Last year, Matthew Vaughn’s Kick Ass posed the question, “What would happen if a regular, everyday person put on a costume and fought crime?” rather succinctly– they’d get beaten half to death– before going off the rails of reality and into full-blown superhero movie mode, as though to underscore the impossibility of the film’s own conceit. This year, James Gunn asks the same question with Super, sparking comparisons between his picture and Vaughn’s. I’ll acknowledge validity in paralleling the two, though the idea that Gunn might be stealing from Vaughn is laughable for a number of reasons (Kick Ass can’t claim primogeniture in this sub-genre, for one), and ignoring such accusations Super explores the subject at a different angle anyways. Past the surface of their common ancestry, they prove to be fundamentally different.
I regret responding to the need to waste one hundred and thirty or so words separating the two pictures from one another, but it’s probably a necessary task. We’re at a point now where movies about superheroes without powers– regular folks like us– aren’t a novelty but a sub-genre unto themselves, between the release of movies like Kick Ass, Defendor, and Special in the last half a decade or so, which inevitably leads to cries of copy-catting and theft of material. But Super treats that basic conceit from a different angle and makes the idea its own. Unlike Vaughn’s film, Super isn’t about a person fighting crime out of a sense of duty to the public; rather, it’s about a man fighting crime to save someone he loves.
More to the point, Super builds on a minor trend in 2011 filmmaking, religious zealotry, by featuring a protagonist who goes on his personal journey because he believe he’s been touched by God. Frank D’Arbo doesn’t really fit in with the crowd of fanatics in both Christopher Smith’s excellent Black Death and Kevin Smith’s much-reviled Red State*– in the role of his alter ego, a red-bedecked vigilante named the Crimson Bolt, he’s not out committing atrocities against the innocent public in the name of the Lord, and unless you’re dealing drugs, stealing from handicapped people, or molesting children (or even cutting in line at the cinema), you’re not in danger of being struck down by his wrathful justice (and his pipe wrench). But he’s still shedding blood because God told him to, which is disturbing despite his strict orders to only harm the wicked.
That shift in motivation makes Super a very, very different film from, say, Kick Ass, and in fact arguably makes it far darker. Maybe that says more about me than the movie itself, though; I’m inclined toward unrest at the sight of violence being committed in the name of religion, especially when faith acts as a facade to veil the truth. Really, Frank’s in anguish over the departure of his wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), who leaves him early on in the story to be with Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a sleazy drug dealer, which proves to be the catalyst behind his inevitable decision to don a costume and slug it out with bad guys on the streets. The vision he receives only serves as something of a cover for the real reason behind his vendetta against his nameless city’s low-life population; of some comfort is the fact that Frank’s assault on crime at least partially serves as training and preparation for his ultimate confrontation of Jacques, but all of it’s done because God said so.
What propels Frank forward is deeply unnerving, but the more unsettling part of Super is that it still succeeds in rendering him sympathetic. Largely, credit for this feat can go to Rainn Wilson, of The Office fame; it’s in his performance that the character develops a soul and the means by which we begin to empathize with him. But despite the humanity Wilson bestows on Frank we’re still left with questions– most notably, what does it say about us as viewers that we end up being on Frank’s side? When the third act arrives and Frank commences his rampage on Jacques’ headquarters, Super— which until this point only really flirts with graphic violence– combusts and goes into full-on action movie mode, yielding the picture’s harshest bloodshed. On one hand, we might feel like cheering Frank on; director James Gunn (Slither) goes to lengths to make Jacques and his crew completely unsympathetic, so there’s little harm in watching Frank blow them away, but that element of religion hangs over every scene and we start to feel like this is Frank’s personal jihad.
The transgressive nature and ambiguous morality of Super, I think, makes Gunn’s star choices somewhat interesting; Page and Wilson surely are both recognizable to many by now, and while I can’t say that Super would have failed without them, they do make it that much more arresting. Wilson turns out a soulful, career-best performance full of heart, anguish and surprising heroic resolve, while Page effortlessly taps into hidden reserves of psychotic ardor. Frank’s delusions might be dangerous in their fashion, but he still has a moral compass; in the role of Libby, a comic book geek who worms her way into Frank’s crusade as his sidekick Boltie, Page is completely unhinged, laughing with maniacal glee as she remorselessly and indiscriminately brutalizes people hailing from various backgrounds of guilt (be they proven drug pushers or alleged car-keyers). We’ve never seen these sides of Wilson or Page, and they’re both in rare form here. Bacon also deserves some credit; he’s clearly having a ball as the slimy, charismatic, drugged-out Jacques, and while he doesn’t get the same screen time as Page and Wilson he makes a meal out of the moments he does have.
Super is a tough egg to crack. Certainly I wouldn’t call it a bad film, but it’s very much a challenging one, more so than one might expect of this sort of movie (though Kick Ass isn’t without its own thematic implications). More likely than not it may make you feel uncomfortable, but I’d wager that Gunn would mark that as a success on his part; he’s clearly not out to make a mainstream action film that’s palatable to a wide audience. If you’re up for questioning your own moral perspective and sickening violence, Super is probably right up your alley; those with weaker stomachs an an aversion to Troma-style filmmaking will do better elsewhere.
*While I haven’t seen it yet, the plot synopsis is chock-full of religious extremism; connecting the three films on that basis doesn’t seem like a huge leap.