Wednesday, May 4, 2011

'Super' pushes past the point of no return

"I can't know, but I have to try." -- The Crimson Bolt (Rainn Wilson)

As I often do before I start to write a review, I glanced over the Metacritic blurbs for James Gunn's Super, about a lowly diner cook who decides to become a crime fighter to save his wife from an "evil" drug dealer. I realized, much to my dismay, that a lot of the critics either missed the point of Mr. Gunn's film entirely, or refused to acknowledge how or why it was doing exactly what it was doing.

So let's set the record straight: Super may be a bloody, almost grindhouse film, but it takes the idea of a "superhero" to such a dizzying high and with such complex morality that to call it anything less than a true stunner would do great disservice to its remarkably thought-provoking look at violence, humanity, and the limits of legal action.

Rainn Wilson of The Office stars as Frank D'Arbo, a cook who sees little worth liking in his life aside from his gorgeous wife Sarah (Liv Tyler). A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, Sarah begins to stray when drug dealer Jacques (or, as Frank calls him, "Jock") (Kevin Bacon, showing his smarmy best) gets involved in her life, ultimately convincing her to leave Frank and come live in a drug-induced stupor at his ranch.

Then things start to get weird. Frank has a vision -- is it a message from God or merely his own psychosis? -- where he feels compelled to become a superhero. He builds a costume and chooses his weapon (a pipe-wrench) with a little guidance from comic book nerd Libby (Ellen Page, doing her geeky best), and takes to the streets.

It's tempting to say, "oh, so this is like Kick-Ass?" Well, yes, but it's part of a larger "problem" the superhero genre is dealing with right now. Between Super, Kick-Ass, Defendor, The Green Hornet and others, the genre is now taking vested interest in what happens when real people becomes "superheroes." Kick-Ass is perhaps the most satisfying of these films -- with its wit, its myriad discussions, its polished look at a variety of characters embodying different elements of the "superhero gone awry."

But Super is a whole other monster. Gunn wants us to laugh, I think, at Frank's -- excuse me, The Crimson Bolt's -- crime-fighting spree. He beats a drug dealer, a thief, and a child molester with a pipe wrench. It's gruesome, it's blunt, but it's effective: he's stopping terrible people from doing terrible things. The most radically interesting component of the film is its pervasive religious content. Frank prays to God, believes he receives divine visions, and plasters a slogan ("Some of His Children Are Chosen") above the closet where he hides his costume.

None of this is necessarily "new" to the genre -- Superman is often read as a Christ figure, Batman as a holy martyr, and superheroes as a whole often take the form of ethereal saviors or angels who can protect communities from crime and sin. But to have the conversation so explicated, so deeply embedded in the text, brings up very complex issues not only about Frank's psychology, but about how we choose to read and interpret superheroes.

If Frank is God's messenger, Libby is his disciple. Where Rainn Wilson makes Frank a fractured, haunted man searching for a higher purpose and a reason to be recognized, Ellen Page makes Libby an overenthusiastic, troubled girl who equally needs someone to follow and someone to love her. Her zeal for Frank, her love of violence, profanity, and sexuality play in direct contrast to Frank's need for moral superiority, and give the film an outlet for the idea that believing in superheroes is potentially very harmful.

Super's greatest stroke of genius is not to argue that superhero philosophy is harmful, but to suggest that it's a very complicated kind of morality with an extreme debt to violence that can no longer go unrecognized. It goes places where Kick-Ass could only playfully hint at, turning into a catastrophic bloodbath in its final act. How do we watch superheroes? How do we understand them? Should we regard them as frivolous entertainment? Are they viable solutions to our personal problems, or our broader social problems? These are all questions Super is interested in exploring without necessarily answering. Despite Frank's desire to be a public crime fighter, his mission to kill Jacques is purely personal, and he seems to exist in a netherworld of his own visions.

Are they delusions of grandeur, or can The Crimson Bolt actually effect a chance? I pose these as rhetorical questions because I think they are the questions Mr. Gunn wants us to ask as we watch. Were I to write a conference paper on Super (now that I've seen it, it's certainly going to earn a valued spot in my broader scholarship on the superhero film), I would try to answer these questions.

I'll say this: Super does end in a peculiar, uneasy endorsement of rampant violence. Much like Taxi Driver (a film I feel must have inspired Mr. Gunn at some point), a bloodbath acts as a trade-off for a personal accomplishment and a small but deeply felt change. A superhero doesn't need to save a whole building from falling, in this film's logic, because every person is a building. Frank's mission to "save Sarah from evil" reaches out and touches many others in ways that only become clear at the surprisingly heartfelt end.

Its wild mood swings, its debt to swaying camera work and hyperbolic violence and its close examination of personal quests for redemption and purpose make Super unlike any other kind of superhero film out there. When I say it pushes the genre past the point of no return, I mean this: it goes down into depths far darker than Kick-Ass and even Defendor, and it's hard to imagine anyone who sees this film approaching the mainstream superhero film the same way. This loose group of films that actively respond to the genre and try to apply some form of critique or reinterpretation are only getting more and more exciting and provocative.

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