I am quite impressed with the film Super. I watched it two days ago and am surprisingly still thinking about it. Even as I was watching it, I couldn’t help but take note of how frequently it evaded my expectations. Here is a superhero film that, despite arriving late to the superhero party (the fad may be on its deathbed as we speak), has managed to do something different. This is not to say that the film’s fundamental premise of an average person taking on the responsibility of vigilante justice is original, seeing as Matthew Vaughn’s Kickass hit that note with most audiences (although not this critic) just last year. But it uniquely posed the question of how media and entertainment reflect real life violence. Here is a film that when the bullets are flying around, at any point someone could get hit and killed, including the protagonist.
The film has as many, if not more, problems as it has positive virtues though. As much as I think this film may be fruitful for conversation, it isn’t a film that I ever hope to see again. I can’t imagine anyone describing the overall viewing experience as enjoyable. But more on that in a bit.
As I mentioned, the film is about an individual that tries to become a real life superhero. His motivation is one of revenge, but not one of revenge against any actual crimes. His wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a drug dealer, so he antagonizes crime, associating crime as the cause of his personal loss. This association is poignant in that it suggests how all of our opinions can be easily shaped and misshaped against actual morality of the world. On top of that, our protagonist, Frank (Rainn Wilson in full-blown Dwight Schrute mode) is a religious man that is inspired by commercialized superhero TV show for kids about Jesus crushing evil forces of temptation. I’m not sure how to take the film’s approach to religion, but I certainly understand the perception of commercially distorted values and the idea that when something doesn’t work out for you, there is a tendency to call it injustice whether it really is or not.
Frank runs to the police when his wife leaves him for the drug dealer, aptly named Jock. The police tell him how it is: sometimes things are out of your control. Frank naturally takes his already warped sense of God and distorts it further to use it as justification for violently beating people to a pulp with wrench for doing as little wrong as butting in line at a movie theater.
The film is heavily sadistic and every line of dialogue through the entire run time of the film is painfully awkward. This is not a pleasant or fun film. But it is not without purpose or ambition.
Director Jamie Gunn takes a stylistic turn very different from his previous work on the excellent Slither by taking note from the Duplass brothers and the mumblecore movement. While I can’t stand The Puffy Chair, I thought Baghead ranked as one of the worst films I have ever seen, and Cyrus was nothing more than bad episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm without the improvisational touch, I respect what Gunn has done with the idea of cheap film making. It adds a heavy layer of realism, which accounts for the dry, awkward dialogue and also appropriately turns a mirror on the superhero genre. The fact is, that if a superhero existed in real life, they would have to be an insane murderer. Someone who runs around at night killing people without any sort of checks and balances or judicial review is nothing more than a corrupt, anti-society maniac. On top of that, Super demonstrates how much normal, acceptable action movies devalue death by displaying their heroes as irrationally invincible and the demise of victims as not tragic, but worthy of celebration. Alex wrote a wonderful piece a while back comparing the death of Osama Bin Laden to the film Cache, discussing how even when an enemy dies, it is a loss of human life. This is the same idea. Like I said before, this is not a pleasant film. I literally never want to see it again. But I’m glad I watched it once because it has made me think more than almost any other film I’ve seen all year.
I’m honestly not sure if I am reading too much into this film or not. Whether my interpretation is accurate to Gunn’s intentions with the film is irrelevant to me. Whether he wanted to or not (which I sincerely think he did), he has tapped into some disturbing truths about the world we live in. None of this is particularly groundbreaking. The idea that the media promotes violence is about as old as the media itself. But I’ve rarely seen it so poignantly executed.
A girl who works at a comic book store where Frank goes to seek inspiration eventually becomes something of a unique helper and love interest. This relationship, which has the potential to destroy everything that Gunn was gunning for (ouch, that was bad), instead diverts away from our expectations, just like the rest of the film. I’ll try to avoid spoilers here. What would happen in a normal film, would be that they would fall in love, fight crime together, be national-news heroes and he would forget about his low-life girlfriend, who would eventually turn her own life around, inspired by his efforts. Instead, the film turns the tables on falsified cinematic romance in what many probably view as a hilarious sex scene, but I see as one of the most disturbing rape scenes I’ve ever encountered. This film toys with our reactions like that. It wants to make us laugh, and then make us uncomfortable and think about how disturbing it is that we were just laughing.
Just as one of the more meaningful moments of the screenplay suggest, things happen in between the panels of a comic book. There is a reason they are left out. They aren’t pleasant. They aren’t entertaining. And they certainly aren’t fun to watch when you get a whole movie made about them. That’s what Super is. I get what Gunn was getting at here; and I totally respect that he found a way to give superheroes a new look. But no one in their right mind is sadistic enough to actually enjoy this film as entertainment. And it isn’t an art film either. So what is it? I’m not sure. But I guess that’s not such a bad thing.