Super – They Don’t Make Role Models Like They Used To

Super is a frustratingly unfunny comedy from a great writer. By Ezra Stead

Super, USA, 2010

Written and Directed by James Gunn

I don’t want to sound like anybody’s grandma here, but I long ago abandoned the conversational defense that movies and other popular media have no part in encouraging real-life violence. Some movies definitely glorify violence to the point of actively promoting it as a righteous lifestyle choice, and James Gunn’s pseudo-realistic costumed avenger film Super is decidedly one of these. There are many other prime examples of this phenomenon – Troy Duffy’s The Boondock Saints (1999), Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted (2008), Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America (2011) – and while I find all of these films plenty entertaining, my level of comfort about enjoying them seems to be directly proportional to how well I can relate to the worldview of the avenging angel protagonists. In other words, I feel a lot less guilty enjoying God Bless America than The Boondock Saints, despite the fact that the latter is no more mean-spirited or simplistic than the former. Super exists somewhere between these two, a surprisingly conservative and reactionary film made by a well-known counterculture auteur. 

I have been an avowed fan of Gunn’s work ever since I first experienced the self-indulgently excessive glory that is Lloyd Kaufman’s Tromeo and Juliet (1996), which Gunn co-wrote with Kaufman, and he continued to not disappoint me with his work on films like Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake (one of the few recent horror remakes that manages to justify its existence) and his 2006 directorial debut, Slither (one of the flat-out best horror movies of the past decade). Gunn’s talent is undeniable, and this is clearly a labor of love on his part, but I found it difficult to fully get into, in part because the film continually asked me to root for a protagonist who is basically an unlikeable goon throughout.

Rainn Wilson plays Frank Darbo, an average, frustrated chump married to Sarah (Liv Tyler), a beautiful former drug addict who managed to kick her habit by settling for Frank and his boring lifestyle. At the film’s beginning, Frank flashes back to the only two “perfect moments” from his entire life: getting married and helping a cop, so right off the bat I found this character difficult to relate to. When Sarah begins to slide back into her old ways and ultimately leaves Frank for the drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon), Frank finds solace in a Christian-themed superhero, the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), and after making the acquaintance of an improbably gregarious comic book store employee named Libby (Ellen Page), decides to become a “superhero” himself.

Frank’s idea of being a superhero is dressing in red tights and mask (he calls himself the Crimson Bolt) and waiting behind a dumpster for crimes to occur in the vicinity so that he may then leap out and bean the baddies with a wrench. This movie may hold some sort of record for most blunt force head injuries in a single film, especially one that seems to be aiming for comedy as its primary genre. Page is basically in her hyper, annoying teenager mode here, as last seen in the tremendously overrated Juno, which also featured Wilson in a small, useless role. For his part, Wilson (who was also an executive producer on the film) turns in a strong, committed performance as Frank, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a movie his Office character, Dwight Schrute, would absolutely love, and that doesn’t sit too well with me. Dwight is a fascist nerd, as is Frank, and that is presumably the target audience for Super. I may be a nerd myself, but I’m far from a fascist one, and I couldn’t really get behind a character who decides to take the the streets armed with a wrench to fight petty injustices like people cutting in line at a movie theater.

There is a much better movie hinted at in certain scenes within Super, such as one early on when Frank goes to police detective John Felkner (Gregg Henry) to report Jacques’ “kidnapping” of Sarah. As Felkner questions him, it becomes clear to the detective (and the audience) that Sarah has in fact just left the boring schlub for another man. I think that if Gunn had just run with this premise of Frank constantly misinterpreting reality and finding “crime” in all the wrong places, he might have made a much funnier, better movie. Instead, Super strains to make Jacques and his various henchmen as comically evil as possible in order to justify any audience sympathy for the violent, unlikeable Frank, then rewards him with a mostly unearned happy ending. If you find the sight of broad, straw man characters bleeding profusely from head wounds hilarious, this is the movie for you. If you want any semblance of subtlety or nuance, steer clear. Even if your desire is less pretentious than that, however, and you simply want a comedy that will actually make you laugh frequently, you might do better elsewhere.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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