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Super

Director: James Gunn
Cast: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Nathan Fillion, Andre Royo, Gregg Henry

(US DVD: 9 Aug 2011)

“Shut up, crime!”


Strange and funny, sad and dark, Super carves out its own place within superhero inspired movies.  Written and directed by James Gunn, the film takes elements from traditional superhero movies, as well as action, black comedy, and independent films to create its own unique story. 


As Super opens, Frank (Rainn Wilson) has just been left by his wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler).  Sarah is a recovering drug addict and has fallen in with a group of lowlifes headed by drug dealer, Jacques (Kevin Bacon).  While initially despondent, Frank quickly decides to take action in order to save his wife from these criminals.


Dubbing himself the Crimson Bolt, Frank quickly follows the inspiration of a Christian television and comic book personality, The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), and takes to heart his message that anyone can stand up to evil.  Staking out crime-ridden areas of the city, the Crimson Bolt is at first, the ineffectual weirdo made fun of by the exact criminals he sees himself stopping.  Frank then realizes that he needs some kind of weapon, and after settling on a wrench, he begins to mete out his own brand of justice.


Up until now, Super has been mostly fun and fairly lighthearted.  When the reality of bashing someone over the head with a wrench is explicitly shown, it’s an almost jarring moment.  Despite any affinity for Frank and his cause, the real repercussions of his actions begin to call into question his approach and his sanity. 


Frank’s initial meeting with Libby (Ellen Page) at a comic book store (as he sets out to research superheroes without powers) sets the tone for their interactions. Libby is hyper and kind of weird, but genuinely interested in Frank, while he is introverted and socially awkward.  Despite Frank’s first impressions as an oddball, Libby finds him interesting and mysterious. It eventually becomes apparent that they are both unhinged in some way and to varying degrees – making their relationship more understandable as they are both somewhat disconnected from reality. 


Frank and Libby’s inability to distinguish between levels of criminal behavior, or even just bad manners, is an effective way to show how out of touch with reality they can be. One of the more shocking moments in the film revolves around a couple cutting in line at a movie theater. In addition, it sets the tone for the film as an off-centered approach to a superhero movie. As the film is more an amalgamation of different genres and conventions, Super straddles the lines in ways that lend it its own rare quality.


Page does a wonderful job of capturing Libby’s mix of insecurity and manic confidence. It’s a break in the characters she has come to be most closely associated with. Libby is genuinely strange and her desperation to be Frank’s sidekick, Boltie, manifests itself in some disturbing ways. In many ways casting Page is perfect for upending preconceived notions about the character. Initial impressions would have her as the sweet, funny heroine, but in actuality she’s as much a misfit as Frank. Her eagerness, misplaced and wrongheaded as it may be, serves to motivate Frank even further in saving Sarah.


As the film concludes – after an epic battle between the Crimson Bolt and Boltie, versus Jacques and his gang – things are resolved in wonderfully unexpected ways. In order to not give away the ending, suffice it to say that the viewer’s insight into Frank is much deeper. In its own bittersweet way, Super has its happy ending, but as it has consistently shaken up such story principles, its conclusion is perfectly in keeping with that approach.


Super not only stakes out its own place in the superhero film genre, it more precisely challenges much of what has become expected in the traditional superhero movie. Frank and Libby are damaged individuals in more uncomfortable and shocking ways than the typical antihero superhero. In keeping to a realism within a heightened reality, Super succeeds in an almost gritty telling of its story.  Aside from things like the imaginative opening credits or the spare, but effective use of animation throughout, Super belies the cheerful exterior of such conventions with an uncompromising commitment to playing out the story in as realistic a fashion as possible. In doing so, the film successfully demonstrates how to use tropes to create the opposite effect, something new and very entertaining. 


The DVD contains several bonus features, including a deleted scene, various featurettes, and a commentary track with Gunn and Wilson. The featurette on the “Making of the Main Titles” is especially worth watching.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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