by Jef Burnham
Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from MPI Home Video.
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Super is the second feature written and directed by James Gunn, following his directorial debut with 2006’s Slither. Prior to that, Gunn had been a successful screenwriter, getting his start with Troma scripting Tromeo and Juliet (1996), before going on to write the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Whereas some might look at his hyper-violent, homemade super hero flick, Super, and see little more than an attempt to capitalize on the box office success of Kick-Ass, I see the film as more of an extension of Gunn’s 2000 film, The Specials. The Specials, a Watchmen-inspired comedy set in a world where superheroes are commonplace, centers on one of the lesser super hero teams on their day off. The question asked by Gunn in that film is: what crises might super heroes encounter in their private lives? Similarly, he asks with Super: what crisis might the average person encounter in their private life to inspire them to become a super hero?
In The Specials, the crises that manifested were the same as those we non-super-powered individuals might experience in our daily lives. Correspondingly, in Super, the film’s protagonist, short-order cook Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson), is driven to super hero-dom by an everyday occurrence when his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him for another man. The other man (Kevin Bacon), as it happens, is something of a drug-dealing crimelord of the minor order. Inspired by television’s The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) and a timely vision of God, Frank becomes the vigilante known as The Crimson Bolt. Local comic book clerk, Libby (Ellen Page), steps in as his sidekick Boltie, and The Crimson Bolt, with his trusty, red pipe wrench, inflicts brutal justice on drug dealers, child molesters, and those who butt in line alike.
If you’ve the stomach for graphic violence, Super gleefully delivers it in spades. The stylistic realism the violence bestows upon the film, however, is unfortunately hampered by another of the film’s stylistic touches when battles slip into a freeze-frame comic book aesthetic a la the 1960’s Batman series. And although you might assume at a glance that Super was made with the sole aim of reveling in the comic book brutality of The Crimson Bolt, this simply isn’t so. Owing to the film’s thesis as discussed above, Gunn’s depiction of Frank’s journey toward self-acceptance in the face of loss achieves an honesty and emotionality that is actually quite beautiful.
In this regard, Wilson’s performance is pitch-perfect. He hits all the right comic and dramatic notes as required by the script, not once confusing one for the other. Ellen Page too is terrific as The Bolt’s blood-lusting sidekick. Kevin Bacon makes the ideal unwitting super villain as Jacques. And Michael Rooker, although appearing in a virtually silent role as Jacques’ #1 lackey, delivers a performance characterized by such subtext that you’ll find your gaze fixed on him whenever he appears, for he tells the entire story of his character’s relationship with Jacques through his eyes.
In addition to the easily forgivable freeze frame element, the only real drawback to the film is that the women ultimately come off as thinly characterized. And shallow female roles are not characteristic of Gunn’s work. The Specials’ Ms. Indestructible and Juliet in Tromeo and Juliet spring to mind as two stellar examples of Gunn’s abilities in this arena. To clarify, this is not to say that Super’s women aren’t fully developed, merely that it appears that way. Sarah is indeed a fully fleshed-out character— perhaps the most so of all Gunn’s women to date. However, we don’t learn about her complexities until long after the conflict has been established and we’ve been led to think of her as little more than a cheating, drug addict, whore for over half the movie. And even then, her characterization comes about only in flashback. As for Libby, Gunn does much to develop her, but in her role as sidekick she comes off as overly cartoony. I think a little more time with her outside of a superhero context would have gone a long way toward correcting this.
Even still, these problems are minor when you factor in how rewarding the rest of the picture is, both in terms of grisly violence and its surprising emotionality. Super is yet another in Gunn’s long line of satisfying pictures.
The film’s 1080p Blu-ray transfer delivers an impeccably clear image with deep saturated colors that perfectly highlight the super heroes’ costumes, not to mention the extreme gore typifying The Crimson Bolt’s war on evil. Special features on this release include commentary by Gunn and Wilson, a behind-the-scenes featurette, “How to Fight Crime” featurette, the making of the animated main titles, deleted scenes, a trailer, and a TV spot.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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