TIFF 2010: Super Review

Written and Directed by: James Gunn
Starring: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler, Nathan Fillion, Michael Rooker

Just when you thought superhero movies had been pushed, prodded and parodied to within an inch of obsolescence, along comes director James Gunn to forceably have his way with the still warm corpse of the comic book movie genre. His new comedy Super is a dark and twisted little character study that pushes the envelope far beyond the limits of where a major Hollywood studio would ever dare to go. It commits fully to the possibility of an every day psycho without super powers who decides to become a crime-fighting vigilante… and throws in plenty of gratuitous sex and violence too. You know, just for kicks.

Rainn Wilson plays Frank D’Arbo, a meek and simple man whose wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) has just left him for a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). After wallowing in pain and self-pity for a while, he finally sees the light, quite literally, in the form of a corny religious superhero called The Holy Avenger. Frank gets molested by the tentacle of God and decides to make a home-made costume and hit the streets, cleaning up the filth he sees on every corner. With the police hot on the trail of The Crimson Bolt, he seeks help from a cashier at the local comic book store (Ellen Page), who is all too eager to join in the fun.

In a way it’s unfortunate that this movie is seeing the light of day just mere months after Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass has hit theatres. On the other hand, maybe that helped it get picked up for distribution. The similarites are remarkable, and yet, Gunn supposedly wrote the script back in 2003. Unlike Kick-Ass, however, Super does not lovingly embrace comic book conventions… it stays defiantly gritty and raw right to the end. That’s not to say it is 100% realistic, because it’s definitely a bit over the top in its own way, but it’s definitely the furthest you can get from a glossy effects-driven action flick.

James Gunn began his filmmaking career with Troma (he wrote and co-directed Tromeo and Juliet), and he still maintains the same borderline exploitation sensibility in his work. Super is gleefully gory — so much so, that it actually makes Kick-Ass seem like a family-friendly PG film by comparison. It made a lot of audience members squirm in their seat, even at a TIFF Midnight Madness screening. There is also plenty of tasteless humour, a few swipes at religion, and an uncomfortable female-on-male rape scene. If you are hoping for a straight up superhero parody in the vein of Gunn’s The Specials, you may be more than a little put off by what you see here.

The movie is decidedly non-mainstream, but what will likely confuse people even further is the fact that the cast is full of recognizable faces. Rainn Wilson is now a household name thanks to The Office, but to see him taking a risk in something like this is pretty damn refreshing. He manages to make Frank both relatable and slightly frightening, and his deft handling of both the dramatic and the comedic reminds me of his performance as Arthur on Six Feet Under.

Although Ellen Page seems initially to be playing just another snarky teenager, her character takes a surprising turn and she fearlessly dives into the role. She is sure to be a fan favourite in the same way that Hit Girl was in Kick-Ass, but in this case, no real suspension of disbelief required. Kevin Bacon and Liv Tyler are also not names you would expect to see in a low budget b-movie, but they give it their all. Slither fans will be happy to see Nathan Fillion turn up as the Bibleman-esque superhero on TV, plus Michael Rooker as Kevin Bacon’s head goon. William Katt (aka The Greatest American Hero) also cameos as a police sergeant.

Super is definitely rough around the edges, and a bit of a visual mish-mash. There is a pretty cool animated opening title sequence, although it doesn’t quite seem to jive with the tone of the rest of the film. James Gunn also decides to use some ’60s Batman-style word balloons sporadically throughout the film. When they are matched up ironically with moments of gruesome violence, they seem clever and funny, but there are other times that they felt out of place. The primarily indie punk and power pop soundtrack also felt a bit off at times, but overall, these are minor complaints about an otherwise great flick.

Make no mistake, there have been plenty of movies over the past few years to tackle the concept of a “real-life superhero”, but Super manages to set itself apart and proves that there is yet another angle worth exploring. It’s funny without resorting to cheap laughs or fanboy pandering, and it’s shocking in all the right ways. The Crimson Bolt may be losing his mind, but it’s exhilarating to see him step up and do the things no one else has the balls to do. The same can be said of director James Gunn, who has succeeded in delivering what is surely the edgiest superhero flick made to date. — Sean

SCORE: 3.5 stars

Recommended If You Like: Kick-Ass, Falling Down, Slither

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