Why you should see James Gunn’s Super

James Gunn’s darkly comic take on superhero lore is out in the UK this Friday. Matt reckons you should see it. Here's why...

It was only as I was leaving the theatre after watching Super that it occurred to me. I was elated, excited and energised. Super had exceeded my expectations, and was the best film I’d seen in a long time. I practically skipped out of the room with a zeal that you’ll usually only see from critics at press screenings if the free bar is still open.

I was about ready to start offering high fives to the other attendees, but then I noticed that they weren’t skipping with me. They were shuffling their feet, looking at the floor and mumbling to each other that it was ‘weird’.

I can’t say I noticed it in the screening room, but it stands to reason that I was the only one laughing. I mean, how would I know? It was dark and I was laughing at the time. I just assumed everyone else was too. I’m also guessing I was the only one who choked up at the end. I refuse to accept that I was the only one who was thrilled to see Michael Rooker appear as a henchman and Nathan Fillion as a TV superhero. There’s simply no way.

Of course, it’s always possible that you just happen to be in with the wrong crowd. But I keep running into the opinion from people online that Super isn’t an exceptional film and it’s starting to really confuse me.

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Fortunately, I’m not the film’s only fan. Now that we all have Internet access, it’s easy to find a review that reinforces your opinion, and five star reviews of Super are out there. While it’s not rare for a film to split audiences, the people I would have expected to like Super simply don’t seem to be responding to it. Reviewers who I usually find myself in line with have been unenthusiastic. So what is going on?

Well, stand-up comedian Doug Stanhope describes his act as ‘fetish comedy’. He reasons that a large number of people will be turned off by what he’s doing, but that the ones who are into it are likely to be really, really into it. It strikes me that this is the case with Super. When Super is released this Friday, a couple of you are going to have a new favourite film. The rest of you might feel like you’ve just been spanked and couldn’t complain because you were spluttering into a ball-gag, but sometimes, that’s going to happen in life.

Super tells the story of Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson), who is, for the most part, a normal guy. He has a wife, a job, and he believes in God. Things aren’t necessarily going well for Frank, but for a guy who thinks happiness is over-rated, and that two perfect moments in life will do, it could be worse. But when his wife relapses into drug addiction, and leaves him for her drug dealer, Frank is left with nothing.

After a holy visitation in the night, Frank is certain that God wants him to become a superhero, and that his super-weapon of choice should be a rather bulky wrench. He takes to the streets and tries to bring some kind of justice and order to the world and, eventually, rescue his wife.

When I say that Super tells the story of Frank D’Arbo, I’m not just leading into my brief and clumsy synopsis. Super is very much Frank’s story, and his character’s arc is full, surprising and touching. Super is a film that’s full of strong, interesting characters, all of them with flaws and strengths and conflicting traits, and it’s a credit to the excellent writing. Frank is a religious pacifist who makes the world a better place with merciless violence. Frank becomes warped by messages from God, and only then is he able to understand the real world.

As a film powered by its characters, all of the other wonderful things about Super would have been for naught had the cast not been up to the job. Lucky, then, that they do a, er, super job. Rainn Wilson turns out a strong performance as the hero of the piece. He’s perfectly cast – he’s likeable, funny and charming, but he’s very believable as a violent avenger. It’s only when you see him, twisted with rage, looming over a criminal, that his potential physical menace becomes apparent.

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It almost seems rude of Ellen Page to storm in with the stand-out performance when this feels like it should be Rainn Wilson’s moment. Boltie is a really interesting character – deranged, confused, sexual and psychotic. Page’s manic, brave performance should further enhance her stellar reputation. Liv Tyler puts in what’s likely to be an overlooked performance as Frank’s wife Sarah.

For the most part, she’s a drugged out passenger on someone else’s journey. What I liked about Tyler’s performance is that she’s given almost no screen time, just a few flashbacks, to show us what it is about her character that would make her so important to Frank, and she does so convincingly. Kevin Bacon is another performance worthy of note. Jacques is great character, devious and desperate, and Bacon adds a jittery energy and a creepy manner that suits him nicely.

I’ve previously been a big fan of writer/director James Gunn’s work, particularly his recent online shorts, but Super is something new for him. This feels like the film Gunn has always been threatening to make. It’s incredibly violent and gory, it’s filthy and lewd, it’s off the wall and irreverent, and it’s sweet and touching.

Gunn keeps you on your toes by constantly switching the tone of the film, meaning that at a time of confrontation you don’t know if the Crimson Bolt might break down and cry or commit a horrific act of slaughter. It feels like he’s brought everything he has together into one film, and for me it works so well.

So Super is a film with a very sweet story and a wide vicious streak. It’s got some extreme content that will put some viewers off, but otherwise, I‘d strongly recommend you give it a shot. It’s a superhero film that’s covering the subject in a way that hasn’t been done before (and no, it’s not just like Kick-Ass or Defendor, despite plot similarities).

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It’s a fucked up look at what goes on between the comic panels (to use the film’s own excellent description). And if you don’t like it, you can check out the reviews from every other critic that I saw the film with, because I’m fairly confident that they will reinforce your opinion. Just know that I might soon be storming their offices in a homemade superhero costume wielding a large wrench.