Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Director Report Card: James Gunn (2010)

2. Super

There was something in the air at the end of the last decade. Superhero movies had been around long enough that it was apparent they weren't going away. Yet the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which cemented cape movies as the crowning filmic trend of our time, was just getting started. Nevertheless, there was a brief period where a bunch of people had the same idea: What if a real person became a superhero? From 2008 to 2010, indies like “Special,” “Defendor,” “Boy Wonder,” and “Griff the Invisible” came out. Definitive deconstructed superhero text “Watchmen” hit theaters in 2009 while 2010's “Kick-Ass” made the biggest impression on audiences. Coming shortly after that was “Super,” James Gunn's long-simmering – he started writing the script in 2002 – follow-up to “Slither.” Unfairly compared to the glossier “Kick-Ass” at the time, Gunn's film won divisive reviews and didn't find much of an audience. But I'm here to tell you that “Super” isn't just the best film of this particular wave of superhero flicks. It's one of the best superhero movies period.

Frank Darbo has lived a life of misery and humiliation. He believes he’s only had two perfect moments: A brief instance where he helped a police officer catch a fleeing criminal and when he married his wife, Sarah. A recovering addict, Sarah has slowly been getting back into drugs and eventually leaves Frank for her dealer, Jacques. This breaks Frank. In his desperation, he seems to have a vision from God, inspiring him to become a superhero named the Crimson Bolt. Armed with a simple pipe wrench, he goes about brutally bashing small time crooks – or anyone he deems in violation of the rules – with “rescuing” Sarah being his ultimate goal. Frank’s way in over his head, of course. After befriending an unhinged comic book clerk named Libbie, who self-appoints as his sidekick, his journey only grows more disturbing.

What makes “Super” especially subversive is that it’s not really about superheroes at all. Frank is not a comics fan. Seemingly his only previous exposure to masked heroics is a cheap Christian television show called the Holy Avenger. “Super” is not paying homage to Marvel and DC the same way “Slither” did to eighties horror. Gunn’s main inspiration for “Super” was likely his 2007 divorce from actress Jenna Fischer. The film is all about the masculine sense of loss felt at the abrupt end of a relationship. Specifically, Frank is grappling with his male entitlement, saying Sarah belongs to him and must be returned. That his “acts of heroism” largely involves beating petty criminals to bloody pulps with a wrench draws his mentally instability, and the absurdity of the entire superhero premise, into sharper focus. “Super” paints becoming a superhero as an act of toxic masculinity and insanity. By circumnavigating most of the specifics of the superhero, “Super” ends up being more insightful about the genre than most other films attempting to deconstruct it.

Frank is also, the movie repeatedly points out, pathetic. He’s not very smart. The opening montage shows the crueler humiliations from his life, including his prom date sleeping with the photographer. He makes childish crayon drawings and seems pretty clueless about his wife’s wants and needs. Yet there is also a startling humanity to his patheticness. After Sarah leaves, he gets on his knees and prays to God. He tears himself down, calling himself stupid and ugly. Rainn Wilson ugly-cries through the bracing monologue, making what could’ve been a cruel joke into a touching display of utter vulnerability. “Super” in general, and Wilson specifically, are totally sincere in their depiction of Frank as a not-bad person that is completely broken down by the sense of loss in his life.

As serious as “Super” takes Frank, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a source of humor. “Super” is a really funny movie and a big source of that is Frank’s strangeness as a character. A gag the film successfully returns to is how bad he is at lying. While trying to do research for his crime fighting quest, he wears an obviously fake beard. When the librarian calls him on this, he doubles down in claiming the beard is real. Later, a police detective comes for a standard visit to Frank’s house, which the would-be hero makes more suspicious by his shifty behavior. His attempts to cover this up just makes him look more guilty. Later, while talking about the Crimson Bolt with a co-worker, Frank changes his opinion and doubles back several times, to the co-worker’s bafflement. Rainn Wilson’s utter commitment to Frank’s half-assed attempts at lying makes this running gag way funnier than it would’ve been otherwise.

Another source of humor is how divine inspiration plays a role in Frank’s quest. Early on, he rather nonchalantly drops the revelation that he's received visions from God his entire life. That he never second-guesses the source of these visions says a lot about Frank's grasp on reality. The way Gunn portrays these visions adds to the comedy. Demonic faces are crudely pasted over the faces of evil-doers, their voices digitally distorted in bizarre ways. This leads up to the biggest freak-out in the film, the elaborate vision of God's finger touching Frank's brain and planting the idea of a becoming a superhero, with the assistant of some naughty tentacles and a paint-roller. An audaciously hilarious moment, Gunn also makes sure the audience doesn't take this presentation at face value. Frank's holy vision is inspired by bad television. The tentacles come from a bit of hentai he crosses on cable. Everything else, meanwhile, is boosted by a super low-budget “Bibleman” style television series, Gunn perfectly imitating the crude production values of such a series. It's pretty clear that Gunn is painting the steadfast motivations of various superheroes – Batman's quest against crime, for example – as ridiculous and impractical concepts.

Among the film's most biting criticism of comic book fandom, and its most entertaining character, is Libbie. Libbie has a boundless youthful energy, randomly doing handstands or crouching behind a desk. She has no filter, mocking Frank's name after specifically asking him not to mock her's or dropping offensive language. The twist is that Libbie isn't merely a quirky female character in an indie movie. She's a full-blown sadistic psychopath, who derives clear glee from hurting people and with zero regard for traditional morality. She takes way too much pleasure in viciously exterminating criminals, treating life-and-death like a game. Bringing this difficult character to life is Ellen Page at her most breathtakingly gorgeous. Ellen easily nails the limitless enthusiasm of Libbie while never betraying her child-like psychosis. Libbie is a very dangerous person but doesn't consider it a big deal at all, a contrast Page fantastically realizes.

That Libbie is a dangerous nut that does and says whatever she wants paints a pretty clear picture of what a superheroic sidekick would be in real life: A lunatic, a thrill-seeker, or both. (She's also in her twenties, a bit old for a “kid” sidekick.) “Super” continues to slyly mocks the superhero traditions throughout. Frank's weapon is not a high-tech suit of armor or specially made batarangs. It's just a plain old pipe wrench. His costume is an ugly mishmash of material woven together by someone with no experience in needlework. The pithiest catchphrase he can muster is “Shut up crime!,” a juvenile statement screamed with the conviction of a madman. He spends most of his patrols hanging out and waiting for something to happen, which it rarely does. When he does fight, it ends in one of two ways. Either he's embarrassed or seriously injured during combat... Or he bashes unsuspecting people into unconsciousness with a wrench. His incompetence and humiliation play as absurd comedy, with the severe beatings he hands out – Gunn's violence is gloriously R-rated – his victims rolling out as especially dark humor.

The severity of the movie's violence is, in fact, preparing the audience for what's to come. There's an intentional and hard tonal shift in the movie's last act. While taking the fight to Jacques' compound, wearing armor and wielding weapons, reality ensues. Libbie has her head suddenly, graphically blown off. Frank becomes a hardened executioner, blowing away limbs with bombs and killing goons at point-blank range as they beg for mercy. Gunn adds comic book sound effects over these acts of realistic violence, drawing the contrast between real life murder and comic book action into sharp relief. Yet the brutality of the last act is amazingly effective on its own, “Super” transforming into a disturbing crime film totally assured of its convictions. It's an amazing gut-punch of a switch, the thoroughly disarmed audience drawn completely into a brutal and ugly finale.

That tonal shift left a bad taste in many people's mouths. That's not the only element of “Super” that'll make you uncomfortable. Much of the film's comedy is what we'd call “problematic” today. Offensive slurs, once part of the common nerd vernacular but now rendered verboten in today's climate, are flung around easily. The bad guys and supporting cast members often talk in the kind of outrageous language familiar from Gunn's Troma days. Yet the most offensive moments comes when Libbie, sexually aroused by a day of crime-fighting, attempts to seduce Frank. Faithful to Sarah, he's not interested. But Libbie doesn't take no for an answer. I've seen the scene that follows referred to as deeply offensive, hilarious or even erotic. How exactly you are supposed to take the scene is hard to say and the movie could've functioned without it. You're also not going to forget it any time soon either.

As a visual filmmaker, Gunn has already come such a long way since “Slither.” “Super's” direction occupies two worlds. Many of the film's scenes are shot in a gritty, seemingly handheld style. Gunn's camera often follows the characters as they move around the unnamed but harshly industrial city, capturing the realistic world the film is set in. This is often contrasted with the colorful montages of the Crimson Bolt's superheroic adventures. Comic book graphics flash on the screen during these moments, gifting the movie with a sure-footed sense of whimsy. Yet there are surreal touches too and not just in tentacle-laden fantasy scenes. Frank's recollection of his first night with Sarah has the furniture casually moving around them. Or in Frank's meeting with the Holy Avenger, in a clear white room. It's a really interesting looking movie, that's for sure.

While Wilson and Page are clearly the stars of the show, “Super” does have an accomplished supporting cast. Liv Taylor often comes off as blank in other films. Here she shows a humanistic trauma during most of her scenes, even coming off as charming or insightful when Sarah is sober. Gunn regulars like Gregg Henry and Michael Rooker show up in understated roles, Henry as a cop just doing his job and Rooker as a thug that approaches his rough business casually. Nathan Fillion is hilariously uptight as the Holy Avenger, delivering preposterously self-righteous dialogue with a totally straight face. Kevin Bacon steals the show as Jacques, a childish and petty man who doesn't often considers the consequences of his actions. He even seems somewhat prissy about the nasty side of his business, Bacon playing the villain as a conceited teenage brat trapped in a grown man's body.

“Super's” world is one of contrast. It's opening credits are portrayed as a ridiculous cartoon, packed with gory violence. It's score shifts between willowy choirs and hard action movie bass. The back-and-forth Gunn brings to the material, seesawing between absurd humor and extreme violence, isn't going to appeal to everyone. Yet “Super” is a movie I grow more fond of every time I see it. Beautifully acted, deeply sincere in its emotions, and one hundred percent successful at the different tones it aims for, it all builds up to a genuinely touching epilogue. Maybe I'm alone in loving this oddball movie that is a gonzo comedy, a harsh crime thriller, an outrageous cult experience, and a strange deconstruction of the superhero concept. More for me than, because I think “Super” is fucking great. [Grade: A]

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