea quite thoroughly, and – while it doesn’t really say anything new – it does makes its arguments in a compelling manner.

James Gunn seems to acknowledge his influences. Indeed, our protagonist, Frank Darbo, has an internal monologue that could easily have been inspired by the pulpy noir of Frank Miller’s Sin City characters. “I knew I was losing her,” he tells us about his wife, a recovering addict named Sarah. “I should have done something then. Saved Sarah from what was about to come. But I was weak.” Power is a major part of Super, despite Frank’s lack of any super power.

A smashing time…

Dressing up as the Crimson Bolt, Frank works hard to target those he feels have wronged him, at one point even cracking a queue-skipper on the head with a monkey wrench, during one of the movie’s more ridiculously hilarious scenes. Rainn Wilson is that movie’s secret weapon. he plays the obviously troubled Frank with a sincerity that is almost appealing. Despite the character’s obvious disconnect from reality, his self-centred morality and his questionable application of his trusty monkey wrench, Frank is hard to hate.

When he tells us that “the finger of God” had touched him, we pity him and his obviously fragile mental state. Super is surprisingly (and refreshingly) candid in dealing with religious fanaticism. Watching AJN (the “All Jesus Network”) all day, Frank clearly believes his actions are vindicated by a higher power, even when those actions include attempted murder. Frank tries to wash his hands of personal responsibility by claiming God has sent him on a mission, but it seems quite conspicuous that God has chosen to point Frank towards people he doesn’t like anyway.

Jesus saves…

(The presence of God as a sort of superhero origin is also a nice touch of parody. After all, it isn’t that much more ridiculous than discovering that you are the last child of a dying world, or having a bat smash through your study window, or getting appointed a space!cop by some small blue aliens. However, using God in such a way is an interesting way of poking the audience, especially in a context like this. It’s something that very few mainstream movies are willing to do, and I admire Gunn for have the courage to do it.)

However, while Frank remains almost sympathetic despite his instability, the movie offers us a wonderful depiction of a superhero sadist in the form of Libbie. Frank’s motives for his one-man war on crime aren’t necessarily altruistic, but Libby makes him seem well-adjusted. Brilliantly portrayed by Ellen Page as an off-the-rails borderline psychopath, Libby appears to have a fetish for silly outfits and a taste for violence and brutality.

He’s got a lot in the pipebomb… I mean, line… I mean, pipeline…

Frank’s moral compass is questionable at best, but the movie seems to really deconstruct the superhero archetype with Libby. She seems to enjoy the pain Frank feels as she examines his bullet wound, holding the pliers with a sense of anticipation even after he tells her it was a through and through. When she convinces him to take her on as a sidekick, she decides to fight crime by targeting a guy who probably messed up a friend’s car.

As she prepares to bludgeon the guy to death, Frank protests, “What are you doing?” She replies, entirely earnestly, “Beating crime.” Frank’s fantasies might be violent, but Libby’s are even moreso, treating her outfit as an excuse to indulge her brutality. After he stops her from beating a guy to death, she asks, “How was I supposed to know I shouldn’t kill him unless you teach me?” Again, Gunn does an excellent job offering his own spin on the traditional superhero-sidekick dynamic. (Although, for my money, one of the best bit comes from Frank’s appraisal of her work. “You want to be my sidekick, no cussing.”)

Just act Cowl…

Page and Wilson carry a lot of the film. Wilson makes Frank more sympathetic than he might otherwise be, while Page seems to gleeful relish her character’s absurdly sociopathic behaviour. Given that Super is pretty much a single gag extended for over an hour and a half, the pair do phenomenal work keeping it entertaining and engaging. They are assisted by a superb supporting cast including a wonderful Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler and Michael Rooker.

Still, it suffers a bit because it’s never quite as tough on Frank as it probably should be – the movie waivers a bit on his power trip during its final third. While Kick-Ass earned its third act resolution by positioning it as a modern take on the Amazing Spider-Man superhero, Superjust seems to avoid the implications of a lot of the issues that it raises, and side-steps some of the juicier questions it broaches about the kind of person that would dress up like that to fight injustice. Or pursue their own agenda.

Bringin’ home the Bacon…

Super is populated with nice touches. I love how Frank’s disguise is so paper-thin that it fools absolutely nobody – everybody recognises him instantly. Of course, that’s partially due to a number of incredibly silly decisions by Frank, but it’s also a nice subversion of the classic superhero secret identity. Even Frank’s attempts to deflect attention away from himself play out quite hilariously. I also like that, unlike most action films, the villainous Abe actually seems concerned about gun safety – visibly wincing when his fellow goons wave their guns in their air.

James Gunn’s Super is entertaining and diverting enough, mostly due to a charming sense of humour and a superb cast. It just doesn’t feel as substantial as it really should be, with part of its thunder stolen by the release of the superior Kick-Ass only a few months prior. Still, if you are interested in having a bit of fun with the superhero archetype, you could do a lot worse than Super.


2 Responses

  1. I liked the film, but don’t think I could watch it again for a while. I do think it was unfortunate it was released so close to Kick-Ass; inevitable comparisons, and to me it felt almost like it was trying to be like a grown-up Kick-Ass. Still, interesting film, and the review is spot-on.

    • Thanks. I feel it suffered from proximity too. Plus, while Super was grand with a few clever ideas, Kick-Ass covered a lot of the same ground better and earlier. So it had a very definite edge.

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