Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) leads a terrible life. He has a dead-end job, little in the way of friends, no family and his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) has recently left him for sleazy strip club owner/drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Spiralling into severe depression, he suffers a religious vision that spurs him towards a new identity; that of the Crimson Bolt. Donning a makeshift costume and wielding a pipe wrench, Frank sets about dispensing justice in a uniformly brutal manner, with the ultimate goal of ‘rescuing’ Sarah and telling crime to shut up.
Despite Super being conceived back in 2002, it unfortunately arrives at what appears to be the waning arc of the modern flirtation with superheroes. Perhaps not financially, but coming as it does in the shade of numerous ‘real life superhero’ deconstructions, most notably Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, who themselves are shadowed by such iconic Marvel monoliths. However, it’s a sub-sub-genre it dominates with ease via simple psychological fidelity to its characters and a strong pedigree of cast and crew. Particular stand-outs are Ellen Page as Libby, a comic store clerk who becomes Frank’s confidante and partner in lunacy. She commits as fully as any actor can to a role that would remain goofy and unbelievable in lesser hands. Similarly, Kevin Bacon is hilarious, giving well-needed dimension to an almost too likeable villain. Rainn Wilson, best known for his role in the American incarnation of The Office, acquits himself splendidly in a lead role, fitting the part like a wrench-wielding glove.
Director and writer James Gunn cemented his reputation on the underrated horror-comedy gem Slither, as well as his work on the surprisingly worthy Dawn of The Dead remake, ex-wife Jenna Fischer’s mockumentary Lollilove and, um…Scooby Doo. Coming as he does from the stable of Troma, a studio notorious for combining schlock with gore to an endearing degree, Gunn has a knack for injecting a potent amount of genuine horror into horror-comedy. It’s a cross-breed that is as hard to market as it is in appealing to both of its demographics. The scene where Frank experiences his ‘Road to Damascus’ moment, done in glorious Takashi Miike/J-horror fashion, would be played not nearly as violent or gory in any other film. It would seem egregious to much of the audience, but it’s a marvellous scene, organically signposted and contains an odd sense of authenticity to religious delusions. It’s also a neat representation of the movie’s indie spirit, its willingness to effectively sabotage itself for the sake of idiosyncrasy.
Frank’s motivation for becoming a superhero is not based on some errant love of comic books, or Tick-like blinkered enthusiasm. He stumbles upon the idea as a device to channel his frustrations towards ‘fighting evil’, beginning in earnest by rugby tackling drug dealers and getting beaten up. Super goes much further than “haha, superheroes don’t work in real life”, which is by now a thoroughly rinsed trope. It also doesn’t fall into gleefully adhering to the formula that it’s mocking, as did Kick Ass to an admittedly genial effect. As much as it jettisons a great deal of baggage surrounding the premise, it’s also the most incisive in terms of the emotional underpinnings of superheroes. At their heart, they aren’t about power and responsibility. They’re berserker vigilantism; someone exasperated by injustice and have the ego, damaged or otherwise, to inflict unilateral correction. Frank remains our protagonist throughout, but we aren’t allowed to forget in a hurry that he’s a dangerous man. It’s one thing to subvert clichés, but it’s similarly undaunted by subverting their subversion. For example, his estranged wife is a recovering drug addict who has relapsed in the hands of her new lover, so in effect does need a knight in shining armour to rescue her. Conversely, the movie is smart enough to know that this relationship should ultimately not be healthy or sustainable.
Super is not without flaws; some of the indie comic-style captioning is forced and misguided, plus an abandoned sub-plot involving a police detective leads to a slightly limp denouement, particularly after such a stunning climax. Within this ending, it actually ends up making a fairly coherent case for braining people for cutting in line outside a cinema (“YOU DON’T BUTT IN LINE!!”). In a lesser movie, this would be reprehensible, but here it’s done with a true-blue sincerity befitting the finest of superhero fiction.