Super (2010) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Super (2010)

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Tentacles of a phallic shape slowly emerge from the walls and ceiling of Frank D'Arbo's home.  They encircle him while one brandishes a knife, cuts open his head and leaves from for the Finger of God (also phallic) to caress his exposed brain.  Then a well known Bible superhero named The Holy Avenger appears to Frank and tells him it's time to fight evil.

It's not the most straightforward path to becoming a costumed vigilante but it's effective, creepy, and intriguing.  In reductionist terms, Super is everything that Kick-Ass tried to be had KA not been distracted by the flippy, shiny "hey now sad now happy" ADD storytelling.  In broader measures, Super is what happens when an unstable individual allows their fantasy life to slowly overtake reality and unleash sad rage on unsuspecting civilians.  Per the image, letting the internal id become external and affect those around you.

It also touches on the fetishistic desires of superhero's that tamer films (or movies in the guise of more extreme fare) barely touch on.  To be a person obsessed with taming the streets in stretch leather and form fitting clothing is to be an individual dealing with emotions so extreme that they're barely controlled in "reality".  Of course, this isn't something that happens in "real" life, but the fantasy scenario is just as deadly.

It's not as funny as you might be led to believe, but far more affecting.

Super is the first costumed vigilante (not quite superhero) movie to acknowledge, from the get-go, that it's hero is completely lost.  A childhood of beatings and sad showers didn't prepare Frank (Rainn Wilson) for the moment his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) decided to go back to her drug using ways with the suave dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon who, refreshingly, does not use a French accent).  Her choice, so the police say, so what's a man to do?

Well, if he receives visions from God in the form of a televised hero (Nathan Fillion, milking every moment as God's personal televised super-hero) then he becomes a vigilante.  A vigilante so lacking in creative crime fighting techniques that he fights crime with a wrench.  Then crime begins to include people who cut in line and it becomes less funny.  When he gets wrapped up in Libby (Ellen Page), who wants to be a sidekick and beat up her ex it plumbs darker depths.

I questioned director James Gunn's decision to film in a documentary, "shaky-cam", style but it turned out to be the correct choice.  This isn't a confessional, but a record of someone so thoroughly out of touch with reality that someone needed to be around to see how dangerous fantasies are when applied with the wrong intentions.  Frank, after becoming The Crimson Bolt, sees his life in a stylized superhero fantasy not unlike the 1960's Adam West Batman - with colorful KAPOWS and ZOWIES any time a "villain" is hit with his wrench.

Part of Super's success is the way it approaches the problems of idealizing superheros with a massive amount of subtlety.  It's easy to make the connection between Frank being bullied and his desire to avenge the streets - but to attack relatively innocent jerks jumping in line?  Or to try and drag his ex-wife out into the road so that he can pull her home?  Oh, or the fashion that he goes about having sex with his "kid" sidekick (exposing the way that superheroes dress their heroines up like teen hookers, by and large in spite of age).

When God tells you to fight evil you better damn well do it. When Nathan Fillion tells you to fight evil you better damn well do it now.

I admire Super for sticking to two levels the whole way through.  The comedic level is appropriate.  Aside from the last five minutes (which owe quite the debt to Taxi Driver) the incredulity that people treat this red leather clad man with a wrench is too funny.  The second level is more subtle, revealing a desperate man who is lashing out at a mostly innocent (not altogether, but mostly) world through the fantasies constructed as a child.

The way that Rainn Wilson goes about portraying these depths is impressive in his equal parts creepy and funny performance.  He's a man in the midst of a psychopathic rage, yet is convinced is the holy instrument of God and Wilson convincingly encompasses both halves in a continuously tense role that gets laughs from tension as much as it does writing.  It's mostly his show, but the supporting cast helps to cast his insanity in an extreme light.

There's a fascistic ideal at play in a lot of superhero fantasies.  What's engaged in Super is just how scary it would be for someone to decide that they're the hero of all.  What's amazing about it is how it realizes deep the psychological toll is for anyone who wants to play the hero - whether they are superhero or lover.  Both are dangerous and prone to good intentions gone far astray.  Both expose an adolescent dream morphed into something horrible.

It's good of Super to portray it for the kind of violent evil that love and hope can be, and great for us that artists still try to show how the vigilante (or superhero, if that's your bag) form can teach us something.

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Super (2011)

Directed  and written by James Gunn.
Starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page and Kevin Bacon.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. What the hell is wrong with Kevin Bacon using a French accent?

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