“Shut up, crime!”
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler
Synopsis: After his wife falls under the influence of a drug dealer, an everyday guy transforms himself into Crimson Bolt, a superhero with the best intentions, but lacking in heroic skills.
The superhero genre has done pretty well over the past decade or so. Advances in special effects have given it the realism it needed to sustain a status far removed from those long-ago days of the 1940s when the likes of Captain Marvel and Superman battled a succession of unconvincing villains as the low-budget lower half of a double bill. Superheroes are now the main event, the tentpole projects on which the majors pin their summer releasing hopes. And if we’ve not all, at some time, dreamed of becoming a superhero, surely most of us have wished we were empowered enough to rectify the petty injustices and bullying that we all see to some degree as we go about our daily lives. It’s that unfulfilled desire that superhero movies tap into with such success, and it was only a matter of time before a sub-genre built around the attempts of normal people to emulate their super-heroes emerged.
Like Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (201), released just months earlier, Super chooses a nobody as it’s hero, awards them an unlikely superhero status, and then explores the likely consequences. However, where Kick-Ass has something of the comic-book about it, Super treads an altogether darker, arguably more realistic, and definitely more twisted path. Rainn Wilson plays Frank Darrbo, a dull unassuming short-order cook whose wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering drug addict, is slipping away from him as she once more succumbs to her addictions under the malign influence of slimy low-life drug smuggler Jacques (Kevin Bacon). After Sarah leaves him, Frank’s beating at the hands of Jacques’ thugs when he tries to reclaim his wife kick-starts a bizarre vision which convinces Frank that God has called upon him to become a superhero in the fight against crime. With near-religious fervour, he sets about creating the persona of the Crimson Bolt: weapon of choice – a pipe wrench, small but heavy, and useful for cracking skulls. Unfamiliar with the ways of superheroes – he initially gets his inspiration from a cheesy religion channel superhero series – Frank visits a comic book store where he meets Libby (Ellen Page), a diminutive but slightly psychotic teenage girl who, when she figures out that Frank is the Crimson Bolt, insists on becoming his sidekick.
Director and writer James Gunn served his apprenticeship with the ultra-low budget schlock horror Troma outfit, and this history reveals itself every now and then in Super. The budget is bigger, the acting more professional and the directing more assured, but the ambiguities of the storyline left some wondering just what exactly Gunn’s position was. Darrbo’s not a conventional hero (super or otherwise) that’s for sure. He’s a good man, but he’s dull and nondescript, and his urge to rid the streets of the criminals that infest them is fuelled by the anger of the powerless. It’s no coincidence that these kind of heroes chooses costumes filled with lurid – and impractical – colour: they’re over-compensating for the dullness that pervades their everyday life. Similarly, the superhero life they pursue is essentially the flip side of the criminal life pursued by the drug pushers the Crimson Bolt punishes, offering the same kind of excitement and enhanced status. The excitement is like a drug, which is why the film takes an unexpectedly darker turn when the Crimson Bolt caves in the skull of a jerk – but a comparatively innocent jerk, nevertheless – who queue jumps at a cinema. For most filmmakers this would be the cue for Darrbo to undergo some form of self-examination, but Gunn isn’t interested in following conventional plot formulas. Instead he introduces an even more dangerous ‘force for right’ in the form of Libby (Ellen Page) who, despite an even smaller stature and social status, when in her Boltie persona presents even more of a threat to all those around her, innocent or not.
Ultimately, Super addresses the same themes as other vigilante movies – the basic premise of Super and Kick-Ass is no different to the likes of Death Wish (1974), except they’re in fancy dress – but in a more oblique fashion. The humour is dark, the tone is knowing and jaundiced, but it undeniably strikes a chord with the average moviegoer, and at least provides an alternative look at the cult of the superhero. It might not be the crowd-pleaser that Kick-Ass was, but that doesn’t make it any less effective or successful.