By Scott Martin Super movie by James Gunn

Super, USA, 2010

Written and Directed by James Gunn

Super is twisted. Some films can pull that off in a positive way. Recall a film from 1998 called Happiness, directed by the superbly screwed-up Todd Solondz. That’s a film that somehow manages to find the dark humor in the sexually disturbed characters it portrays. Of course this isn’t a Todd Solondz film; it wouldn’t be as ugly if it were. No doubt, Super is very funny, in parts. Director James Gunn, whose last film was the deliriously strange Slither (2006), gives us a portrait of a mentally unhinged man who accepts a calling from God to be a superhero. He sees visions of demons and rights small wrongs before stumbling into a big crime. He wields a pipe wrench and cracks skulls for a living. The line between fantasy superhero and regular hyper-violence is blurred, not just in his mind, but in the film’s as well. We aren’t ever really shown a man we can get behind, even if it’s just to sympathize.

Frank D’Arbo, played disturbingly well by Rainn Wilson, is a line cook in an unhappy marriage. His wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering drug addict, is swept away by Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a drug dealer and the owner of a local strip club. Frank loses it, gets a vision from God, and becomes The Crimson Bolt, with the help of a rabid comic book shopkeeper named Libby (Ellen Page). The story is interesting, and as old as time, even almost overdone. If anyone saw Defendor (2009) with Woody Harrelson, you’ll know what I mean. But the effect left by Super is vastly different. When most “average guy becomes superhero” indie dramas end, there’s a bittersweet aftertaste to consider; most everything left by Super is just bitter. It’s a pipe wrench to the head, if you will. Defendor, a much better film, also had a bitter end, but the journey was worth it. Super’s journey is ugly, passed off as fun and vibrant. Vibrant I can see - the colours are explosive at least and the performances are surprisingly effective. Fun? Not a chance in hell.

Roger Ebert remarked that there isn’t anything funny about watching a man’s head be split open by a wrench. That depends on the person. I think society as a whole is pretty desensitized to violence these days, unfortunate as that may be, and that’s an angle with which Super plays. The film is definitely a commentary, which is where it gets its immunity to certain criticisms. Moreover, the commentary works and is true. Audiences expect certain things, and aren’t effected by certain other things. Frank’s grim vision of the world isn’t too different from what’s actually there; his manner of coping, however, is off the map. If you look at the film from the point-of-view of a mentally disturbed man doing mentally disturbed things, then you have a coherent and interesting film. If you look at it from the point-of-view of a sadistic director’s commentary on an audience’s comfort levels, you might have found an interesting point. But the film doesn’t dedicate itself to any sort of standard; it’s a sad man committing horrific murders, blinded by good intentions.

Frank shouts, “You don’t butt in line. You don’t do drugs. You don’t molest children. The rules were set a long time ago. They didn’t change.” He’s got a point – there are certain things you just don’t do. I think, if anything, the film is about a sort of abstract desire to change the world at all costs. Vile things happen, and sometimes two wrongs have to equal a right. Another presumption of the film is the meaning of the word “innocent.” Frank is a criminal and a murderer, and he commissions Libby to be the same as his sidekick, Boltie (though she’s just as twisted as he is), but he’s taking out bad people, and when he hunts down the people who stole his wife from him, he uncovers genuine crime and tries to save the day. There’s always a formula, folks, so if that’s a spoiler, you’re reading the wrong blog.

What makes Super as dramatic as it is is this: it never lets you get comfortable, despite whatever suspicions you may have about what you can handle in a film. Wisely not submitted for MPAA consideration, this is probably one of the more violent films released in the last few years. There are graphic shots of wrenches to the head and cinder blocks to the neck, people are shot and killed, beaten to death on camera, raped, drugged, molested, faces are ripped off and heads blown apart, all within eyeshot of the finish line. The film makes no concessions for anyone who might have wandered into the wrong theater; it is as committed to what it’s trying to prove as its main character is. Whether you can find the message and live with it or not is up to you and your threshold for violence and dehumanization. I have kind of a high one, so I took something from it; something grim, but that was probably the point all along.

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