Now we come to Super, written and directed by James Gunn. A “dark comedy” apparently full of stunning, satirical insight. Or so you’d think if you believe what you read. I believe in using past experience as a guide. Some people might consider that an inexcusable bias…but some people need to check the tree in their own eye before they start bitching about the splinters in mine. And experience told me to stay the hell away from James Gunn after 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake, which he wrote. No, I haven’t forgotten. Yes, I’m still holding that against him. Is that fair…? Probably not. But it’s not about what’s fair: it’s about what I want.
I wanted a cast of characters I could give a crap about, but Dawn of the Dead‘s bunch felt more like the subjects of someone’s half-assed social experiment. We were so far removed from them the script had to work overtime to characterize them through clunky, expository dialogue (the laziest kind of characterization around…apart from voice-over narration). So I went into Super with serious trepidation. I don’t watch The Office, so Rainn Wilson held no appeal for me. And sure, Ellen Page was in Inception…but before that, she played Shadowcat in X-Men: The Last Stand. Liv Tyler is…Liv Tyler. And Kevin Bacon is in serious danger of being typecast as The Villain.
Still, the things that annoyed me about Super have proved to be crowd-pleasing. So I once again get to be the asshole in the room who made the mistake of reading comic books back in the 1990s, when Super‘s pet issues were common storytelling currency and everybody took a whack at them (with a pipe wrench) sooner or later. I’ve seen this movie called “perhaps the definitive take on self-reflexive superheroes,” once again revealing film critic’s monumental ignorance of pretty much everything that doesn’t involve a current celebrity.
The wags at Rotten Tomatoes (or the ones who write their plot synopses) obviously haven’t seen Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD. They don’t know Lloyd Kaufman on sight and they’ll miss his two second cameo if they blink. They think Gunn’s aiming at Nolan’s Batman movies, forgetting those wouldn’t exist without decades of bad comics. Which in themselves wouldn’t exist without bad 80s actionsploitation movies very much like Super in tone if not execution.
In that great tradition, Our Hero, Frank Darabo (Wilson), is a long-time looser whose horrible life finally collapses around him after his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him for local drug dealer/strip club-owner, Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Frank informs us of his Looser status through the first of several montages that fill out Super‘s narrative to feature-length. I called this one “the Looser Montage.” My favorite part? We see teenage Frank’s prom date stand him up to have sex with someone else on the dance hall floor. She provides us with the movie’s first set of tits at just over a minute in. As I learned (and you should learn) from Stomp Tokyo.com’s review of Spitfire, nudity in the first five minutes of your movie is almost always a Bad Sign.
Gunn’s reliance on hand-held shaky cam and lens flares catch up to us as we catch up to Frank in the present, setting off even more of my mental alarm bells. Oh, hell, I thought, I can’t handle a J.J. Abrams picture now! Gotta save that hate for the Star Trek remake/sequel/rip-off. After the police refuse to arrest Kevin Bacon for kidnapping Frank’s wife (rightly pointing out that Liv basically kidnapped herself), Frank stews alone at home, crying, praying to an unresponsive God, and channel surfing.
Quickly flipping past some errant tentacle porn, Frank finds himself watching a note-perfect pastiche of Bibleman that this universe calls The Holy Avenger. Played by SF action hero Nathan “Capt’n Reynolds” Fillion, the Holy Avenger protects too-old-to-be-high school students from the temptations of demons. In true religulious fashion, Holy Avenger likes delivering the Lesson for Today directly into the camera, giving Frank a point-blank blast of Divine Inspiration.
It doesn’t happen right away. As one of my fellow Missourians once said, “You don’t get hooked on the first shot, and even if you are hooked, you can control it for awhile. Maybe stay on the same dose.” After confronting Kevin Bacon (a strung-out Liv Tyler in tow) outside his strip club, and getting his ass kicked by Kevin Bacon’s goons for the trouble, Frank reaches the Point of No Return.
So God’s own Hentai tentacles break through Frank’s wall, immobilize him, pry open his skull, and give his brain a once over with a lint roller and some antiseptic…presumably for God’s benefit. We wouldn’t want the Divine Digit contaminated by excessive cranial fluid. Frank meets the Holy Avenger inside the resulting White Zone (for the loading and unloading of Divine Messages only – the same kind of featureless egg-space where Q met Captain Picard during the later’s near-death experience), where he’s told:
Holy Avenger: There’s a plan for you, Frank. Some of His children are chosen. Okay?
Okay. Back in the waking world, Frank hangs this new motto on his wall and seeks guidance in back issues of The Holy Avenger comic book. These he finds inside ComicSmash! of Studio City, California…attracting the over-eager attentions of ComicSmash!’s counter monkey, Libby (Ellen Page). Turns out Libby’s been eating lunch at “the diner” where Frank works as a short order cook for some time now. Recognizing him, she attempts to draw him into conversation, coming out as either a racist or a physical anthropology student with her casual use of the term “mongoloids.”
In the pages of Holy Avenger, Libby finds the line that will, at last, get this damned thing going.
Libby (reading from The Holy Avenger): “I’m no different from you or anyone else Holly. All it takes to be a superhero is the choice to fight evil!”…Actually, the guy’s got a point. I wonder all the time why no one’s ever just stood up and become a real superhero.
My fellow Kick-Ass fans should recognize that line. It’s nearly identical to the question Dave Lizewski asked his friends, Todd and Marty, right after those opening credits concluded
Dave: How come nobody’s ever tried to be a superhero?
Marty: Well, I don’t know…probably because it’s fucking impossible, dipshit.
Dave: What? Putting on a mask and helping people? How’s that impossible?
Todd: But that’s not “superhero,” though. How is that “super”? “Super” is like being stronger than everybody, flying and shit. That’s just “hero.”
Marty: No, it’s not even “hero.” It’s just “fucking psycho.”
Dave: Hello! Bruce Wayne? He didn’t have any powers.
Todd: Yes, but he had all the expensive shit that doesn’t exist. I thought you meant like, “How come nobody does it for real?”
Dave: Yeah, Todd, that’s what I meant.
Marty: Dude, if anybody did it in real life they’d get their ass kicked. They’d be dead in like, a day.
Unless, of course, they’re protected by the Hero’s Battle Death Exemption and/or Lowered Monster Difficulty. The former protects Frank during his nightly excursions into Studio City’s finer back alleys and drug corners. The latter…well, to find out which Monster’s Difficulty has been lowered, we have to find out who the real monsters are, don’t we?
Frank spends the first of these patrols crouched behind a dumpster, talking into his personal tape recorder. “Crimson Bolt’s journal, Night One. Waiting to protect innocents from the dark forces of evil.” And that’s your first fucking mistake right there, Frank. If you’d bothered to read a few more comics, you might’ve encountered a story that deals with this very issue…maybe not successfully, but it’s come up in The Avengers more than once.
The middle third of Super follows Frank’s learning curve as he discovers (with some help from Libby) the importance of R&D. Then it’s time for another montage. I called this one “A Bit a’ the Old Ultra-Violence.” As if there haven’t been gory undertones running throughout that whole show. When Frank first caught his wife smoking pot back in the Looser Montage, he lapsed into a brief, violent fantasy about stabbing these harmless potheads (his wife’s guests, no less) in the neck a fireplace poker. Our Hero, ladies and gentlemen! A miserable sociopath of the John Ashcroft school. Another refugee from Frank Miller’s head who “wasn’t strong enough” to let justice run, red and viscus, out of an other people’s veins.
So this montage of “satirical” vigilante violence (in which Frank runs around clubbing people with a pipe wrench, putting up fliers, and generally stalking through the streets in full costume the way most serious superheroes don’t) nets Frank some notoriety. So much so that Libby ambushes him at the diner, demanding to know if he is, in fact, the world’s newest DIY-superhero. Frank denies it…but when his half-assed surveillance of Kevin Bacon’s house goes tits up (to the tune of a bullet through the leg and the bad guys instantly recognizing Frank through his costume) Our Hero turns to the Friendly Neighborhood Nerd Girl.
Who turns out to be not so friendly after all. After driving an entire party’s worth of what (I can only assume are) actual friends out the door, Libby puts on a small montage of Ellen Page Fu (in a sweatshirt and short shorts – thanks for that, James) for our benefit and Frank’s. She becomes Frank’s sidekick, Boltie, through constant peer pressure and by leading him to assault someone who keyed her friends car…probably…maybe…oh, hell, give her some slack; it’s her first time…in costume…and you can forgive a little youthful over-exuberance, right? Especially once it saves you life from armed thugs.
During this film’s big publicity push, James Gunn warned everyone who would listen that Super was “about a guy who’s on his own sort of spiritual quest and he just happens to wear a superhero costume during it. But it’s really about the guy and not the costume.” Disingenuous bullshit, I say, and of the highest order. If we saw Frank change through anything other than the Medium of Montage, this might actually pass as a character study.
But Frank can’t change until the end. That’s the problem with Frank as a character: he’s a static, walking joke. The calm center of a chaotic word, spouting public service announcements over the bleeding bodies of his victims. “Don’t sell drugs! Don’t molest kids!” Bland bon monts meant to hearken back to Adam West’s time in the bat costume, “comically” juxtaposed with that ol’ Ultra-Violence. Muggers with their skulls cracked by the Crimson Bolt’s pipe wrench. Thugs with legs chopped off by the speeding Boltmobile (which, in the best Orgazmobile tradition, is just Frank’s car). The violence is actually a bit demure, and I couldn’t help but think back to Drive, which was also supposed to shock me, but didn’t, because I’m dead inside. If you can stand the sight of blood, this movie’s R rating will look like an even bigger joke than its protagonist. Because Super‘s saving itself for the finale…which is quite grand in a “Back to Formula” kinda way. By then, the film’s played all its relevant “Shock” cards.
So I’ll forgive Super for throwing up its hands and climaxing in the style of a late-80s action movie. Reminded me a lot of The Return of Swamp Thing, really, with Our Hero mowing down an army of thugs as he assaults Our Villain’s palatial estate. The end sees a climactic showdown between the Crimson Bolt and Kevin Bacon, with the prize being Liv Tyler’s heart. Good guys win, bad guys loose…and instead of a Big Damn Hero moment (I guess ending on one of those would’ve made all this “about the costume”) we end on…another montage, which I just called “The Coda” because that’s what it is.
I know it’s easy to wind up with at least two (or three or four) movie’s worth of ideas in your one script…but that’s when you start redesigning the story to either focus on those elements, or omit them. James Gunn, though…goddamnit, he can’t seem to leave the sloppy storytelling principals of Troma (like “When in doubt, kill somebody with a household appliance in as gory and over-the-top a manner as possible”) behind.
For example, about thirty-three minutes in, a flashback of Liv Tyler informs us of Frank’s Attribute: he’s “good.” Despite evidence to the contrary. Soft-spoken? Damn right. Miserable? Sure. Lonely. Religious in a very not-denominational-enough-to-offend-anyone kinda way. Rigid. Uncompromising. Scared. Dumb. But “good”? I’d use that word provisionally, and only to describe Frank’s final form at the end of the Coda Montage. This is supposed to be his journey towards being good…but at the same time, we’re meant to sympathize with Frank the whole way through. The cops in this world are idiots, so some superheroics obviously need to happen. But in order to make this a “dark comedy” or even a “comedy” at all, Frank has to be “good” by divine fiat. Liv (who’s kept at arm’s length for the entire film, like any decent sacred object) becomes this movie’s Angel of the Morning, meant to inject the message into our pre-melted-by-her-hotness hearts.
Still, Frank’s a more sympathetic hero than Libby, that’s for damn sure. She so crazy, I’m surprised Takashi Miike hasn’t made a movie about her. I kept expecting Frank to find a stash of cannibalistic ex-boyfriends locked down in her basement or something. Instead of getting into the Crimson Bolt and Boltie’s adventures, I wondered how anyone could reach Libby’s levels of insanity while maintaining a social circle large enough to fill out her apartment party. You could say “hell, it’s always been there: the costume just brings it out of her. Same way it brings the urge to smash them, smash them all, out of Frank.” Ah, but that would be talking about the costume again, wouldn’t it? not the guy…or girl, as the case may be. In the end (spoiler alert…I guess…though you really won’t be surprised by any of this if you’ve read a comic book from the late-80s) there’s no time to talk about either, since Libby (conveniently) dies. There’s goes that source of post-Kevin Bacon conflict.
I’m supposed to feel Frank’s pain but I can’t because I don’t know jack shit about Libby, other than the fact she works in a comic book store. And she’s crazy. Sure Ellen Page looks hot in spandex but you know what? That’s some crass, emotional manipulation right there. My gonads have their own sense of morality, thank you very much, and it’ll take more than a gyrating Kitty Pryde to win them over to your cause, Super. Especially once you make it very clear that Libby’s exactly the kind of rapist werewolf Marilyn Manson sings about.
So the characters are all either static, stupid, or outright monsters. At least all the actors sell what they’re given. They and their universally excellent performances, jacked up this movie’s overall rating, salvaging what remained of my goodwill from the scrap heap. I liked each actor as their character while simultaneously hating all these characters, if you follow me. For one thing, this is easily the best role in Liv Tyler’s career. (And if anyone’s been groomed by life itself to play a heroin addict, it’s Steven Tyler’s daughter.)
I mentioned Frank Miller as a way to illustrate how Super shows allegiance to “dark and gritty” comics of my childhood (and Gunn’s early professional career). In many ways, Super retreads ground Miller staked out during his run on Daredevil. The hero who may or may not be touched by a (largely) silent, judgmental god, tempted to ever-increasing violence by his psychopathic female counterpart. Who’s a walking Madonna/Whore complex if ever I’ve seen one. Looking at them side-by-side, I’d say Defendor takes place in a universe very much like DC Comics, where everything is idealistic and forward-thinking. Super‘s more of a Marvel book from the tail end of the Bronze Age, when all was morose, moody, bloodstained, and brackish. Its also paints itself into a corner, with no way to escape save…a montage. Of course.
I mentioned Troma, because Super very much wants to be a Toxic Avenger for our age. The camp’s dialed back, the sexiness is dialed up, and the end result’s not nearly as funny, horrifying, or engaging as it needs to be. Toxie’s never starred in a perfect movie, but at least all his films had a consistent tone of unkempt wackiness. Super wants to be wacky…but it also wants to be a serious-minded, grim and gritty character study, boldly addressing Serious Issues (like what to do about your loved one’s drug addiction…or your sidekick’s addiction to cosplay sex).
Even people who’ve written good movies would have trouble pulling off that kind of tonal balancing act. Thanks to some great performances, the novelty of its wackiness, and the occasional good joke, Super manages to be technically good. But to be honest, I had the most fun watching the cartoon that played under the opening credits.
It descends into music video territory near the end but I didn’t mind. I would’ve probably prefer a feature length production in this style of animation. It seems much more suited for Super‘s tone than live action: a pastiche of the old Batman TV show titles, done in Frank’s third-grader-with-a-crayon-box style of illustration…with a lot more blood and flying Bad Guy organs than Batman‘s seen in a long time…outside of comic books, of course. I ended up liking it a lot more than the actual movie it preceded. And when the title sequence is the best thing about your film, you’ve got problems. Better start praying for some divine intervention.