Britain's first superhero heads to the screen - and SuperBob is an absolute treat. Here's our review...
It could hardly be said that the British film industry has been matching the current rate of production of American superhero movies. A Bananaman movie has been in the works for a couple of years, but until Marvel decides to greenlight a Captain Britain movie, the domain of caped crusaders and comic book action largely belongs to Hollywood.
It’s therefore quite fitting that SuperBob is about Britain’s first superhero, because it’s functionally Britain’s first superhero film, at least since Marvel Studios got going. While Marvel diversifies its films by setting them in different genres and is about to start turning out three movies a year with that model, even they haven’t thought to make a low-budget romantic comedy yet.
That idea comes instead from director Jon Drever, who adapts his 2009 short film of the same name, while star Brett Goldstein provides the script. Goldstein plays Robert Kenner, a postman from Peckham who just happened to get hit by a meteor while strolling through the park one day. As a result, Bob subsequently got the whole Superman power set – super strength, flight, heat vision, the works – and the film takes a look at how his existence has changed Britain and more importantly, how lonely it has made him feel.
In short, the Ministry of Defence snapped him up and now wraps each and every heroic deed in an inordinate amount of red tape. Bob identifies as a civil servant rather than a superhero, and vox-pops with the public would seem to suggest he is as unpopular with the public as most civil servants. His boss is Theresa (Catherine Tate), an exasperated MoD diplomat who is constantly reassuring the public and our international allies that Britain has SuperBob under control.
It’s literally a day in the life superhero story, which keeps the budget nice and manageable by making it about Bob’s day off, which takes place every Tuesday, as mandated by the United Nations. He divides his day off between looking after his Alzheimer’s-suffering mum (Ruth Sheen) and her spirited Colombian carer Dorris (Natalie Tena), who also cleans his flat and verbally chastises him on a regular basis. Six years into this arrangement, Bob has finally found time for a date with lovely librarian June (Laura Haddock), but circumstances conspire to keep him from enjoying his day off.
There are no supervillains here – it’s just about the personal life of Bob, who is a terrific comic creation. He’s a nice but dim, funny but sad character and Goldstein carries himself well across the unlikely line between superman and everyman, which turns out to look a bit like a big wobbly tightrope act between Henry Cavill and Martin Freeman. Witness one decisive moment for SuperBob in which he strides into a room, plants himself in a classic comic book hero pose and then starts his declaration with “Umm”, and you’ll see what we mean.
Barring the short film in which the character first appeared, he also seems to be a truly original creation. While the film is self-assured in its smallness, Bob is felled time after time by social awkwardness in a way that we haven’t really seen from a screen superhero before. There is a B-plot that’s mildly reminiscent of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, with international dispute about Britain’s autonomy over Bob, just as Dr. Manhattan serves to escalate Cold War tension more than he defuses it. However, it would be hard to argue that the light and zippy SuperBob takes this anything like as seriously as either the seminal graphic novel or its reverent film adaptation.
It would be less of a stretch to say that the nearest comparison point with the much bigger and more expensive superhero movies coming out of Hollywood is this year’s Ant-Man, a movie that was praised for getting in touch with a smaller story after the global and galactic stakes of Marvel’s recent top tier blockbusters. Even that instalment in the ongoing franchise juggernaut had its share of the flip comments and smart one-liners that have started to wear on some viewers, but SuperBob is refreshingly guileless by comparison.
All of that said, it’s still quite witty and exceedingly British. One side effect of its home-grown approach is that other nationalities are played quite broadly in the story, particularly the two American characters, who alternately fear and idolise a stereotype that SuperBob doesn’t really represent. The implausibility of Tena as a Colombian is surprisingly irrelevant too, because she’s great- it’s entirely possible that she and Goldstein have such great chemistry in their scene together precisely because their characters are so individually unlikely.
The mockumentary style is a necessary if slightly pat way of setting up the world at the beginning of the film, but it really takes flight once it gradually leaves this behind in favour of a more conventional mode of storytelling. Dever and Goldstein actually prove themselves to be very adept at building Bob’s world through dialogue and character interactions, only occasionally busting out discrete lo-fi VFX, when appropriate. One of the ‘big’ demonstrations of Bob’s powers takes place at an anniversary party and it’s a low-key, high-impact romantic moment that has had no parallel since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
The early stylistic choice is also justified by some witty, good-natured jabs at rolling news culture and government spin throughout the brief running time. In particular, Tate gets some very funny deadpan moments as Theresa talks around the confidential nature of her job to interviewers and news presenters while still bigging herself up at every opportunity. You could comfortably picture her carrying on to handle some other superhero-based crisis in a spin-off movie or series as a kind of self-aggrandising Nick Fury figure, if ever we needed a British answer to the Marvel cinematic universe.
But as much as you can refer to Ant-Man as a palate cleanser in the MCU, SuperBob excels as a cheap and cheerful palate cleanser for the whole damn genre. It’s quiet where the Marvel movies are loud; romantic where the DC movies are sexless; a lovingly made genre deconstruction that always keeps things light and endearing. It’s easily a better film than at least one of the big studio comic book flicks this year (the one about the quartet). More than that, it’s funny, touching and delightful for the duration, and for a home-grown superhero film, that’s just about all you could want.
SuperBob is in selected UK cinemas from Friday.
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