Not everyone sees eye-to-eye. You might love something that’s reviled by most others. When we at PoP! feel like that, we make an argument In Defense Of…
James Gunn’s Super is the perfect example of a great movie released at an inconvenient time. At the time it was first released in theaters, Super was seen by many as a blatant ripoff of earlier films like Kick-Ass and Defendor that also dealt with everyday people donning costumes and trying to fight crime. Helmed by Troma apprentice James Gunn as a follow-up to the cult sci-fi horror flick Slither, Super opened to horrible reviews and audience indifference, though it did manage to find an audience via the then-fledgling VOD market and later on DVD. Having not yet seen Defendor and being more than a little disappointed by Kick-Ass, I wasn’t exactly dying to see Super, but having recently rented it , I am now convinced that this is one of the smartest and most poignant explorations about what kind of people would really try to become costumed vigilantes and how it would really play out in the real world.
The protagonist of Super is a meek, wimpy loser named Frank Darbo, played wonderfully by Rainn Wilson from The Office, who is married to a bored former drug addict named Sarah, played by Liv Tyler. After Sarah relapses and shacks up with a sleazy drug dealer (Kevin Bacon, in one of his best roles), Frank is left devastated, believing that the only woman who ever loved him is gone forever. While flipping through the channels on his television, he comes across a cheesy superhero show on a Christian cable network starring a hero called the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) whose message of steadfastly sticking to your morals in order to defeat evil indirectly inspires Frank to don a costume and try to do his part by ridding the streets of evil. Upon his first visit to a comic shop, he meets an employee at the shop named Libby (Ellen Page), who gives him some books that inspire him to create his masked alter ego. Soon, Frank puts together a shoddy costume and begins prowling the streets as The Crimson Bolt, armed only with a red wrench and proceeds to beat criminals senseless, regardless of the crime, and attracts the attention of the news media and the local police force.
As his war on crime continues, Frank’s ability to pick his battles is challenged as he begins to dole out extremely inappropriate punishments to people who are not necessarily breaking the law but are otherwise violating societal taboos, such as cutting in on a movie line, which leads to the most famous scene in the film. It’s at this point where the message of this film becomes abundantly clear. James Gunn uses Super to paint a brutally realistic picture of vigilante justice that Kick-Ass absolutely failed to do. While that earlier film ultimately provided old-fashioned escapist entertainment in the guise of what at first appeared to be social commentary, Super takes the premise established with Kick-Ass and takes it to an inevitably disturbing conclusion.
After Frank reluctantly reveals his identity to Libby, she all but forces him to make him his kid sidekick, and her bloodthirsty enthusiasm shows Frank what the audience has seen in his actions all along, and he begins to temper his rage and focus primarily on the drug pusher who stole his wife. Frank and Libby buy a ridiculous amount of guns, and Frank creates an array of homemade weapons that closely resemble Travis Bickle’s arsenal from Taxi Driver. During the climactic raid on the druglord’s home, the audience is denied the cathartic release that Kick-Ass provided and instead is shown the true and extremely bloody consequences of violence in real life. In this way, Super is very similar to films like Taxi Driver that revel in extreme violence but also manage to make an intelligent comment on what is being shown on the screen. While Gunn’s uncompromising point of view makes it harder to sit through than mainstream superhero movies, it also manages to make Super one of the most unique and brilliant entries within the genre.
The initial critical reception of Super showed the divide between older, more established film critics and younger film bloggers. The film was hailed by many online film critics as a sleeper hit, while most mainstream critics such as Roger Ebert derided it for its disturbing violence and what they described as tasteless humor. In my opinion, most of the more well-established reviewers were clouded by the still-recent memory of Kick-Ass and failed to see the movie for what it was. Even though it is categorized as a dark comedy, Super does not inspire many laughs, and the few funny scenes it does have quickly devolve into discomfort as the viewer sees Frank’s life quickly devolve into anarchy. This, in my opinion, was Gunn’s intent all along. With this movie, he is making a comment on violence in our society and whether it is right to take the law into your own hands and try to force others to accept your own views on morality and order. In just a little over ninety minutes, Super manages to communicate the same message that Zack Snyder spent nearly three hours trying to get across in Watchmen and manages to be way more accessible to non-comic fans than that earlier film. Its basic theme is that costumed heroes may be entertaining on the comics page and on the movie screen, but in real life, they are not necessarily the ideal for which society should strive.