SXSW 2011: SUPER Review

     March 14, 2011


A lot of online folks have been giving James Gunn’s Super a hard time because of its obvious similarities to Matthew Vaughan’s Kick-Ass.  It’s true that Gunn’s film– which stars Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, and a hilarious Kevin Bacon– share more than a few passing similarities, but Super only improves upon the “real-life superhero” sub-genre that Kick-Ass mined so well last year.  What has Gunn done to improve the formula?  Find out after the break.

James Gunn’s Super was a breath of fresh air, and not because everything else we’ve seen at SXSW thus far has sucked.  Immediately prior to catching Super, I sat through another film that bored me almost literally to tears.  There’s nothing more dispiriting at a film festival than seeing a flick that you really didn’t enjoy– it can take the wind right out of your sails– but Super singlehandedly reinvigorated my love for film at a point in the day where only a great movie would have been able to do so.

If you’ve seen the trailers, then you already know that Super features Rainn Wilson (of NBC’s The Office) playing a dude who’s a bit of a loser:  he works as a short-order cook in a local diner, he’s married a former drug addict/alcoholic, and he’s got a penchant for sketching out the happiest moments of his life.  He’s also got a bit of a “do-gooder” streak, and when Wilson begins narrating the film, he tells us that the two happiest moments in his life were A) the day he got married, and B) the day that he helped a cop chase down a purse-snatcher.  He sketches these two scenes with a handful of colored pencils and tapes them to his wall, hoping to begin each day by waking up to the sight of the two perfect moments in his life.

Before the screening, director James Gunn put it best when he called Frank “an oddball”:  that fits Frank like a glove.  And when Gunn told us that Super is a film for “the outcasts, the oddballs” of the world, he was dead-on:  I loved, loved, loved Gunn’s film, and think that the oddballs of the world are going to embrace it with a passion.  Wilson’s quirky here, but not like Wilson’s character on The Office:  Dwight Schrute’s humorless, takes joy in almost nothing, and is a little more militant than Frank (his Super character).  More importantly, though, Wilson’s excellent in the role, and shows a bit more range than I thought he was capable of.  It’s a really compelling performance.

super_movie_image_ellen_page_rainn_wilson_01Anyhow, when Frank’s wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), leaves him for a job at a local titty bar–where she’s obviously gotten involved with the owner, Jacques (Kevin Bacon)– the plot is set in motion.  Frank doesn’t understand why his wife– who he’s treated with nothing but the utmost respect and love– would flake out on him, and he doesn’t take it well:  he tracks her down to the club and makes a valiant effort to get her back, only to be beaten into the ground by Jacques’ goons.  This leads to a truly bizarre sequence where Frank feels the “finger of God” touching him on the head (well, actually, it touches him on the brain:  this sequence is balls-out crazy), which leads him to believe that he should become a crime-fighting superhero.

Of course, Frank’s got no superpowers, so he heads to the local comic store to learn about superheroes:  what do superheroes without powers do?  He gets this information from a clerk named Libby– played by Ellen Page– and fashions a suit for himself.  He becomes “The Crimson Bolt” (catchphrase:  “Shut up, Crime!”) and takes to the streets, determined to rid his community of the criminal element that seems– in Frank’s eyes– to be everywhere:  dudes molesting kids in cars, gang members selling drugs on street-corners, and so on. It’s all part of an elaborate, none-too-specific plan to get his wife back, but in the beginning it’s mostly just Frank beating people up whenever he catches them committing some crime or another (“Don’t cut in line at the movies!” he yells after caving in one poor schmuck’s skull;  Frank’s vengeance isn’t limited to serious criminal activity).

super-poster-ellen-page-01The movie’s hyper-violent, enough so that some– who don’t get the joke– will be turned off by The Crimson Bolt’s shenanigans.  The audience I saw the film with loved it, though, and I was laughing hysterically throughout as well.  With each new criminal Frank “catches” (read:  smashes in the head with his enormous wrench), the audience cheered.  You might argue that they were only doing so because Gunn, Wilson, and Tyler were in the audience, but I’d disagree:  seeing Frank mete out justice was cathartic, and while it’s probably not nice to laugh at the sight of Frank dropping a cinder block on someone’s head from a fire escape (they were dealing drugs), I was happy to do so.  If you’re a frequent reader around these parts, you’ll likely feel the same way.

It’s definitely true that the film bears more than a passing resemblance to Kick-Ass, but Kick-Ass wasn’t as gleefully unhinged as Super is, even though it wanted us to think it was:  Kick-Ass was more interested in the honor of being a superhero, while I’d argue that Super is more about what happens when a goody-two-shoes (who’s not too bright) snaps.  It’s also funnier than Kick-Ass, has more to say about stuff like loss and love and fear… and is much, much darker.  Kick-Ass one-up’s Super with its Hit Girl character, though– Hit Girl’s the closest thing to an iconic character this sub-genre’s ever had– but The Crimson Bolt is a much more interesting superhero than Kick-Ass was, and Ellen Page’s “Bolty” is a fine sidekick.

Everyone involved performs at the top of their game, and both Page and Kevin Bacon deserve special shout-outs for their work here.  Bacon’s line about “that wasn’t the kind of touching I was talking about” had me laughing for minutes after it occurred (it’s the way he wags his finger while saying it), and Page’s sexed-up sidekick shows a side of Page that I wasn’t sure was even there.  Wilson’s the star of the show, though, and he proves himself a capable, interesting lead.  The last time Wilson was given the lead in a film, we got The Rocker.  This is a much, much better attempt.  The Rocker wanted to capitalize on Wilson’s Office fame, but Super uses him to the best of his abilities.   Plus, it’s very satisfying to think of all the people who’ll pick this up at their local Blockbuster expecting a movie where “Dwight Schrute becomes a superhero”:  they’re in for a nasty surprise.

james_gunnDirector James Gunn already proved that he’s a crafty, clever dude with Slither, a film that not nearly enough people saw (and Slither fans will be happy to learn that Michael Rooker, Nathan Fillion, and a few other Slither alumni have roles here).  At some point, he’s going to make a film that’s a big crossover hit, and we’ll see him aligned with something really big– I have no doubt about this.  But I don’t think Super will be that movie:  it’s just a little too dark for the masses, a little too “Should I be laughing at this?” to kick Gunn up into the next level of directors.  But Slither and Super prove that he’s one of our most interesting, geek-friendly directors, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

One last thing before I throw out my abitrary letter grade:  Super has the best opening credits sequence I’ve seen since Enter The Void.  You’ll be rushing to iTunes to find out what band is playing over the credits the moment you’re out of the theater, and you’re going to be massively amused by the animation that Gunn’s put together for this sequence (the band’s Tsar, and the song’s called “Calling All Destroyers”).  Awesome work there, guys.

My grade?  A-

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