James Gunn has become a major name in superhero movies after directing Marvel’s surprisingly subversive and totally bonkers Guardians of the Galaxy last year, along with being announced to direct the sequel, but this wasn’t his first time looking at troubled ‘super’-heroes. In 2010 he wrote & directed this low-budget yet somehow fairly star-studded movie that takes apart the whole concept of superheros & their origin stories.
Super is about Frank (Rainn Wilson), a middle-aged married man who has lived a terribly uneventful & boring life. His wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a local nightclub owner & drug dealer, prompting a momumental breakdown that culminates in him experiencing a vision of God informing him he is “chosen”. Following the lead of TV Evangelist superhero The Holy Avenger (hammed up brilliantly in a cameo from Nathan Fillion) he crudely constructs an alter-ego named The Crimson Bolt & proceeds to dish out justice on the criminals of his town. Setting aside the religious satire this seems a fairly standard origin story, but it’s the heavy-handed, if still carefully balanced tone of the film that makes it very different. With his main weapon being a red pipe wrench, The Crimson Bolt brutally bludgeons criminals, ranging at first from street drug dealers to paedophiles, in sequences that certainly don’t shy away from gore like most Superhero films do to attain that magic 12A rating. While there’s a very strong tongue-in-cheek sense of dark humour throughout, there’s still a serious side to it. The Crimson Bolt’s actions rarely feel entirely heroic; it’s uncomfortably evident that we are witnessing a broken man in the midst of a mental breakdown and as his definition of ‘criminals’ widens, his morality becomes more and more ambiguous.
When Frank’s eventual side-kick Boltie (Ellen Page), in reality Libby the foul-mouthed if seemingly naive cashier at the local comic-book store, turns out to be even more unhinged than himself, the film has no reservations about going to some incredibly dark places that the humourous edge doesn’t even attempt to make light of. These shifts in tone come about without any warning and it could be viewed as somewhat schizophrenic but between the competent direction and the excellent cast, each scene manages to elicit the desired effect, resulting in an unpredictable rollercoaster of a movie. Understandably likened to Kick-Ass (which I love and have seen many times), I feel this film is perhaps more successful in drawing out a really unpleasant edge from deep within the broken characters beyond depicting an 11-year-old calling people “cunt”, but that’s not to say it’s necessarily a better movie on the whole. At any rate, in a time when Marvel & DC seem to have a film set for release every month for the next 30 years I think there’s plenty of room for 2 individually brilliant, if vaguely similar subversions of the genre to sit side-by-side.