I didn’t go into Super with any standing misconceptions. Though the concept of the film –a common day shlub donning a costume and becoming a real world “super hero”- was basically identical to that of Kick-Ass, one of my favorite films of the past few years, I had read enough about Super beforehand to know that respective tones of the two films were markedly different. Kick-Ass could be best described as an ultra-violent lampoon of the super hero genre. It had moments that bordered on meaningful, but in the end the film amounted mostly to a juvenile celebration of people being turned into bits of red goo.
Super is like the more serious twin of Kick-Ass. They’re both good, but one would rather watch Family Guy while the other is tuned into AMC (seriously, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead all on one station?) They might touch on the same issues but where Kick-Ass used its subject matter as a launch pad for some good jokes and great action scenes, Super uses them to honestly explore what might drive a person to put on a costume and beat people. (Hint: they’re nuts!)
Super follows the sad tale of Frank D’Arbo (Rain Wilson). Frank is a pudgy fry cook whose life can described primarily as mundane and dull, and he’s okay with that. Granted, it might be a bit easier to be happy when you’re wife is smoking hot (trust me, I know) but that’s beside the point. Frank is lazy and average, but he feels fine the way he is.
As they invariably tend to however, things go awry. His wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), is a recovering heroin addict and, when the film begins, she’s fallen off the wagon and in with sleazy drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Sarah, taken back in by her addiction, leaves Frank, culminating in one of the most depressing break down scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. Desperate, Frank prays to God. “Other people have goodness, they have good things, they have love and tenderness, people who care about their lives. Not humiliated at every turn. Other people have things God, even the starving children in Africa, even their parents love them. Why was I so unlucky, to have my soul born into this disgusting me?”
Frank isn’t a man who has nothing to lose, but rather one who has lost something he loved and just wants it back. Luckily for Frank, God speaks to him in a dream. At least that’s what Frank believes is happening. It’s made pretty clear that Frank leans toward the delusional and the audience is left to guess how much of this is divine intervention and how much is in his head. Put shortly, Frank believes that God wants him to fight evil. Inspired by the Christian superhero The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), Frank makes his own costume and takes to the streets as the Crimson Bolt.
Batman Frank is not. Instead of martial arts and hi-tech gadgets, Frank bludgeons criminals with a pipe wrench, and while he eventually gets his own Robin (Ellen Page as Bolty) Frank’s definition of “evil” is far more fluid than good ol’ Bats. Initially, he sticks to drug dealers, thieves, and child molesters. As the film goes on though, the mere crime of being a jerk is enough to trigger Frank’s increasingly unstable temper. In one scene Frank, enraged by someone cutting him in line at the movies, dons his costume and smashes in the offenders skull with his wrench.
This scene, in particular, illustrates the fundamental difference between Super and Kick-Ass. Kick-Ass doesn’t shy away from ultra-violence (by Odin’s beard it doesn’t), but it also never takes it overly seriously. One early scene, in which a group of mobsters cook someone in an industrial microwave, is played for laughs. Frank’s attack on the line-cutter however, is portrayed as a realistic and horrific assault. Super isn’t without laughs. There are some really hilarious moments throughout the film. But it’s the sort of movie that balances its humor with a tone that often makes you feel bad for laughing at it.
This is in some ways a weakness, especially in terms of its appeal to a wider audience. People will go see a movie that tugs on the heart strings or makes them feel sad, but generally speaking they don’t like films that actively approach the subject content in a way that makes you feel guilty for enjoying it. For my part, I love this element of the film. It makes a far deeper experience than Kick-Ass and a film you could watch multiple times just to dissect the various layers that make up its grim and gritty whole.
And as much as you might feel uncomfortable at times, the root of the discomfort is the fact that you’re watching fleshed out and empathetic characters. Frank clearly has some serious issues, but he’s still likable and you can feel for his plight. It’s hard not to like him when he stomps onto the scene yelling “Shut up, crime!” and starts mauling drug dealers. Who hasn’t had fantasies of some black and white caricature of goodness cleaning up the streets?
The line-cutting scene isn’t disturbing as much for what Frank does as what it represents for his character. His quest for justice is taking him deeper into a madness whose only clear resolution is further and more intense violence. Super’s final conflict is in many ways exactly what you would expect, and yet it’s tempered by a moment so horrible and unexpected that when the credits rolled I was genuinely shaken.
Super, while well shot and produced, was not a large studio effort and so, while it isn’t a poorly put together piece of cinema, the real credit for its success has to be given to the actors. Everyone performs brilliantly, from Liv Tyler’s tragic addict to Kevin Bacon’s sleazy dealer. Ellen Page’s as Bolty is a particular joy, combining all the worst traits of an energetic toddler, an over-sexed teenager and a complete and utter sadist. For an actress who is often shoe-horned into the role of the “wise beyond her years” teenager, it’s an incredible performance.
Super is at its core, however, a character study, and as much as you can praise the supporting cast the weight of the story rests almost entirely on the lead and Rain Wilson owns the part. Better known for his role on The Office, Wilson’s performance will break your heart and disturb you in equal measure. Frank’s psychotic journey could have fallen flat on its face if the lead performance had been poor, but Wilson never falters and delivers one of the most intense and layered performances you’ll find in any superhero movie.
Super is not a movie for everyone. In fact, I’d daresay that quite a few people who enjoyed Kick-Ass will find themselves turned off by some of the darker turns the film takes (ironic considering how bleak the Kick-Ass comic consistently is). That said, it’s also a film that’s much smarter then your regular action flick. Kick-Ass was often violent for the sake of being violent. Super is violent but with a purpose. Every punch, kick, and swing of the wrench is a step leading somewhere, even if it isn’t always a nice place to go.