Shut up crime!
Initial reaction to Super was a mixed and aggressive bunch: many were quick to jump on the idea that this film was a blatant copy of then recently released Kick-Ass, another film joining the amateur superhero genre. Kick-Ass was certainly not the first film to explore this theme, with films like Mystery Men and Defendor before it, but what surprised the un-expecting was the film's faithful adaptation of its source material: an ultra violent comic-book. What works in a comic doesn't necessarily fit the silver-screen, but Kick-Ass proved that a mainstream audience actually loved big, human microwaves. What made Super so immediately similar to Kick-Ass in appearance was this too love of vulgarity: half-blown heads, home-made pipe bomb obliterations and a very special wrench all feature, and people weren't convinced. Here's the truth: Kick-Ass is a Disney film in comparison to Super. Kick-Ass's Kick-Ass is a tame fluffy, cuddly cat in comparison to Super's protagonist, The Crimson Bolt. Directed by James Gunn, primarily known for his debut Slither, crafts a quite vicious dark comedy starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler and Kevin Bacon.
Frank D'Arbo (Rainn Wilson) is miserable: a chef in a terrible cafe, he has only ever appreciated two things in his life. One, establishing his context of justice, was directing police officers to the arrest of a criminal. The other, far more importantly, was his marriage to Sarah (Liv Tyler); and now she was gone. A recovering addict, Sarah films victim to her urges and is courted by local drug dealer and strip club owner, Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Unable to win her back, Frank's life is thrown into disarray; all that he's ever loved has left him, he has no will to live and finds himself mercilessly beaten by Jacque's security when he won't let the circumstance go. One night, flicking through TV, Frank stumbles onto a terribly-made live action series of The Holy Avenger, a fictional comic-book character who fights in the name of (Holy) justice – and is also a quite wonderful cameo by Nathan Fillion. Deciding God is providing the signs for what Frank needs to do, he heads straight to the local comic-book store and shamefully asked loud-mouthed Libby (Ellen Page), a store clerk, for not only some Holy Avenger comics – which she summarises as “lame” – but some examples of heroes without powers. The Holy Avenger breaks the fourth wall to inform the reader: “All it takes to be a superhero is the choice to fight evil”, and so – with a wrench in his hand – The Crimson Bolt hits the streets to stop crime and to save Sarah's life, eventually joined by sidekick Libby, under the guise Boltie.
Quite importantly, Super isn't a film just another story of another average Joe with a good heart; it's not about an underweight teenager unwilling to give up to bullys; and it's not about achieving the impossible. Ultimately, Frank only has one, singular, selfish motive: to get Sarah back. He trains yes, he enforces the rules also – but that's not his focus. Frank is, most confidently, insane. He is no hero. He envisions a message from God as the scene from a Japanese tentacle porn hentai. He clubs a man's brains open for jumping the queue. He smashes a defenseless lady in the face for simply being there. He gets changed in front of public people, and by no means has the magical comic-book spell of adding a mask here to save him: anybody that meets the two identities knows instantly. Frank is a psychotic schizophrenic that only endangers everyone around him, but yet it's Frank's journey of self-discovery that we love so much. Every important character in this film is so broken, and yet so beautifully crafted. We are sympathetic of Frank through every step of the way. Libby is equally deranged, willing to kill for the simplest mistake and overwhelmingly in-love with The Crimson Bolt. Simply put, Ellen Page plays Ellen Page, and that's already perfect. Putting a spin on conventions is the fact that the only seemingly normal person in the entire film is Kevin Bacon's Jacque, and there's even points when my heart bleeds a little for him and his losses. Liv Tyler plays a drug fiend so well I didn't at all recognise her at first.
James Gunn has quite a skill through all this: despite the ridiculous and the insane, he keeps a sense of realism and all his characters grounded. He uses a theme of spiritually in a comic but by all means positive presentation. While The Holy Avenger show is terribly hilarious with quite purposely cliché points being pushed forward, their intent is always that of good, honest justice. Of doing the right thing. It does show that you that, while super-heroism probably isn't the best idea unless you actually have super-powers, it's easy to make a choice and to do the right thing. The film is a filmed on a quite clearly low budget, keeping a very gritty style through the start of the film, but knowing when and how to fill our over-the-top action craves. The film starts with a quite fantastic animated musical opener to lure us in with the more loud jokes, and gradually knows when subtle dialogue works well and when, with no shame at all, slapstick is perfectly timed. Admittedly, there are certain things I don't like about the film, for instance its use of comic-book charactering and onomatopoeia where I think the juxtaposition to the film's otherwise completely grounded nature does it no favours – and this was something that popped up fairly routinely. Similarly, I think it has the misfortune of underdeveloping particular characters and crediting them with more screen-time; one of my biggest laughs came from one of Frank's colleague that notes “How do you not know someone has jizz on your face?” But past that, it's hard to find things I actively dislike. Some things may not have been laugh-out-loud consistently and maybe it might slightly drag for one scene, but throughout I didn't lose a devilish grin on my face.
Crude is a strong summary of the film in one word. In just over an hour and a half running time, Super ram-packs a lot of laughs for the time given to it. Nothing feels rushed and the film ends with what's now one of my favourite quotes of all time, as well a perfectly conclusive and circular finish. Frank recognises the bad he's caused and realised, even then, that things didn't work out the way he originally hoped. Even better than that, he accepts the bigger picture: that it was never about him, and he's now content. This ending, and in-fact the rest of the film, owes great credit to Rainn Wilson; the film stands upon his shoulders almost entirely and he carries it with great pride, conveying a character with uncountable flaws and sometimes complete idiocy, but that it's simply criminal not to call him our hero. Forget Dwight; there's so much severity and honesty in this character that it's not the laughs that define him. But this film will undoubtedly have its own audience: This is not Kick-Ass. This is much darker; much more bleak and politically incorrect; that it may honestly put off a large number of people. This is the kind of film you'll enjoy if you like the career u-turn Seth Rogen provided with Observe and Report. And probably not if you didn't.
And don't forget: “Shut up crime!”
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