cast: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, and Nathan Fillion
director: James Gunn
92 minutes (18) 2010
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
G2 DVD Region 2
review by Andrew Darlington
Superheroes are daft. Yet there’s an argument that they are the only truly original creation to emerge from the comic-strip medium, establishing the 20th century’s own heroic myth-pantheon in the process. But, while the DC and Marvel imports attracted a dedicated cult following throughout the British 1950s and 1960s, they could in no way compete with the more literary-based home-grown Dan Dare, Tough Of The Track, Roy Of The Rovers, or Garth. Not superheroes. Just ordinary men faced with extraordinary problems, relying only on their physical prowess and moral integrity.
Although despised by comics-fundamentalists, the exaggerated costumed-capers of Adam West’s camp TV Batman shoved the superhero firmly onto the teen-agenda, before Christopher Reeve’s four-part Superman saga spun a cine-gold franchise. Since then, there’s barely a superhero whose not been promoted onto the big screen with the escalating assistance of CGI-visual spectacle – although I’m still waiting for the ‘Sub-Mariner’ movie. By now, we’re well into the genre’s postmodern phase, with the deconstruction of its conventions, absurdities and essential daftness.
Watchmen (2009), with its cast of flawed and borderline psychotic superheroes, brilliantly pastiches it all, neatly pointing out the fascistic vigilante elements lurking behind its flash, while the dystopian V For Vendetta (2006) edges it into new realms of playfully subversive political satire. Even reality is getting in on the act, with Channel 4’s documentary First Cut focusing on the antics of a secretive bunch of everyday loonies donning comicbook costumes to become self-proclaimed crime-busters, taking to the streets to fight for truth and justice.
Riding on the success of director James Gunn’s comic-horror Slither (2006), and recruiting Rainn Wilson from the US version of The Office (he played the equivalent character to ‘Gareth’), this low-budget indie production nudges the process further. Although long-term in the planning, its initial release unfortunately coincided with Mark Millar’s dark-comedy Kick-Ass (2010) – which managed to get Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage involved in the escapades of another ordinary Joe who also has mistaken delusions of super-heroics, and it suffered by comparison. But in many ways, Super is the more accomplished of the two.
Sad-sack depressive burger-flipping short-order cook Frank D’Arbo (Wilson) works at ‘Joe’s Grill’ diner – not even a major high street franchise. His life is illuminated by just ‘two perfect moments’. One was alerting a cop to a store robbery. The other was meeting Sarah, his ‘recovering alcoholic’ and ex-junkie wife (Liv Tyler). Only now she’s been seduced away by ‘Bare Assets’ nightclub owner and drug-lord Jacques (Kevin Bacon), who he mispronounces as ‘Jock’. Frank even gets beaten up by Jacques’ goons when he tries to intervene. In a life of pain and rejection, he’s fallen “into the depths of hell itself.”
People look stupid when they cry. He cries anyway, and struggles to find a reason to go on. The Crimson Bolt’s journal voiceover, and the brashly brilliant sloppily animated comic-strip title-sequence signals what is to come, enlivened by Tsar’s power-pop Calling All Destroyers, with Eric Carmen, and Cheap Trick, on the soundtrack to come. Frank watches brain-mush TV anime-porn, Red Bull adverts, the Troma’s War (1988) movie, and what looks to be Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie (1943). Another Jacques..?
Then he gets divine intervention – or maybe it’s a psychotic episode, via a campy-comic evangelical TV ‘Holy Avenger’ (Nathan Fillion). Snaky octo-tendrils encircle Frank and slice off the top of his head, and his exposed maggoty-cerebellum is hyper-charged by the ‘finger of god’. “It’s more important to fight evil in all its forms rather than just to give in to Satan,” lectures the on-screen Holy Avenger. In his addled state, the words assume significance. Following up the insight in the ‘Comicsmash’ shop he comes across a randomly-flipped speech-bubble that reinforces the message. “I’m no different from you or anyone else, all it takes to be a superhero is the choice to fight evil.” Sad-sack Frank has ‘found his skin’.
Assuming the masked-avenger guise of the ‘Crimson Bolt’ he takes to bashing drug-dealers, child-molesting kiddie-fiddlers, and ill-mannered queue-jumpers alike with his pipe-wrench weapon-of-choice, accompanied by ‘ZAP’ ‘BAM’ ‘POW’ visual effects. He’s become the lone loser attempting to take on all the sins of the world single-handed. It’s his worm-turning moment; his final-straw event. To paraphrase Martin Scorsese’s Travis Bickle, he’s the “rain come to wash all this scum off the streets… wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks… all the animals that come out at night – whores, skunk-pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal.”
As if entering some disconnected dysfunctional parallel-reality, his mission stacks up favourably against other morally dubious exploitational screen-vigilante avenger stuff – TV’s The Equalizer (1985-9) with Edward Woodward, or Michael Winner’s grotesque Death Wish series (1974-94) with Charles Bronson. Is this mash-up of righteous punisher Travis in Taxi Driver (1976), by way of Tarantino, the ‘big society’ in action – policing your own neighbourhood? Perhaps not, but it is an absurd laugh-out-loud comedy.
Filmed in Shreveport and L.A., Gunn’s direction is artfully cunning, making Frank’s two damaged lives somehow more sympathetic, by splicing scenes of some empathic depth, into those of truly jarring violence. Wilson manages to invest a genuine melancholy quality into Frank’s clumsy square-faced blundering, with nostalgia flashbacks to Sarah, the one good thing in his failed life. “Happiness,” he says, “is over-rated; happy people are kind of arrogant.” Of course, he’s not a superhero, just an ordinary loser attempting to deal with extraordinary problems, relying only on his inadequate physical prowess and moral integrity.
He even acquires a costumed sidekick, in Libby the comics-store girl, who becomes the hyperactive ‘Boltie’ (a contagiously fizzing, likeably over-the-top, Ellen Page). In their life ‘in-between the comic-strip panels’ his inflexible moral-code even compels him to reject her enthusiastic sexed-up amorous advances, until she physically jumps him. He’s on the point of dumping her – she keeps calling him ‘Frank’ in mid-mission, a bit of a giveaway for his supposed secret identity, when there’s a run-in with Jacques’ goons at a gas station. She runs into one of them with the ‘Bolt-mobile’, splattering him to bloody pulp against the wall. Frank zaps the other with his own gun.
In a second decisive revelation, Frank throws up into the toilet bowl, and the vomit reshapes into Sarah’s face. His big moment has come. This time they tool-up with serious weaponry of pipe-bombs and projectile-blades. A big drug deal is going down at Jacques’ ranch, where he’s even pimping a doped-up Sarah to his gangster-client. Until the not-so dynamic duo start taking out the goons one by one. In a truly unexpected gut-wrenching shock Boltie is killed, with half her face blown off, but after the ‘SPLAT BAM KA-POW’ all the bad guys are dead too.
He has Sarah back, if only on a temporary basis. Yet, as a retired superhero with his life illuminated by a row of new ‘perfect moments’; the ill-defined moral dilemma remains unresolved. As the Nomads insist, on the soundtrack, with Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White… “Sometimes how it looks and how it is are two different things. The truth was in my heart. I followed it. And I saved Sarah.” Was he right, was he wrong? In the end he doesn’t get the girl, she moves on and marries someone else. Instead, he has a pet rabbit. The black humour and visceral action are not for everyone, but this is an unflinching dark gem of a movie.
DVD extras: include a ‘making of’ featurette, deleted scenes, and interviews.