By Matt Smith
Finally, and just in time for the major studio releases of Thor, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger, we have a superhero film that’s not really about superheroes, but instead focuses on insane people! While the inevitable comparison to last year’s Kick-Ass must be made just for the token acknowledgement that real-world superheroes have been handled cinematically before, I can assure you that Super is a much more rewarding and textured experience than that film. Oh, and it’s disturbing. Really disturbing. No, really.
Rainn Wilson stars as Frank D’Arbo, an unassuming grill cook whose wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), has been “kidnapped” by local criminal asshole Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Kidnapped can be a relative term. Sarah, a former drug addict, has left with Jacques to pursue a new life filled with the drugs he can provide her during her relapse, but that’s not how Frank sees it, and pretty soon, we get the sense that he’s more than a little off. Or maybe everything actually happens as it appears to and he’s not crazy. I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Anyway, after spending a lot of time being sad about his wife leaving him, Frank decides he has to take her back, free her from Jacques, and make a stand for all the little people who don’t have anyone to stick up for them. After viewing the religious superhero show “The Holy Avenger” (and some tentacle-laced hentai), followed by a quick prayer asking for guidance, Frank has a vision of God cutting open his skull and literally touching his brain with His finger, and then determines it’s God’s will that he become a superhero to take on this task. He goes into research mode, determining his methods, combing through back issues at a local comic book shop for inspiration. With the help of Libby (Ellen Page), the hyper clerk at the comic shop, Frank finally comes up with his identity: The Crimson Bolt.
The Crimson Bolt is indiscriminate with his punishment, meting it out one bloody blow of a pipe wrench at a time, be the offense cutting in line at the movies or child molestation – it’s all the same. His catch phrase, “Shut up, Crime!” says it all.
This first half is pretty standard: set up the circumstances for someone to fight crime, and then see them reborn into their new identity. Even the (possible) delusion that God has asked him to take on this burden is not something so out-there that it escapes the realm of comic books. In fact, one of the best examples of the medium, Garth Ennis’s brilliant, sprawling, disturbing and flat-out terrific Preacher, features a former preacher from Texas seeking out the God who has abandoned heaven in fear of being killed by the spawn of an angel and a demon who has possessed the preacher’s body, giving him supernatural powers (and who is accompanied on his quest by a hard-drinking Irish vampire and pursued by the angel of death in gunslinger form – and that’s just the first six issues). It’s in the tradition of the greatest art in the graphic storytelling medium’s quest to answer life’s big questions that Super has its root (including the bright colors, the animated sequences, etc.), and it’s the ambiguity of the best possible answers that provide the film with its more powerful moments.
The latter half of the film is among the most nihilistic, yet oddly humanistic, experiences I’ve had at the movies this year. After sitting idly by and fighting low-profile nobodies who deal drugs and myriad other crimes, Frank is finally given the impetus to complete his mission after Libby, the girl from the comic shop, forces herself on him as his sidekick. As Boltie, Ellen Page turns in a performance that is unlike anything she’s ever done. Libby is a foul-mouthed, hyperactive girl who is genuinely into bashing someone’s head in under the guise of justice. After accompanying Frank on an outing where nothing happens, she goads him into helping her get this guy she knows of who may have done something wrong, she nearly kills the guy, and Frank quickly admonishes her. But then she apologizes and it’s okay again.
Boltie’s relationship with The Crimson Bolt, is a dissection of the dynamics that exist between a lot of superheroes and their teenage sidekicks, notably Batman and Robin, who are the most well-known and have provided uncomfortable erotic overtones for many a commenter over the years. As Boltie, Libby gets to act out her violent fantasies of being a superhero, and it becomes a major turn-on for her, and being with Frank as The Crimson Bolt becomes a possible sexual outlet.
One night, after saving Frank from a couple of Jacques’ goons, Libby, in a scene that mirrors her initial intrusion on Frank’s secret identity, forces herself on Frank, basically raping him, and making him wear his mask while riding him on the couch. When he protests that he’s married, she simply responds that if they have their costumes on, they’re different people, and that doesn’t matter. It is this confrontation that leads Frank to finally take definitive action toward getting Sarah back.
The finale is jaw-dropping, not just because of its pitch-black turn away from pure zany comedy (which writer-director James Gunn – a veteran of indie schlock powerhouse Troma Studios whose previous credits include penning the scripts of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and his own horror-comedy Slither – wisely keeps intact even during the blood-letting unleashed in the last reel), but also because it’s so unexpectedly emotional. Frank finally loses his shit because he has nothing else to lose. Once he is the last man standing, in the best tradition of revenge fantasies on film, he transforms into a monster who will stop at nothing until he has killed the man who he holds responsible. The action is surprisingly brutal and realistic, especially as he gets closer to his target.
Which brings me back to the insanity. Even Frank mentions in his voice over that he knows he is probably going to be perceived as crazy, but that he doesn’t care. And it’s unclear, really, whether or not Frank is truly disturbed, or has literally undergone some fantastic change because of a very real encounter with God. The fact remains, though, that he is judged according to our personal moral codes, which can sometimes justify the same actions as alternately acceptable and unacceptable due to mitigating circumstances. When we participate in a revenge fantasy film, we are given the moral view of our anti-hero, in this case Frank, who does not believe he is crazy. But what Super does particularly well that other self-aware films in the genre do not, is distance itself from a purely subjective view. Frank may be our identifying cypher in the film, but he is not us, and the film keeps us constantly aware of that fact by questioning his sanity in many ways, including his own thoughts, the statements of others, and the last battle which sees him through the objective lens as only film can: all fire and brimstone, death-bringer, unhinged and uninhibited.
In the final confrontation between The Crimson Bolt and his nemesis, we get to the heart of these fantasies: the idea that anything will change once the goal has been accomplished. This is also a concern of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, which constantly find our hero brooding alone, musing to Alfred that his goal was to clean up Gotham, but that monsters continue to be born. In the same vein, the last scene between Frank and Jacques handles the same moral quandary. After bashing one of Jacques’ goon’s (Michael Rooker) brains out on the fireplace, Frank heads after him to save Sarah. “You think that killing me; stabbing me to death is going to change the world?” asks Jacques, angling for his life. “I can’t know that for sure,” Frank responds, “unless I try.” Foregoing further spoilage, what I want to say about this scene is that it works improbably well, and proves to give the film further psychological depth than even the “happy” ending that follows does, after Frank has given up his mantle, and poses the same big questions that other superhero films do, but in much more provocative visual and tonal fashion. For a comedy, even a dark action-comedy, that’s not bad at all.