Judge Erich Asperschlager will never butt in line again.
"Shut up crime!"
It's really hard to make good comic book movies. Double-page drawings of men and women frozen mid-flight, muscles and capes rippling in the suggested breeze while engaged in fisticuffs with spandex-clad villains are thrilling. Real-life actors dressed in those same colorful, skin-tight costumes? Not so much. What works on the page doesn't always work on screen. The worst superhero movies are slavish re-creations of comic books that ignore the strengths of film in favor of bad CGI and even worse dialogue. The best are either based on so-called "graphic novels," like Ghost World and the infinitely rewatchable Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, or they transplant comic book characters into more traditional movie genres—like a certain series of bat-related Christopher Nolan crime dramas.
Superhero comics gave rise to books like Watchmen that played with established tropes to deconstruct the genre. Likewise, the recent popularity of comic book movies have inspired more subversive superhero flicks like 2010's Kick-Ass. But even the most gleefully brutal moments of that movie pale in comparison to the newest contender for the title of Best/Most F'ed Up Superhero Movie: writer-director James Gunn's Super—a dark comedy about the special kind of insanity it takes to wear a mask and fight crime.
Facts of the Case
Frank D'Arbo (Rainn Wilson, The Office) is a lifelong loser who has an emotional break when his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler, That Thing You Do!) leaves him for a drug kingpin (Kevin Bacon, Tremors). Inspired by a divine vision, Frank vows to save his wife by becoming a real-life superhero called the Crimson Bolt, complete with shoddily sewn costume, mask, and a pipe wrench, which he uses to beat criminals senseless. While researching superheroes at a local comic shop, Frank meets an overzealous twenty-something named Libby (Ellen Page, Juno) who figures out his secret identity and begs to become his kid sidekick, Boltie. As the body count rises around them, Frank and Libby gear up for one last stand against Jacques in the battle for Sarah.
James Gunn first made a name for himself with the shlockmeisters at Troma—writing and producing the cult hit Tromeo and Juliet—and later with his directorial debut, the gooey horror flick Slither. Gunn's off-kilter sensibilities ooze through every crack (and cracked skull) in Super, a wickedly funny tale of costumed revenge and redemption. Most superhero stories gloss over the realities of comic book violence, but Super drags its audience down into the messy world of vigilantism.
It would be easy to saddle Super with adjectives like "sick" or "twisted," but there's honesty to the gore. Too often, movie violence is subdued so as not to leave a bad taste in viewers' mouths. Beefy action stars break necks and level heavy machine guns at hordes of nameless baddies. We cheer because we don't see the bloodied corpses and overcrowded ICUs these "good guys" leave behind. Super deals with violence in a way that's appropriately horrifying, while also reveling in the bloodshed—an impressive balancing act that looks easy in the hands of Gunn and his pitch-perfect cast.
Rainn Wilson is at the apex of the film's ensemble. Best known as Dwight Schrute on The Office, Wilson brings a unique energy to his role. Although the occasional Dwight-ism pops up, his Frank is a different kind of nutjob. Super isn't much interested in deciding whether Frank is actually crazy. Wilson brings a vulnerability to the character that makes him not only likable but sympathetic. He murders petty criminals, but he does it to make the world a better place. The motivations of his sidekick, Libby, are less clear. Played with infectious insanity by Ellen Page, Libby is your typical kid, bored with life and looking for some excitement. She finds that excitement in Frank, who treats the comic shop where she works as a reference library. Libby's enthusiasm for crime fighting goes too far almost immediately: "I didn't know I wasn't supposed to kill him. I mean, I'm just learning. You have to teach me these things!" Even though her character doesn't factor into the movie until relatively late, Page is every bit as important to Super as Wilson. Whether doing an awkward costumed sexy dance, or giggling while slicing a henchman to ribbons, it's hard to imagine that the explosive finale would have been anywhere near as fun, or as touching, without her.
Like most comic book movies, Super builds up to a showdown between the hero and the big bad, played here by Kevin Bacon. His slippery sleaze makes Jacques both funny and dangerous. It would have been easy to overplay his evil to compensate for Frank's psychosis, but in the end there's uncomfortably little difference between the two characters. The thread that ties them together is Frank's wife, Sarah, played by Liv Tyler. Arguably the biggest star in the movie, Tyler also has the least to do. Except for a few flashback scenes, she spends most of the film in a drug-induced stupor. Even with the limited screen time, there's never any doubt that she's worth saving.
The talent doesn't stop with the leads. Super's supporting actors are just as impressive, including The Wire's Andre Royo as a line cook with attitude, Sean Gunn (the director's brother) and Michael Rooker as Jacques' henchmen, and genre workhorse Nathan Fillion as a Bible-thumping superhero named The Holy Avenger. The hilarious Fillion steals every one of his scenes, mostly in a series of cheesy TV mini-episodes that inadvertently inspire Frank's bloody rampage.
It's hard to have great acting without great directing. From Wilson and Page on down, you can tell the actors are thrilled to be part of this project. In a world of remakes, adaptations, and movies by committee, James Gunn has created something special. Super is funny, entertaining, moving, and disturbing in all the right ways. It's not a perfect movie. Gunn stumbles in the third act with an unnecessary sex scene and the cop-out suggestion that the public has embraced Frank as a hero; but he quickly finds his footing. Super's intense finale manages to be both shocking and moving, thanks in part to an epilogue that replaces what might have been a cynical take on human nature and the futility of heroism with a moving argument for the ability of an individual to make a difference in the world.
Super is a stunner on Blu-ray. The film has a rich, comic-inspired palette with a gritty edge. With the exception of some intentionally overexposed scenes and a soft alley night scene, Super's 1080p AVC-encoded picture is razor sharp. That detail is especially satisfying in the movie's animated overlays and special effects sequences—odd visual touches that include superimposed graphics, crude demon heads, and even a toilet bowl filled with vomit that forms into Liv Tyler's face. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack is crystal clear and well-balanced. Directional effects are limited to the scenes that really need it, keeping most of the sound front and center. It won't knock you over the head, but it's a strong and satisfying mix that slides smoothly from dialogue to subtle sounds to the peppy soundtrack—a mix of power pop tunes and Tyler Bates' energetic score.
Super on Blu-ray comes with a solid collection of bonus features, including the theatrical and television cut trailer, as well as:
A minute-long deleted scene between Frank and Sarah outside of the strip club where she works. It's a nice character beat, showing her backslide into drug use and the beginning of the end of their marriage—a backstory that was cut from the finished film in favor of a more efficient opening montage.
"Super: Behind the Scenes" (18:37): This meaty featurette includes director and cast interviews, set footage, effects sequences, and video of Rainn Wilson shooting guns with Michael Rooker.
"Super: Making of Title Sequence" (4:51) is a cool breakdown of Super's stylish and violent animated title sequence, made even better by the fact that the animation house responsible is best known for their work on Yo Gabba Gabba!
"How to Fight Crime at SXSW" (3:59): Super's big splash at the 2011 South by Southwest festival helps explain this funny short with Wilson and Page in character as the Crimson Bolt and Boltie. They interview security expert Frank Corpus, with lots of eye-rolling every time Corpus suggests that petty criminals deserve anything less than life-threatening injuries.
The best of the bonus features is a full-length audio commentary recorded by writer/director James Gunn and Rainn Wilson. For some reason, it's hidden away in the audio set-up menu, but it's worth the extra effort. Besides the requisite "what's happening onscreen" and compliments about their fellow actors, the pair tell stories about what it took to get the film made, their good luck in getting cheap music rights, and the tough decision to cut certain scenes. There's none of the delusional back-patting of most commentaries. Gunn knows his movie has limited appeal, and he's fine with that: "So many movies in Hollywood today, they try to…please everybody…they want to do what they call 'four-quadrant' films that appeal to young people, and old people, and men and women, and everyone. This movie is not a movie that was made for everyone…it's an 'eighth of a quadrant' movie, but that eighth of a quadrant loves it. That's who this movie is for…We made this movie for you. We didn't make it for everyone."
Saying Super isn't for everyone is an understatement. It's ultraviolent, off-putting, and mildly sacrilegious. But it's also funny, moving, and, most rare in modern movies, original. If you have the stomach for it, James Gunn's superhero story about what happens "in between the panels" is the perfect antidote to the recent influx of mediocre comic book flicks.
Possibly the best movie I wouldn't recommend to everyone. Not guilty!
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