Film by James Gunn
Review by Don L. Stradley
I've seen Super 10 times by now, and it becomes more gloriously imperfect with each viewing. When this mixed up orphan of a film was marketed as a comedy during the spring of 2011, audiences were blindsided by a surreal, existential tear-jerker that occasionally erupted into extreme violence. Of course, marketing such an odd film must've been difficult, but did calling it a comedy really do it justice?
Reactions were mixed. Perhaps customers wanted the violence without the great wail of sadness at the film's core. Perhaps the individual parts of the film didn't equal a whole. Perhaps too many comic book films came out that year. Or perhaps audiences talk about wanting something different, but in reality can't accept a movie that isn't exactly like everything else they've seen. Still, in condemning Super for what wasn't there, many didn't take note of what was there: a gruff but beautiful meditation on the extremes we go through to fill up our empty lives.
Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) has an empty life because his junkie wife (Liv Tyler) left him for a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). After experiencing several nightmarish hallucinations which may or may not be messages from God, Frank becomes The Crimson Bolt, a sort of DIY crime fighter who beats down local criminals with a pipe wrench. Not just criminals, but people who cut in line, too. It seems crime fighting is like a drug - once you start, it's hard to stop.
He meets a manic girl from a local comic book store (Ellen Page), and takes her on as his assistant. After much killing and bloodshed, Frank rescues his wife from the the drug dealer. Then she leaves him again. Super ends with Frank D'Arbo weeping, in awe of all that has happened, and looking to the future. But that's just the superficial plot that writer/director James Gunn hangs in front of us. The stuff that keeps me going back is, to borrow a comic book reference from the film, "in between the panels."
Wilson is the engine that makes the movie run - he veers from cynical to melancholy to heroic, and the scenes where he reminisces about his wife, or berates himself for all of his shortcomings, are devastating. Liv Tyler is a revelation in Super, showing incredible range as a well-meaning drug addict. Bacon shows once again that he is one of our most consistent and entertaining actors. But it is Page's Libby who provides the film with its staccato heartbeat.
She first notices Frank at the comics shop, and inadvertently helps him create his crime fighting costume and persona. She suspects he is the Crimson Bolt, and then, through sheer force of her will, imposes herself into his life as "Bolty," his kid sidekick. Its not clear why Frank accepts her offer - she's too small to fight crime, she's pushy and unpleasant, and she gradually reveals herself to be quite dangerous. Libby's laugh alone would drive most people away; it's a horrible horse laugh, what Nathanael West would have called "a great beast of laughter," the laugh of a person who thinks laughter is a sound, rather than a feeling. Frank eventually realizes she's a mess and fires her, which leads to my favorite scene in the movie: Libby's frantic begging to be reinstated as his sidekick.
Libby's life had been a blank slate. The opportunity to fill it with something, to become something other than herself, illuminated her. She glows as Bolty. When The Crimson Bolt fires her, she screams, "Who is going to play Bolty?" So invested was she in the invention of this sidekick character that she assumes it will live on after she's fired. The film's heart is right there in that scene. Just the thought of returning to her own life sends Libby into a panic.
She works her way back into The Crimson Bolt's good graces and soon they are fighting crime again. So happy is she with her new life that late one night she slips into her yellow and green costume and roughly seduces Frank. An earlier love scene involving Wilson and Tyler is tender with Cheap Trick's 'If You Want My Love' soaring in the background; Page and Wilson's bizarre sex scene is rough and dirty, accompanied by bleating techno music. Page and Wilson's folie à deux made some viewers uncomfortable, but their gushy union was touching in its own way; Bolty loves The Crimson Bolt, especially when he's wearing his mask.
The film was made quickly in Shreveport, Louisiana on a modest budget of $2.5-million during the winter months of 2009-2010. It has a crushing soundtrack, a great cartoon opening, and some great supporting players such as Michael Rooker as one of Bacon's henchmen. Gunn combines chilling animated sequences with a lazy urban feel of littered sidewalks and cheap diners. Page and Wilson worked together previously in Juno and have a great chemistry here. They should be the new Diane Keaton/Woody Allen team and star in several films together. So much of Super works; it deserved better than to fall between the cracks after a limited screen eight-week run.
Gunn managed to squeak out some thoughts on Super, which couldn't have been easy since most of the promoting he did took place at comic book conventions. He seemed apologetic in some interviews, as if he realized his film's loopy tone might be a challenge for viewers. In one Q&A he mentioned that Super was about a man trying to fulfill his relationship with God. Then the conversation turned to his favorite comics. That's the risk you run when relying on fanboys to support your movie. But what else can a director do when his two lead characters spend most of their screen time in hero costumes?
Gunn may make better, more mature films in the future, unless the mixed reception of Super sends him back to a more obvious sort of action film. In trying to make this film about God and insanity and lost love, he tripped himself up by camouflaging it with super hero trappings. Maybe he thought the only way to tell his story was to sweeten it with comic book flavor. At some points in Super he seems to ratchet up the violence and gore, as if feeling he's lured his audience in under false pretense and has to give them something. But for every overwrought scene, there's one of subtly and beauty: the way Libby beams when she sees herself mentioned in a television newscast; The Crimson Bolt and Bolty hiding behind a dumpster, waiting for something to happen; the way Libby's eyes moisten when Frank rehires her.
Super ends with a bloody shootout, the death of some of our favorite characters, and then a long denouement about Tyler's character finding herself, helping other drug addicts, having her own family. Frank remains alone. Still, Frank D'Arbo feels he has done something good, rescuing his wife so she can now rescue others. "I've learned something very important," he says, just before the film cuts out. I've yet to figure out exactly what he has learned, but I think I know.
I will probably watch Super several more times. There is a story in there that I see, if no one else does. It's about people filling their lives with drugs, or religion, or sex, or fame, and still feeling empty, or else dying from what they feed on. Frank and Libby almost make it. I was rooting for them.