How Super is SUPER?

SUPER poster

It seems that in recent years there’s a whole new sub-genre finding its spandex clad feet - the ‘realistic’ superhero tale. Now I don’t mean the dark psychology and grown up violence of the Nolan Batman films, or even the ‘suggested for mature readers’ graphic novels such as The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen or Miracleman that inspired them and first examined the logical implications of what if super powered beings and masked vigilantes existed in a world that more resembled ours rather than the usual four colour fantasy universes they traditionally inhabit.

But well before the floods of post Frank Miller/Alan Moore titles that have given their heroes a gritty realistic edge, the silver screen was toying with placing superheroes in our world and exploiting the juxtaposition of fantasy heroics with the real world well before the two comics pioneers mentioned above penned their ground-breaking titles. Arguable the first foray into this territory was 1971’s They Might Be Giants, which saw George C Scott playing a man who has come to believe he is Sherlock Holmes. Later at the dawn of the ‘80s, we had not one but two movies that played with the conceit for laughs - John Ritter’s Hero At Large in 1980 and Disney’s Condorman the following year. However it wasn’t until some two decades later that we first got a serious look at the concept of super powers in the real world with M Night Shyamalam’s Unbreakable in 2000. However thanks to the special effects advances which have made comic book adaptations a viable proposition again and the consequent rise of the conventional superhero movie, the nascent sub-genre went back into stasis.

However after ten plus years of assorted big names from Marvel and DC hitting the screens in rapid succession, it seems that this contrasting approach to super heroics is finally coming of age. And now, in the wake of Defendor (2009) and Kick Ass (2010), we have SUPER from James Gunn. In this movie we meet Frank (Rainn Wilson), a short order cook, who after losing his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) to a local drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon). After failing to win her back and getting roughed up by Jacques’ goons (which include cult favourite Michael Rooker), Frank has a divine revelation while watching a bible thumping cable TV show detailing the exploits of the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) to become a super hero. Hence Frank begins a fumbling foray into the world of costumed crime-fighting, becoming the Crimson Bolt. Along the way, he finds help from visions/hallucinations of the Holy Avenger himself and Libby (Ellen Page), a comic book geekette who transforms herself into Bolty, his kid sidekick...

SUPER poster

Now then two things are very apparent from the above synopsis. Firstly, that his low budget flick has attracted a very fine cast. And secondly that our hero, Frank isn’t exactly all there; clearly there are toys in his attic and all his picnics are sandwich deficient. Hence it doesn’t take long before his costumed capers start crossing the line and descend into ugly vigilante violence.

Now inevitably SUPER has suffered from being released after the above mentioned two movies; leaving many to dismiss it as a quick cash-in. However, in fairness the movie was already in production before either Defendor or Kick-Ass hit our screens and Gunn claims to have written a script treatment way back in 2002. Certainly he has already had a crack at subverting the superhero genre earlier, with the little seen comedy The Specials (2000) which explored what costumed crusaders do when not saving the world from super villains. I guess it’s just a case of Hollywood bus syndrome - you wait for ages for a movie that deals with ordinary folk donning a costume and then three turn up at once...

And while it would be easy to neatly bury SUPER as a more realistic Kick-Ass, or Defendor with added gore, it is a valid movie with its own distinctive take on the concepts of the subgenre. However if you’re expecting the type of buckets of blood action adventure Gunn delivered with his screenplay for the Dawn of the Dead remake or the tongue-in-cheek splatter of Slither, SUPER will come as a surprise. For although there are both laughs and OTT violence, these are just elements of a rather gritty but oddly charming tale of one man’s quest for justice and his own redemption.

And while SUPER has several amusing looks at the practical problems of becoming a costumed crime fighter in the real world, and delivers heroic action complete with low-fi Wham! Pow! captions, it’s very much a character driven story. I know it’s a horrible cliche to talk of movies being ‘an emotional journey’ but in truth that is exactly what SUPER is. And in many respects Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver is a better analogue for Rainn Wilson’s Frank than Dave Lizewski of Kick-Ass. Like Scorsese’s tale of one of society’s losers drifting into mental instability, Frank’s story explores the lives of the ignored, the overlooked and the disenfranchised.

In addition to a script that is sharp and surprising, we have an excellent cast to bring this underside of the city to life. Rainn Wilson is simply fantastic, delivering a performance than manages to make us feel rather uneasy about Frank but at the same time very sympathetic to him. Tyler and Page, as the two women in his life, also excel giving us characters that are in their own way as troubled as Frank. And Kevin Bacon puts in a superb turn as the Crimson Bolt’s reluctant arch enemy; rather than the usual scenery chewing Evil Drug Lord stereotype we get a far more realistic criminal - although clearly never in line for the World’s Nicest Guy title, Jacques is a good deal more human than the typical heartless monsters that run drug operations in the movies.

Overall SUPER is a fine addition to the canon of everyday superheroes. By turns it is both funny and shocking, but ultimately quite touching. And this is it's major strength, for as well as providing a subversive slant on the whole superhero circus,  there's an equally strong vein of social satire and commentary that's firmly rooted in the characters' emotional lives rather than crude polemic. It tells a tale that not only deftly balances the fantastic and the real, but is also well rounded and satisfying.

SUPER poster

JIM MOON, 26th July 2011