Film Review: “Super”

by Jason LeRoy on April 1, 2011

Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson in SUPER. © 2011 - IFC Films

starring: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Nathan Fillion, Michael Rooker, Andre Royo, Linda Cardellini

written and directed by: James Gunn

MPAA: unrated

Yikes.

That’s the first word I wrote in my notes after seeing Super, the second film from demented writer/director James Gunn (Slither). Perhaps I hadn’t researched Gunn well enough before seeing it, but when I read that adorable oddballs Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page were doing a movie where they pretended to be superheroes, I was expecting a quirky indie in a similar vein to Juno, the last film they costarred in. I mean, what else would you expect? Look at that photo up there! Dwight Schrute and Juno are wearing silly handmade costumes! Juno’s all, “Did I do that?” and Dwight’s all, “Go back to the beet farm, Juno!”

No. No. Super is nothing like that. And I really have to tip my hat to Gunn, because he has pulled off one hell of a trick here. I sincerely doubt that anyone other than Gunn afficionados could know what to expect. And you, because you’re reading this review. Super is truly one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen. It is deranged and ultraviolent and perverse in completely unexpected ways. While many have easily compared it to Kick-Ass due to the self-created superhero thing, it comes much closer to the jarring nihilism of Fight Club and A Clockwork Orange. It also has echoes of Frailty and Observe & Report, two other ultra-dark films about mentally unstable people with delusions of heroism. But like Observe, it also has moments of explosive, delightfully reckless humor.

Rainn Wilson plays Frank, a short-order cook who is married to Sarah (Liv Tyler). Wilson has his hair combed onto his forehead like a normal person, a crucial physical detail which makes his marriage to Tyler a bit more believable. Anyway, their life seems happy enough, until Sarah starts to lose herself in a downward spiral of substance abuse. She becomes increasingly drawn into the dangerous life of Jacques (Kevin Bacon), an underworld kingpin who wears lots of sleazy hats: pimp, drug dealer, etc. Soon Sarah becomes a full-blown junkie and leaves Frank for Jacques.

Frank, of course, is devastated. He tries desperately to get Sarah back, but to no avail. She has become her addiction, and Jacques is feeding it. Despondent, Frank becomes a walking zombie, too shell-shocked to live. But then, while watching TV, he comes across a hilarious faux-Christian superhero show starring Nathan Fillion as “The Holy Avenger.” And through The Holy Avenger, Frank somehow receives a direct message from God that he has been called to become an avenging superhero. We learn that he has a history of getting messages from God, so he knows the voice when he hears it.

So, he starts investigating “superheroes without special powers” at a comic book store, where he meets Libby (Ellen Page), who works there. At first, Libby seems like a textbook Ellen Page character: smart, bored, “tomboyish” (ahem). She helps Frank with his research, and soon he creates his own superhero alter-ego: The Crimson Bolt.

As The Crimson Bolt, Frank begins patrolling the city in his handmade costume, looking for criminals to fight. By smashing them in the head. With a giant fucking wrench. While some of the people he targets are criminals in the traditional sense of the word (drug dealers, pedophiles who hire child prostitutes), he also administers his giant wrench of justice to decidedly lesser offenses, such as cutting in line at the movies.

The violence is extremely jarring, and the laughter in the audience gradually turns into stunned silence. Similar to Bill Paxton’s murderous character in Frailty, Frank is fully convinced that he is doing God’s work, that he is killing demons rather than people. Eventually he is joined by Libby, who fashions herself into a sidekick called Boltie. And this is all just a warm-up to hopefully find Sarah, vanquish her captors, and bring her home.

To call Super “pitch black” is an understatement. It makes the graphically violent Kick-Ass look like a glossy Michael Bay flick. Gunn has created a singular vision, and is aided by a remarkable cast. As Frank, Wilson gives by far the most stunning performance of his career. He is constantly challenging the audience to figure out his character, daring us to classify or label him. As Libby, Page goes completely unhinged. Her performance starts in the same place she usually does, and we think we know what to expect. But she gradually reveals layer upon psychotic layer, and the cumulative effect is startling. Liv Tyler does soulful, powerful work in her scenes as Sarah. And Bacon gleefully commits himself to a despicable character without turning him into a cartoon.

Super is remarkably audacious, with something to shock pretty much everyone. And it is troubling to the very end, refusing to pass judgment on Frank’s vigilantism. This film takes itself quite seriously, and ultimately seems to share Frank’s belief in his means-to-an-end rampage. Super will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most unexpected and provocative films of the year.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Amy Jo April 1, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Good review, Jason! I hadn’t taken the time to look deeply into what this movie is all about, and I’m pretty surprised it’s that dark. I’m honestly more inclined to see it now…if I ever find time to actually watch a movie before my thesis is done.

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