Super (2011)

Super is the type of movie that thrills me by its very existence.  It’s a whacked-out burst of intelligent, inventive filmmaking that does a great job of juggling wildly shifting tones while never forgetting where the heart of its story rests.  I watched the film with a huge smile on my face as writer-director James Gunn weaved a tale of violence, sex, drugs, and psychosis around a touching and sad performance by Rainn Wilson.  But as the film went on, I experienced a horrific feeling of helplessness and frustration that makes me want to repeatedly punch Gunn in the face.

But I should give the film a proper review before I enter into the sticky personal reasons why I want to introduce my fist to the side of Mr. Gunn’s head.

Frank (Wilson) is an awkward loser.  He works a dead-end job as a cook at a greasy diner in an economically depressed city.  He knows he’s a loser.  As the film opens, he explains through voiceover narration that he has had two moments of true happiness in his life: the first was when he married his wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), and the second was when he pointed out where a criminal went to a police officer.

But Frank is slowly losing Sarah and he knows it.  When she leaves him for scummy drug dealer, Jacques (Kevin Bacon), Frank isn’t surprised, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not angry.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, Frank turns out to be more than a socially awkward schlub–he’s actually a mentally unstable giant who is prone to intense hallucinations.  When these traits are mixed with the pain and anger he feels from Sarah’s rejection, he quickly goes off the deep end.

Taking his latest hallucination (which is rendered through striking and grotesque special effects) to be God speaking to him, Frank takes inspiration from a Christian television superhero named The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) and fashions himself a homemade costume.  Calling himself “The Crimson Bolt,” Frank starts fighting crime in a brutal style that finds him flinging himself at drug dealers and thieves before caving in their skulls with a pipe wrench.  As he works toward an eventual clash with Jacques and his goons (Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn, and Stephen Blackehart), Frank reluctantly picks up a sidekick in Libby (Ellen Page), a foul-mouthed employee at a comic book store with a passion for ultra-violence and a libido to match.

Super may sound like a comedy, but to describe it simply as such is to do it a disservice.  To be sure, it is very funny in places.  But Gunn does a smart thing and never makes fun of Frank as a human being.  Some of the things that happen to him are funny in a mean, life is truly unfair sort of way.  And while his reactions to events can be amusing to the viewer, given the context of the film, they’re never funny to Frank.  Frank is really a tragic character.  A doughy, odd-looking man with a damaged psyche, he’s a character who should be pitied, even as he descends so far into madness that he escalates the violence to fatal levels.

Wilson helps this portrayal by leaving his persona from The Office behind and playing Frank straight.  He’s a man going through severe psychological pain who finally snaps.  There’s nothing funny in that description and Wilson goes for and achieves a sad, heartbreaking tone that grounds the film’s sometimes outlandish plot twists in a realistic central character who is as damaged a human being as I’ve seen put on screen in years.  But thankfully, he’s also not just a complete sad-sack.  Frank is self-aware enough to know that he’s on the wrong side of the law and his initial resistance to Libby joining him as his sidekick elicits some nicely constructed comic dialogue that Wilson delivers in a perfectly wry sense of humor.

The rest of the cast shapes up quite nicely.  Gunn is either the most well-liked man in Hollywood or the most effective salesman to pull together such a deep cast.  Fillion and Rooker are veterans of Gunn’s brilliant Slither.  As is Gregg Henry who shows up as an ineffective cop who has dealings with Frank.  But add to this already impressive line up Page, Linda Cardellini (in a throwaway cameo), Andre Royo (Bubbles!), Bacon, and Tyler and you get a talented cast that would put most major studio productions to shame.  Even more impressive is that they all do great work that elevates the occasionally thin characters.  Rooker, Page, and Bacon, in particular, help prop up the film through a second act that occasionally lacks forward momentum.

Gunn has talked openly about Super being more of a reaction to comic books than to films based on comics.  Not being a comic book guy, I have to take him at his word on this point.  But for non-comic book nerds like myself, the film works just fine as a vigilante/revenge film that coasts in and out of surreal territory.

While successful, it quickly becomes obvious that Jacques is kind of an idiot.  This idiocy doesn’t make him any less dangerous, but it does make him the perfect villain for Frank to go up against.  These are two violent men who are successful at what they do–often through sheer luck and ignorance of the consequences of their actions.  Their conflict builds to unexpected heights as the body count ramps up in the third act, leading to several gasp-inducing moments of graphic, bloody violence that is only slightly lessened by Gunn’s use of comic book graphics.

The film isn’t without problems: The subplot with Frank and the cop eventually goes nowhere; as a character, Libby is all over the place before Gunn and Page finally settle on playing her as a giddy sociopath; an implied moral conflict for Abe (Rooker), Jacques’ main henchman, is never developed beyond him shooting some disgusted looks toward his boss.

But for the few moments that fail to work, there are many great scenes, characters, and plot twists that do: the flashbacks set to Cheap Trick’s If  You Want My Love that show the desperation that drove Frank and Sarah together; a comedic montage that has Frank and Libby acting like kids in a candy store as they shop for weapons; the vision Frank has of God literally opening up his skull to plant an idea in his brain; the true horror of Sarah’s drug addiction.  It’s a miracle that these disparate moments and the wild tonal shifts they bring not only work, but push the film past a simple comedy/action exercise into emotionally effecting territory.

But if there’s one reason above all others to see Super, it’s to support a great movie that the studio system would never produce.  Gunn produced the film independently, on the cheap.  If it’s not playing at a theater near you, you can catch it on demand.  For everyone out there who is sick of the unoriginal drivel that the studio system is cranking out, you won’t find a more exciting movie than Super.

Okay, the review portion of this post is over.  Before I get into why I seemingly want to challenge Gunn to a bare-knuckle boxing match, I do want to address the grumblings I’ve heard that Super is nothing but a knockoff of last year’s Kick-Ass.

Beyond the basic idea of a person with no superpowers donning a homemade costume to fight crime, these two films diverge wildly in both plot and tone.  While Kick-Ass started out in a real world environment, it quickly turned into a straightforward–if excessively violent–comic book movie with the main character gaining a superpower in the inability to feel pain and the introduction of the characters of Hit Girl and Big Daddy.  Super, for all the absurdities it piles on, tries to stay grounded in the real world.  Frank never gains a superpower, the violence is never played for laughs, and the sticky moral questions it raises are not ignored.  I really enjoyed Kick-Ass.  I thought it was a thoroughly entertaining bit of escapist entertainment.  But Super aims higher, giving a sometimes uncomfortable look into the darkness that would drive a man to pick up a pipe wrench and start bashing in skulls.  Yes, it has some laughs, but Gunn is playing the material in a much more uncomfortable tone that makes the audience question whether they should be enjoying the mayhem.  That’s a pretty impressive feat for a man who got his start writing movies for Troma.

So if I love Super so much, why do I want to go all Crimson Bolt on James Gunn?

Roughly one year ago, I finished work on a spec script that I consider to be the best thing I’ve ever written.  Since I’m my harshest critic, the fact that I can still read through this script and love it, is saying something.  I wrote it more as a writing sample than anything else.  It’s a satire that skips from one genre to the next with abandon–a thriller that turns into a romantic comedy before taking a left turn into horror and finally landing firmly in dark character study territory, it’s not exactly mainstream material.  But it’s a damn good script and I’m very proud of it.

Aside from falling in love with two of the most fleshed-out, complicated characters I’ve ever managed to create, I was taken with the script’s originality.  Of course, there’s no such thing as a truly original story and my script definitely reflected elements of other films, but I had never seen these elements put together in such an ambitious, playful manner.  And then I saw Super.

Through the first act of Super, I was thoroughly entertained by and engrossed in the story.  It wasn’t until certain plot points and character motivations in the second act that I began to notice similarities between Gunn’s script and my own.  By the time a major plot twist occurs in the third act, I felt like I was watching a somewhat altered, but still recognizable adaptation of my script.

I want to make this very clear: I do NOT think Gunn ripped off my script.  I know that his script has been floating around for several years.  Outside of the readers employed by the Nicholl Fellowship competition and a few literary managers and production companies that asked to read it, my script has not exactly made the rounds in Hollywood.  At the same time, I want to be clear that I had never read or heard of Gunn’s script when I wrote mine.

Granted, there are several differences: my script does not kick off with the idea of a man trying to become a superhero, my main character is not as outwardly insane, my main character does not exclusively target criminals, and my script eventually goes to much darker places.  Perhaps the biggest difference between my script and Gunn’s script for Super is what we’re each targeting: Gunn’s script is going after comic books while mine eventually reveals itself to be a satire of quirky, independent film clichés.

I suppose I should quit worrying.  After all, the truly original stories are few and far between.  The difference between stories that feel unique and stories that feel old and tired is how they’re handled.  The fact that Gunn made something that feels unique and dangerous should be applauded.  That he was able to get it released into theaters is worth celebrating.

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