This review was originally published on April 1, 2011. It is being reposted for the home video release.
Do you think you could be a superhero? Not with superpowers, just as a normal person who wants to wear spandex and fight crime. I acknowledge that pop culture has already answered this question a few times at this point, but there are still interesting movies being made around the idea so it seems more than reasonable to talk about it here on Spout. The newest of these is “Super,” which opens this weekend. It’s a fresh take, perhaps addressing the topic in the clearest and most earnest manner of any film in the past couple years. Despite how many straight superhero flicks that have been made, the writing of a real-dude-vigilante story is a surprisingly difficult endeavor. Thankfully, “Super” doesn’t try taking an easy way out.
The core problem is this: how do you maintain the fantastical style of the superhero genre and our desire to root for the good guys, while also illustrating the reality of violence and the ethical issues inherent in vigilantism? And perhaps even more importantly, how do you take both sides of this problem and use them to show why someone decides to pick up a mask and a weapon, and go out into the world to exact justice? That last question is even more pertinent now, because a movie like “Super” needs to answer it in order to prove its own relevance. These figures are so central to our current entertainment culture, and we’ve even seen documentaries like “Superheroes” that show the real-life costumed crime-fighters that already exist in some of our cities. The social ubiquity of a subject doesn’t make an idea irrelevant for fiction film, but it does put pressure on the filmmakers to be clever. For a movie like “Super” to keep the conversation interesting, it needs to avoid absurdity by showing the violent and ideological problems inherent in vigilantism, while at the same moment preserve the fantastical nature of the superhero ideal that makes someone want to bust out the tights in the first place.
Rainn Wilson is Frank d’Arbo, an unfortunate fry cook in a diner whose life is falling apart. He decides to become The Crimson Bolt not out of a powerful sense of altruism, but because he’s in the midst of a psychological breakdown. His wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) is a recovering drug addict who has relapsed and run off with a high-powered drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). Moreover, it’s clear that Frank has been kind of unstable for a long time and the film opens with a brief flashback of his many years feeling like an outcast. He’s finally driven towards his bright red mask and justice-dispensing weaponry by a low-budget Christian superhero program (Nathan Fillion as The Holy Avenger) and a series of divine visions he gets after his wife leaves. This is clearly a man on the edges of sanity, which you quickly realize is a wholly necessary condition if you’re going to have a sympathetic protagonist that also decides to commit brutal acts of violence.
And these attacks are more than a bit intense, as Frank starts smashing people over the head with a large wrench. Just as his character and mental fragility is handled very carefully to add a realism to the story, so is the veracity of the gruesome violence - this is not “Kick-Ass” or “Defendor,” two other “real-life” superhero movies that go out of their way to dodge this problem. “Kick-Ass” runs toward the absurd, using over-the-top and entirely ridiculous artillery while at the same time showing very little jarring blood and guts, while Defendor’s weapons are mostly cute things like marbles and bees. The Crimson Bolt, on the other hand, uses blunt instruments that drive home the authenticity of violence.
“Super” is also surprisingly thorough about avoiding the stylized and Gotham-like background universes of “Defendor” or the recent similarly themed Canadian grindhouse film “Hobo with a Shotgun.” The police in “Super” are neither grossly incompetent nor deeply corrupt, and the cityscape isn’t a wasteland of criminality and wickedness. Jacques, the drug kingpin, might be overblown a tad, but he’s hardly more ridiculous than your standard movie gangster. Frank also cuts his chops as a superhero on a variety of small-time criminals that seem pretty mundane. In fact, his targets seem chosen less to illustrate the atmosphere than to further examine his weakening mental state; at one point he cracks open the skull of a guy who made the unfortunate decision of cutting in line for a movie.
What is interesting about “Super,” however, is how the psychology of its protagonist is also used to build the fantastic and exciting atmosphere of an imagined superhero narrative. His dream sequences not only let us know that he’s heading towards madness, but also illustrate the appeal of saving the world in a snappy costume. The Holy Avenger is most certainly lame and silly but in Frank’s imagination he’s a role model, and we get to take part in his delusions. When he then creates his own heroic identity, we’re brought along for the ride both stylistically and narratively: the music and the camera angles in his moments of action can be just as grand and exciting as in a superhero blockbuster, and we even get the occasional comic-book moment of “zap” or “bang” with accompanying color flashes.
The costumes The Crimson Bolt and Boltie(his unhinged sidekick, played by Ellen Page) wear are also pretty fantastic, which lends a sense of wonder to their exploits even while we watch the brutal and somewhat jarring violence that they bring about. “Super”, especially in its stylistic choices, makes a point of walking the line between reality and superhero kitsch. It doesn’t seek an alternative way out by excessively stylizing the backdrop or devolving into the absurd and ridiculous “Kick-Ass.” One can debate how successful it is, and whether or not the result is compelling as a film, but what I think is most interesting here is the method. I would argue that this attempt to balance vivid fantasy and bleak lunacy is exactly the way any film with the “real dude wants to be a superhero” conceit can create an interesting narrative while not seeming culturally extraneous and redundant.
What do you think? I’m a big fan of “Defendor,” but I’m not sure its uncomplicated method of explaining away his vigilante drive with quirky psychological clichés is the most interesting choice. “Kick-Ass,” on the other hand is pretty obvious in jumping off the deep end during its bazooka-filled third act. What works? Am I wrong, and should we just call the genre tired and leave it at that? Does a documentary like “Superheroes” wrap it all up? Is there still space for ingenuity here, and how should it be achieved in fiction film? Discuss in the comments.
"Super" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray