Ellen Page stars as the mentally unstable kid sidekick Boltie in James Gunn's Super (2010)
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
"You don't butt in line" yells The Crimson Bolt (Rainn Wilson), Super's mentally unstable dweeb-turned-vigilante. "You don't sell drugs! You don't molest little children! You don't profit on the misery of others!" Highly irreverent it may be, but James Gunn's latest has a point. You don't do those things. "The rules were set a long time ago!" Bolt continues. "They don't change!" But let me ask you this: when butting in line is equivalent to child rape in the mind of society's greatest hope, a monkey wrench wielding sociopath, should we feel any safer? "How can I tell crime to shut up if I have to shut up?" he demands in one scene, after his nympho kid sidekick Boltie (aka Libby, played by Ellen Page) beats a man half to death in his own home. The suspected crime? Car keying. She's been raised on comics books and news reports of daily homicide. Are they any better, these alleged superheroes, than the evil they endeavor to defeat? This is Super's central question, and it proves surprisingly pointed.
In classic B-movie tradition, Super identifies with a present-tense reality and then exaggerates scenario for the purpose of satire. Romero's Dawn Of The Dead (1978) is the classic example; an essay on consumerism disguised as a gooey zombie flick. Hitting UK shores only a year after the success of Kick-Ass (Vaughn, 2010), Super was sadly destined to be judged by that film's standards, but they share little DNA outside of the idea of an ordinary schlub becoming a superhero; a concept also mined by the 2009 indie Defendor (Peter Stebbings). But whereas Kick-Ass was about comic books, Super, definitively, is not. Frank (aka The Crimson Bolt) has never even read a comic before he starts compiling back-issues for research on his own avenger. The film isn't concerned with deconstructing genre, and its own category is impossible to define - the story merrily skips from domestic melodrama to revenge fantasy with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Super looks to the time it's in, and it's worth noting that the plot is entirely driven through media. Frank is inspired by a Christian superhero named The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), who fights Satan's grip over horny teenagers on Network TV. This Christian crusader also has his own comic, and flipping through its pages Frank comes across this line: "All it takes to be a superhero is the choice to fight evil." News reports frequently appear throughout the film, detailing public perception of The Crimson Bolt. Newspapers plaster his composite across their front pages. Crowds scream in horror as he cracks open the skull of a smart-ass yuppie cutting in line at the movie theater, in what appears to be an homage to that classic scene in Annie Hall (Allen, 1977). Alvy Singer ("I'd like to hit this guy on a gut level") could complain for all of New York, but Frank lets chunks of metal do his talking. It's disturbing.
I mean, should we really like this guy? This hopeless sad-sack of a man, who finds an idea of justice through performing his own slew of violent crimes? The same goes tenfold for Libby, who at one point laughs manically at the fact that she's just crippled a guy; she drove Frank's car into his legs, crushing them against a brick wall ("Any time some stupid motherfucker wants to commit some gay-ass crime..."). But what's wonderful about Gunn's screenplay is that we also warm to her. Her energy is infectious, and despite her wrong-footed attempts she genuinely wants to do good. She's a sweet, pretty girl, who could probably kill just as effectively with her smile. She wants to learn. She wants to be loved. She wants to be a hero. Frank also has a side we recognize - he's been neglected all his life, and made to feel like a loser. Cheated on at prom. Pissed on at school (literally). And now his wife (Liv Tyler) has left him for the slimy drug-pusher Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Maybe he's the D-Fens of the 21st Century?
Gunn's film works best as a farce about people on the fringes of reality, and the dangers of their extreme self-delusion, but although I dislike the comparison there is one point at which it probes deeper into the comic book genre than Kick-Ass ever dared attempt. "You don't see them getting bored in comic books" complains the impatient Libby. "That's what happens inbetween the panels" Frank replies, after some consideration. "Wow. Inbetween the panels. Is that where we are now?" she ponders. "We could do anything here." It's a beautiful thought. Tony Stark at alcoholics anonymous. Peter Parker in math class. Bruce Wayne at the water cooler. That's what happens inbetween the panels. The problem is simply that Libby believes she can live what's in them as well. Is she deranged? Yes. But that doesn't make her a bad person. I was deeply moved by Libby's fate. She ends up with half her face missing from a shotgun blast. Just a kid from the comic book store...
Excellent picture and sound; the film is actually beautifully shot and scored, by Steve Gainer and Tyler Bates respectively (check out the track 'Two Perfect Moments'). Extras include the original theatrical trailer and a fun 19-minute making of, which clearly shows how passionate everyone is about the project.