Walking into James Gunn’s Super I expected a lot of things, but a deeply personal bit of catharsis wasn’t one of them. And that’s what I got.
While there are surface similarities to Kick-Ass, they mostly end at the logline, which is a regular guy puts on a superhero costume to fight crime and things get pretty violent. I love Kick-Ass, but it’s a surface level film whose only deeper intentions are deconstructing elements of the superhero genre. Super comes at it from a different perspective; by making the superhero lead someone who doesn’t even read comics, Super sidesteps most of that and becomes more of an examination of the concepts of right and wrong, as well as using the superheroics as a metaphor for dealing with a break up. Seriously.
Rainn Wilson plays a good, schlubby guy who is married to Liv Tyler. At first this makes absolutely no sense, and the film was dangerously close to losing me right up front - in the annals of ugly dude/hot girl pairings in movies and TV this must take the cake. But as the film goes on we learn the backstory of the couple and it suddenly makes more sense. It makes a lot of sense, in fact, and as that backstory unfolded I found myself more and more impressed with what Gunn had done with this film.
Tyler leaves Wilson for Kevin Bacon, who plays a sleazy strip club owner/pimp/drug dealer, and Wilson can’t wrap his head around it. He becomes obsessed with the idea that she’s been kidnapped and that he must rescue her. Then he discovers a Christian superhero TV show, patterned on Willie Ames’ weird ass Bibleman, and in a dream he is (literally) touched by the finger of God. Having reduced his current situation to good (himself) and evil (Bacon) with innocence (Tyler) caught in the middle, a highly destabilized Wilson begins researching superheroes and decides to become one.
Wilson is not one of my favorite actors, but he shows impressive range in Super. The script is very frank about the pain of a break up, and Wilson throws it all out there. One scene has him weeping, going through a self-abusing litany of his own faults, and it feels completely and uncomfortably real. The best acting happens in those moments when the divide between actor and character melts away, and that’s what happens here. It’s undoubtedly the best performance Wilson has ever delivered.
As he begins his career as a hero - The Crimson Bolt, who wields a pipe wrench as his weapon of choice - he picks up a sidekick. A ferocious Ellen Page plays a comic shop employee whose sparkly, cute exterior hides a current of violent sociopathology. The initial reaction to Page’s casting is an eye roll; she’s an attractive young woman who seems to be fulfilling every geek’s fantasy concept of a perfect girl. But the reality is that her exterior allows for a jarring contrast with her interior. Had Gunn cast a standard nerd-type in the role, no one would be surprised to learn that his heart was full of murder. Everybody knows that comic book geeks are half a minute away from goosestepping as they wallow in fascist psychosexual power fantasies. That’s something we’ve all come to accept, but by having Page be the bearer of that fanboy violence it becomes shocking again. It’s like Hit Girl, except with meaning behind it.
Page is incredible. She’s completely committed, going big with an anger and sexuality that we’ve never truly seen from her before. It’s a fearless performance, one that could have ended up being truly horrible if miscalculated by just the slightest bit. Instead it’s simply incredible, weaving insanity and vulnerability and hate and longing into one complicated, thrilling character.
The entire film itself is an optimist’s refutation of Taxi Driver (Bacon’s character’s name, Jock, recalls Harvey Keitel’s Sport). Gunn uses the psychotic break of Wilson’s character as a way to look at the crazy, self-destructive stuff you can do after a bad break up, and in the end Gunn feels the need to bring it to a happy, cathartic finale. This is an incredibly personal work - made in the wake of his own divorce, and suffused with the power of his own Catholic upbringing (there is no person raised Catholic who escaped some scarring from the religion) - and that catharsis was certainly part of the point for Gunn. Unfortunately I don’t know that he finds it fairly in the film; at the end Wilson’s character comes to a place of peace and happiness, but the movie doesn’t bring us there with him. To me it’s the film’s big flaw.
Everything else is handled incredibly well. I know this review is heavy on the drama and meaning - these are just the things that really turned me on - but Super is a very blackly funny movie, one whose heart is in the Troma tradition of bad taste and wackiness. It’s violent and it’s juvenile, which might mask some of the deeper things going on. It’s savage and silly, and it has a shabby low budget charm that spoke to me.
It’s been a long time since Slither, and as Gunn was off making Xbox shorts I was worried that he had been completely sidetracked. Super shows that he hasn’t; smart and personal, vicious and gross, Super is everything you’d want in a highly personal comedy superhero relationship movie.