Please Note: The images used here are promotional stills from the film and are not taken from the blu-ray.
"In between the panels, is that where we are right now?"
With Super, writer/director and Troma-B-movie graduate James Gunn (Slither) proves himself as much a clear-eyed champion of "the loser" as John Waters or Todd Solondz--which is to say that his genuine affection and respect for his characters lead him not to romanticize or whitewash them, but to try to bring them to us in all their contradictory, messy...well, if not exactly "glory," then glorious humanity. When it comes to fictional characters, vulnerability and passion trump "likeability" every time, and Super's lost souls, repellent as some of their actions may be, have vulnerability and passion in spades. The film could be accurately described as a "super-hero movie-cum-dark comedy," but that is unfairly reductive for something so odd--and, what is much more rare, so successfully odd (not "quirky"; this one's uniqueness goes right down to the bone and has decidedly not been contrived or imposed). Super exists at that precarious borderline between good-hearted striving for decisive, clear-cut justice and the grayer complexities of real life, and it is not afraid to make us uncomfortable by reminding us that we--especially those of us who love fiction and the movies--all inhabit, to one degree or another, that morally murky zone. It is an aesthetically undefined limbo, too; Super is actually a strange film to be describing in terms of its characters' humanity, since--and this is a large part of its startling uniqueness--it is also as chock-full of action, violence, and gore as the most throwaway Guy Ritchie movie.
Frank (Rainn Wilson, The Office), a not-that-bright, not-that-handsome guy who can count the good things that have happened to him on one hand and who works as a cook at the greasiest spoon you've ever seen, has lost his recovering-addict wife (Liv Tyler, The Lord of the Rings)--one of those precious few good things--to a sleazy, drug-dealing club owner (Kevin Bacon). This unbearable injustice is the last straw for Frank, who has, to be sure, experienced no shortage of injustice in his time. After some surreal, hallucinatory soul-searching, and egged on by young, hyper Libby (Ellen Page)--a comics-shop clerk who nags her way into the role of his official sidekick--he becomes "The Crimson Bolt," a fed-up DIY superhero who is going to not only save Frank's wife and get them back together, but also make the world safe at long last for all the nice, mild-mannered people who have had enough of playing doormat for the world's pushers (of all kinds) and shovers.
Frank is at the end of his rope; overstimulated Libby is terminally bored. They are in way over their heads, but they are too inspired to care, and The Crimson Bolt, accompanied by sidekick "Boltie," can be heard to utter his catchphrase, "Shut up, crime!" as they use their trademark pipe wrench (for The Bolt) and Wolverine claws (Boltie) to whip violators into shape; whether you are a child molester or a smug, self-centered jerk who cuts in line at the movies, you had better watch out, because their adrenaline is pumping, and you are likely to end up in the emergency room with severe lacerations or a crushed skull. Gunn shies away from neither the ghastly injuries nor the pleas and cries of pain emanating from those on the receiving end of justice, Crimson Bolt-style.
By now, we have been intentionally "shocked" often enough by movie violence, whether it be the flippant, choreographed Reservoir Dogs kind or in the devastating (and, I think, much more conscientious) Funny Games mode. In the case of Super, though, the Taxi Driver comparisons Gunn has garnered for his film are apt; regardless of how many movies and TV programs may encourage cheering it on, "justified" violence is as ugly and difficult to stomach as any other kind, and it may even be more painful to watch a character whom you can relate to and whom you know to be acting out of conscience doing such unconscionable things. But Gunn's film is quite different from Scorsese's masterpiece in its willingness to wear its heart directly on its sleeve. Both Frank and Libby are damaged people whose emotions have been run roughshod over by life, they are rife with insecurities and uncertainties, and they want the reassurance of a fantasy world in which one's moral certitude translates into real action and results. It is very, very easy for us to understand and sympathize with them...but then we cringe at the cruelty they rather randomly inflict as retribution for life's crumminess (not to mention at the uneasy romantic tension that develops between the very married Frank and Libby, with her underfed emotional and sexual appetites). Gunn does not skimp on fully exploring either the righteousness of Frank and Libby's rage or the unacceptable brutality that results from it; Libby's comics-bred (over)enthusiasm might be able to override her less-than-fully-developed conscience, but Frank's is too powerful not to impede his enjoyment of what they are up to, and he also seems burdened by the felt responsibility of being the older one, Libby's role model and moral compass.
A great deal of the credit for the film's ability to move us belongs to its actors. Wilson, whom I have often slotted into the Jack Black category (funny enough, but with a schtick too one-note to ever carry a film) is wonderful, you could even say brave, when it comes to embodying Frank in all his poor, pathetic put-upon-ness. It would have been a tragic misfire to play such a character as a dismissable laughing stock, and Wilson fortunately avoids that entirely, making Frank a character whose feelings are very real and every bit as valid as any of ours would be. Page does the same for the misguided but charming Libby, with her fumbling but authentic sexuality and her game-for-anything attitude that is hard not to like even as it tips her right over the deep end. It grows into a real pleasure as the film goes on, seeing the actors match, scene for scene, the physical boldness necessary for all their maladroit running, jumping, and ass-kicking with the emotional courage required to sympathetically depict their characters' social and romantic clumsiness. Tyler and Bacon shine in their smaller parts, too; Tyler in particular-- who has the most thankless role as a character who is only down-and-out, not fascinatingly sociopathic--uses her soft, quasi-ethereal presence to let us feel her character's vulnerability without letting us forget that she is as human as anyone, thoughtless toward Frank and prone to making bad mistakes.
So, have I been guilty of prejudicially judging Gunn to be just another hip, bright, "talented" script doctor/director/scene-maker likely incapable of something as deep and insightful as Super? Yes, and I feel bad for it now; I will certainly be keeping an eye out for whatever he might be trying in the future. By carrying off with surprising, impressive alacrity the aesthetic balancing act between kick-ass action/gore and dirty-socks realism, and the moral one between justified vengeance and the dirty hands left by inflicting that vengeance, Super unexpectedly but very effectively faces us with a difficult moral conundrum while at the same time sweeping us along with its story, frequently making us laugh at the incongruousness of lumbering Frank and maladroit Libby joyfully letting the superhero spirit take over their physical beings, which are just not of heroic proportions.
Gunn has not only pulled off his risky idea with aplomb, but at the visual level alone, he and cinematographer Steve Gainer (Mysterious Skin, A Dirty Shame) have used the RED digital video camera with a great feel for the visuals it can provide and the way the images it can produce--distinct from film, but offering a full palette from which to work cinematically--are able to serve the film's story and tone. They expertly create a world for Super that is not movie-"ordinary" but really ordinary, in the litter-on-the-streets, used-car, rundown-buildings kind of way; the walls of Frank's workplace, Libby's apartment, and the comic book shop appear to actually be sweating. (Gunn uses a lot of handheld camera to add to the inelegance of "real life," and for once it is an actually suitable as opposed to merely cool choice, really contributing something important to the film's feel.) That realism clashes with some of the more graphically poppy, self-conscious elements in the film such as comic-book titles appearing up now and then in the most unlikely circumstances and, of course, Frank's and Libby's brightly colored costumes standing out starkly against the drab environment), and the jarring shifts works quite well to complement, on the visual level, what the film is doing conceptually. Its little deficiencies cannot be entirely overlooked--the overbearing rock soundtrack and the way in which it is employed, for one example, seemed to me to coast lazily on the kind of indie-movie cliché it otherwise manages to steer clear of--but Super is a film made with a level of artistry, thought, and unabashed, non-cutesy heart that elevates it well above the pack.
The disc's 1.85:1, 1080p/AVC transfer leaves nothing to be desired. All the images are crystal clear and vivid, and Super's carefully conceived and executed visual design is there on your screen in all its glory; you can really see Frank's bright red and Libby's neon-green costumes stand out against the desaturated-appearing colors and damp-looking blacks, browns, and grays of the film's realistically muted, rundown cityscape.
Super's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is perfect. The film makes full use of the wow-factor surround sound possibilities as it plays with action/superhero-movie conventions, and every scrap of its sound design, from the quietest dialogue to the loudest explosions and screams, burst forth from all angles with full, well-balanced clarity and vividness.
The 20-minute making-of and audio commentary (with Gunn and Wilson), like the film itself, are a cut above, short on fluff and long on actual information and what seem like honest accounts of the processes of development, shooting, and postproduction. The commentary, especially, is full of great stories from the set and other juicy tidbits. While Wilson is predictably wry and facetious, which is amusing enough, it is Gunn whose regular-dude persona is revealed to be a front for an unforeseen level of sharpness and sophistication. He sounds like the kind of person whose worst fear would be "pretension," yet he points out that one scene was directly inspired by a Goya painting, and you realize he is one of those closet high-art/low-art alchemists the world probably needs more of.
Also included are a short video documentary on the making of the film's remarkable and hilarious animated opening-credits sequence, as well as the theatrical trailer, the TV ad, and a perfunctory 60-second deleted scene.
A "mash-up" of genres that is less self-consciously postmodern or impressed with its own knowingness than seriously interested in arriving at something fresh and thought-provoking, James Gunn's Super is not by any stretch a superhero movie, but a dark comedy that is as daring for its acknowledgment of and sensitivity to those on the short end of life's unfairness stick as it is for its bloody transgressions of the "heroic" conventions that usually apply to movies in which people put on costumes to fight crime. Despite its occasional downturn into a different kind of convention--those that seem to go with the contemporary standard procedures for punching up indie movies--the film actually blindsided me with its real relevance and disconcerting moral ambiguity. It ultimately realizes enough of its unusually creative and thoughtful ambition to be gladly Recommended.