I’m not really sure when it all began. It might have been in 1978, when Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve convinced the world that a man could fly. Maybe it was in 2000, when X-Men appeared and made money hand over fist. Or maybe it was when Batman revolutionized movie marketing in the summer of ’89, making astronomical box office bank in the process. Hell, if you really wanted to go back, you could argue that it began with superhero movie serials in the 1940s. Whatever the event, it obviously proved the old law that every action begets an equal and opposite reaction. Just as cinema has been hit with a deluge of superhero movies still going strong to this day, there’s been another movement in recognition of how silly superheroes are and how fucked up vigilantism can really be.
It’s hard to know where that one started, too. Was it with The Boondock Saints, an unfocused 1999 cult film which spent some of its screen time musing on the pros and cons of vigilantism? Maybe it was with Meteor Man, that dud about a pathetic parody of a superhero. For the sake of argument, let’s say it started on 03.06.09 with Watchmen.
After all, it was an adaptation of the graphic novel that so famously delved into the superhero psyche with remarkable depth. Though the film worked so hard to carry over the heart and soul of its source material, there’s no denying that one or two points may have gotten lost in translation. The action is perhaps the sticking point, with overly stylized violence obscuring the commentary on how bloody such stylized violence really is. Kick-Ass was definitely an improvement in this regard, as it considerably played up the danger our heroes were in. The “real-world” hazards, such as guns and professional killers, were portrayed as sufficiently scary, yet the film still had its moments of “fantasy” violence (such as that last bazooka shot) that were played for catharsis.
Looking back on this progression, it seems inevitable that we’d end up with a film like Super.
This is a film about Frank D’Arbo alias “The Crimson Bolt” (Rainn Wilson, who also exec-produces), a vigilante who delivers his brand of justice with a pipe wrench. And his brand of justice is bloody. I’m talking faces caved in, limbs shattered and brains busted. He doesn’t even go after lawbreakers necessarily: He straight-up murders some guy and his girlfriend because they cut in front of him in line to a movie theater. Hell, this whole thing started because D’Arbo’s wife left him for some guy who may or may not be a crime lord, and even if the gangster is a bit of a douche, he still looks like a level-headed saint next to our “hero.”
In case it isn’t already obvious, Crimson Bolt is a superhero in the vein of Rorschach and a vigilante in the style of Travis Bickle. He’s not a superman or even a particularly remarkable man, he’s just a guy lashing out in an unhealthy way after getting pushed around one too many times. He’s not out to enforce the law, just his own vision of right and wrong, and there is absolutely zero gray in what he perceives as good or bad. Worse still, he’s a Christian to some degree (only when it works to his advantage, of course), so he thinks that he’s been chosen by God for this task.
D’Arbo is out enforcing a code because he feels compelled to do it. That’s certainly a far cry from Dave “Kick-Ass” Lizewski, who mostly started being a superhero so that he could play out some fantasy. In this movie, that’s where Boltie comes in.
Ellen Page plays Libby, a girl (she claims to be 22, but the veracity of that statement is uncertain) working at a comic book store who unwittingly helps Frank research for his alter-ego. By and by, she finds out that her acquaintance is a real-life superhero and quite literally bends over backwards to join him. Eventually, she joins up as D’Arbo’s sidekick, “Boltie.” One of them wants to beat up bad guys to enforce a moral code and the other wants to beat up bad guys because it’s really fucking awesome. The conflict and chemistry between these two attitudes is plenty enough to show that they’re both idiots.
Moreover, the film doesn’t just use Boltie to consider the ethics of putting a child in harm’s way (a la Hit-Girl). The ethics of putting a (possibly) underage girl in skintight latex is also considered, as are the potentially squicky implications of adult hero/kid sidekick relations. Hell, this film takes the “superhero fetish” subtext of Watchmen and makes it full-on text, to results that are about a billion times more disturbing.
But then comes the climax. Dear God, that climax. I’m talking about shootings and sinewy explosions set to cartoonish “Bam” and “Kapow” graphics like those made famous by ’60s era Batman. I’m talking about Boltie laughing hysterically with every goon she slices open. I’m talking about Crimson Bolt grabbing a bad guy by the neck and smashing his head over and over again until brains and blood come leaking out the back. One guy even begs for mercy before Crimson Bolt puts a shotgun blast in his face. This is vigilante violence at its worst, ladies and gents. It’s all the warnings of every superhero deconstruction that came before it, gathered together and brought to vivid life. It’s uglier than I could ever have imagined.
But let’s take a step back and look at the cast. I’ve already mentioned Rainn Wilson, who’s amazing in this role. He doesn’t play Frank as a sympathetic character, which was a very smart move as it grants us a certain degree of emotional disconnect. We can laugh when he makes an idiot of himself and we can watch him get injured with no ill will because hey, he’s got it coming. The film also grants us a safety net in the form of his victims and witnesses, so we have the option of sympathizing with them rather than our hero as he’s doing something excessively gruesome.
At the same time, it’s clear that D’Arbo is an unfortunate soul who might be able to get through his problems if only he had some psychiatric care. Besides, if he could devote so much time and energy toward making a costume and patrolling the streets, just imagine what he could do if he turned his energies toward something constructive. This helps make the character just a touch sympathetic, as it allows us to hope that he might develop as a character and be rid of these demons that so obviously plague him. I think the best example of this dichotomy comes early in the film, when Frank prays to God that his wife may return. It’s heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure. Amazing.
I’ve also mentioned Ellen Page, who does a wonderful job as well. Libby is all energy and no direction, always looking for superhero things to do but never thinking about her actions ahead of time. This role required such a huge amount of hyperactivity for such an extended length of time that I’m genuinely impressed Page could pull it off. What makes her character funny and sympathetic is that Libby really has no idea what she’s doing. Sure, she goes a little overboard with the violence, but she doesn’t know any better. Through no fault of her own, she just doesn’t have an off switch. Again, she’s someone who just needs something better to do. Plus, it’s admirable how Page never shied away from the sexual nature of her role, running with it full-tilt. I’d say that I found it titillating myself, but the film actually manages to present superhero sex in a way that’s more pitiful and icky than sexy. So kudos for that.
Then there’s our third hero: The Holy Avenger, a (possibly) fictional superhero who defeats evil through the power of Christianity. He’s the star of a TV show and a maligned comic book series, in which he teaches kids hackneyed morality according to the Bible. This guy is Crimson Bolt’s idol, frequently saying things in his stories that Frank interprets as holy signs to take up vigilantism. Holy Avenger (mercifully) only takes up a few minutes of screen time, but every moment is perfectly delivered by none other than Cpt. Tightpants. I have no doubt that the role was written for Nathan Fillion by his friend, writer/director James Gunn (who also appears as the Holy Avenger’s nemesis, by the way), because Fillion is always at his best when he’s making an ass of himself and the character certainly gives him ample opportunity to do that. Also, God is voiced by Rob Zombie.
Liv Tyler puts in an appearance as Frank’s wife, Sarah. She’s actually quite a pedestrian character and Tyler plays her as such, but it’s how Frank sees her that makes the role really interesting. See, Sarah used to be a junkie and an alcoholic, but she decided a short time ago to try and get back on the wagon. Unfortunately, much as Sarah tries, she can’t seem to give up the drugs and liquor completely. This is a character who’s totally gray, yet Frank insists on seeing her as white. She’s beautiful and she’s made a commitment to recover, which is enough for him to overlook her relapses and the signs that she may be falling out of love with him. In his mind, she must have been kidnapped or seduced by evil people, because the notion that she’d choose to leave him or go back to her addictions is incomprehensible.
This brings me to Jacques, our mob boss, played with dickish glee by Kevin Bacon. The thing is that at first, we don’t know he’s a criminal. The first time we see him, he shows up asking for Sarah, he asks to be let in, partakes of some breakfast that Frank was making, compliments him on the cooking skill, leaves a message for Sarah and exits. I’m not saying I’d let him date my sister, but he seems polite enough so far, all told. Frank comes home five days later to find Sarah missing and all her things gone, so Jacques’ appearance must equal Sarah gone. And because Sarah would never leave of her own volition, Jacques must have took her somehow. Therefore, Jacques = bad man.
So Frank confronts Jacques and the latter shows far more patience than a raving idiot would surely deserve. It isn’t until much later in the film, after Jacques is explicitly seen shipping drugs, when I started to feel any sizable amount of certain antipathy against the character. Yet even during the climax, it’s still difficult to cheer for the homicidal and psychotic criminal over the homicidal and drug-dealing criminal.
The good casting doesn’t end with our leads, either. Andre Royo, one of my favorite alumni from The Wire, makes a brief appearance as Frank’s coworker at a small diner. There’s also a detective with a very small amount of screen time and precious little effect on the plot, yet the character is elevated simply because he was played by a wonderful character actor named Gregg Henry.
I have no problem recommending this film for how well it was crafted. The humor is quite funny — albeit extremely dark — the cast is rock solid and the visuals are remarkable. Special kudos are due to the superhero costume design, so perfectly cheesy and obviously hand-made. The blood and guts were also great in their execution, and therein lies the problem.
There’s no denying that this movie does more to deconstruct superheroes and goes farther with that intent than any other movie I’ve seen. Yet I’m tempted to say that maybe the movie went a bit too far. At some point, the gore becomes gratuitous and the satire gets to be so on-the-nose that it verges on mean-spirited.
Also, the ending left me a touch unsatisfied somehow, perhaps because the resolution was so… blah. He could have gone on crimefighting as the Crimson Bolt. He could have died in action or gotten a happily ever as Travis Bickle did (depending on your interpretation). Better yet, he could have been faced with the inescapable conclusion that a strict black/white morality isn’t feasible, as Rorschach did. But Frank’s resolution isn’t really any of the above. Oh, it’s a happy ending of sorts, but he still has to lose so much of what he fought for throughout the movie. We get an implication of what he does with the Crimson Bolt persona, but nothing definite. If nothing else, it seems that he finds a healthier way to cope with his frustrations, which I suppose is good enough.
Super has to be, to date, the most thorough and savage superhero satire I’ve ever seen in any medium. This film covers it all, from the legality of vigilantism to the ugliness of violence to the possibly sexual nature of hero/sidekick relations. Even Watchmen and Kick-Ass, two films that I hold very dear, didn’t go to the gut-wrenching level of analysis that this movie does.
But is it worth checking out? Well, as a fan of superhero stories and superhero deconstruction, I must say that I enjoyed it very much. That it was put together so well helps a lot, of course. Still, I suspect there are quite a few moviegoers out there who simply aren’t ready to see a costumed hero turn some guy into bloody chunks with a homemade pipe bomb. The squeamish and unprepared will find this exceptionally difficult to sit through. True comic book nerds will also find it difficult to sit through, but for all the right reasons.