By Andrew Walsh
Let’s start this off by addressing the elephant in the room: yes, James Gunn’s Super shares story elements with Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass (just for the record, I’ve only seen the film, so any reference made to Kick-Ass is made to the film version only). However, the overall themes and ideas are completely different. That, in my humble opinion, is far more important
Super tells the story of Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson), a timid diner chef who can only recall two happy memories in his entire life (marrying his wife, and directing a cop towards a fleeing criminal). Unfortunately, Frank’s wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) is a recovering addict and one day falls back into old habits due to the influence of strip club owner/drug trafficker Jacques (Kevin Bacon), and she abandons Frank. In his depression, Frank receives a vision from God saying he was meant for a special purpose, and Frank interprets this as a call fo him to become a superhero: the pipe-wrench wielding “Crimson Bolt.” He soon meets comic book geek Libby (Ellen Page), who convinces Frank to take her on as his “kid” sidekick “Boltie.” Together, they begin to plan a rescue attempt to save Franks wife.
Yeah, there are certainly a couple parallels between Super and Kick-Ass: the superpower-less heroes, the foul-mouthed female sidekick, extreme violence, and the showdown at the villain’s mansion/penthouse. But the devil is in the detail, and for my money, Super has a different message entirely. Whereas Kick-Ass seemed to almost advocate the violent (and irresponsible) actions of its protagonists, Super tries to dig deeper into the psychology of such individuals who would even contemplate such actions.
Frank has always had the violent urges to strike back at the people who have wronged him, and the identity of Crimson Bolt allows a disconnect for him to perform these horrible atrocities upon anyone from drug dealers to child molesters and even the everyday jerk who cuts in line. While his actions are certainly extreme, Frank does draw have a limit. This is discovered when he gains a sidekick in Boltie, who nearly beats a man to death because she was “pretty sure” he keyed her friend’s car. The key difference between the characters is that Frank has personal issues that drive him to fight crime and always tries to maintain the “moral” high ground. On the other hand, Libby sees her superhero identity as a chance to let loose and wreak havoc, anything to keep from being bored.
However, stemming from this interesting dynamic is a perplexing question: how are we supposed to view the character of Libby? While she may not be evil, she is almost certainly psychotic. She delights in eviscerating criminals: taunting a gunman after she has crushed his legs with a car, or laughing with joy as she disembowels a henchman with Wolverine-like claws. Libby also becomes strangely enamored with Frank once she discovers his secret: first asking if he wants to make out, but eventually raping him while wearing their masks. Yet in the end we are clearly meant to sympathize with her. It’s like her character arc never reaches a conclusion, the only things we know about Libby in the end is that she is a comic book geek and an absolute psychopath. The only other comic book reader we see is a fat loser who rudely comments on Frank’s selection of “research material” and uses inappropriate language in front of young children. Does this mean all comic geeks are either
assholes or unhinged psychotics? I certainly hope not, but I can’t draw any other conclusion.
Ellen Page has gotten a lot of praise for her performance in this film. And while she is certainly entertaining to watch in this, it seems to me like people are completely forgetting about Rainn Wilson. The only exposure I’ve had to him are My Super Ex-Girlfriend and The Rocker, so I wasn’t expecting much from him. Yet I can’t help but notice that he is doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the film. Sure, Ellen Page’s Libby is entertaining and interesting, but Rainn Wilson’s Frank D’Arbo is the emotional core to the entire film. His character goes through numerous arcs and deals with many complicated emotions you don’t see in film very much. While Page is having fun letting loose with Libby, Wilson has to maintain a careful balancing act by keeping Frank unhinged and somewhat crazy yet down-to-Earth and still relatable.
In the end, is the film funny? Yeah, but not terribly so. There a few good laughs to be had but Super more often delves into the darker aspects of the characters and leaves the comedy behind. The film is ultimately more interested in the drama of the story and characters, as well as its themes of true heroism. The idea that while cutting in line is certainly legal and not as bad a thing to do as dealing drugs or molesting kids (and obviously doesn’t warrant the same punishment), it’s still bad, and we shouldn’t need the law to tell us what is or isn’t bad.
The limited budget unfortunately shows throughout, but not nearly enough to lose your interest.
Production Value: 6
Entertainment Value: 8