Super is the film Kick-Ass so thoroughly failed to be: A perverse and engrossing superhero satire. That it’s absurd, bipolar, and overwhelmingly violent, there can be no question. But if you stay with it, you may find that there is a method to writer/director James Gunn’s madness. There are moments that are intensely funny, moments that are not funny at all, and moments so gloriously bizarre that describing them would hardly do them justice. There are also moments that seem intentionally designed to make the viewer uncomfortable; the violence in this film is raw, primal, and not at all of the fun comic book variety. In other words, it actually convinced me that people were getting hurt. And I think that was the point. I believe Gunn’s real intentions can be found at the end of the movie in a scene that, in its own twisted way, sends a rather profound message.
It tells the story of Los Angeles short-order cook Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson), who begins by telling us his two proudest moments in life: (1) The day he got married; (2) the day he pointed a police officer in the direction of a criminal on the run. He depicts these moments in crude crayon sketches, which look uncannily like something a five-year-old would draw. Quiet, socially withdrawn, and generally a loser, he cares deeply for his wife, a recovering drug addict named Sarah (Liv Tyler). One day, she leaves him for a slick drug lord named Jock (Kevin Bacon), a man so vile that you hate him the instant he appears. In Frank’s mind, Sarah has been kidnapped. Legally, this isn’t the case. This does not mean, however, that she doesn’t need rescuing; through Jock, she inevitably relapses, and in at least one instance, she’s drugged against her will.
Frank, desperate to get his wife back, prays to God – and is heavily influenced by a Christian TV series featuring The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), who ends every episode with a moral. Apart from the ending, Frank praying is probably the single best scene of the movie, for it shows just the right balance between silliness and sincerity. He looks like a fool when he cries, but when he speaks, his words resonate. He then has a spiritual epiphany. How is this visually represented? Slimy tentacles slither in through cracks in the wall and open his skullcap, allowing the Finger of God to descend and touch his brain. He now knows what he must do: Wage a one-man war on crime as a superhero. By donning a red jumpsuit, he transforms himself into The Crimson Bolt. Armed with a wrench, he will wander the streets of Los Angeles, bashing in the brains of drug dealers, felons, and pedophiles.
With the attack scenes, Gunn is surely drawing on his days as a writer for Troma Entertainment. These characters really are having their heads and faces beaten into bloody pulps. He takes it too far, I think, when he attacks a couple that cut into a movie theater line – they may have been jerks, but they were surely not evil criminals. The curious thing is, although shocking, I don’t think the intention was for any of this to be funny; we are essentially watching a down-and-out man slipping into insanity because his wife left him. A death scene near the end of the film, I would argue, was included to show that superheroes aren’t real that and people should never try to be what they’re not. That being said, it also shows that heroism is defined more by caring than by costumes and stunts.
When Frank befriends Libby, a comic book store employee (Ellen Page), she soon learns the true identity of The Crimson Bolt and eagerly lobbies to be his sidekick. In due time, she becomes Boltie, who wears a yellow leotard and miniskirt. The two then make a plan to take down Jock and his men, who are on the verge of a major drug trade. Although enthusiastic and brimming with energy, Libby is naïve and impulsive – and apparently just as insane as Frank, given how she howls with laughter every time she kills someone. Her actions are deplorable, and in my opinion, they were meant to be; unlike Matthew Vaughn, who with Kick-Ass made the dread mistake of glorifying and even fetishizing violence through the character of Hit Girl, Gunn uses Libby as a way to show how not cool violence really is. I’m also grateful that this character was neither eleven years old nor trained by her father to be a ruthless vigilante. That’s just plain sick.
For Gunn, this movie may be an apology for his previous directorial effort, the highly disappointing creature-feature comedy Slither. It’s a wacky but strangely compelling little film, one of the few ordinary-person-becoming-a-superhero stories that actually convinced me it was about an ordinary person becoming a superhero. If you grant its assumptions – and if you can muscle your way through scene after scene of relentless head bashing – you will understand that the story is following a kind of logic, deranged though it may be. The only real problem with this movie is that it takes far too long for this to become apparent; by the time Frank was building his own bombs and Libby was attaching blades to her gloves, I was starting to worry about the direction Super was going in. Isn’t it strange, how you sometimes have to see something through to the end in order to get the point?