ActionFest '11: SUPER Review

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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ActionFest '11:  SUPER Review

[With James Gunn's Super now screening at ActionFest, and VOD and select cinemas it's as good a time as any to revisit my review.]

Do not let the sprightly pencil crayon song-and-dance credit sequence fool you, James Gunn's latest film, a send-up of amateur vigilantes called Super, wants to give you some awkward, messy violence for your entertainment dollar. The drama is mostly of the sad-sack variety, the laughs are mostly of the gallows kind, and while the film seems a bit late to the party (despite being written years ago) it will satisfy the culty niche that considers Watchmen was too glossy and Kick-Ass too mainstream. The line between superheroes and sociopaths has for some time been a blurry one, but Super takes great pleasure in kicking the line completely out of existence.

Schlubby short-order chef Frank D'Arbo (Rainn Wilson) has two perfect moments in his life. The first is marrying his lovely, if slightly damaged, wife (Liv Tyler) and the second is the prevention of a bit of small larceny by directing a policeman towards a criminal in hiding. When the love of his life up and leaves him for charismatic Strip Club owner and wearer of many a fine designer shirt (a wonderfully oily Kevn Bacon), he more or less suffers a mental meltdown. After a vision, of sorts, involving (as best as I can tell) Hentai pornography and brain surgery and Rob Zombie (yea, you might not want to bring the kiddies to costume adventure!) he breaks out the back issues of Batman, graciously handed out by a cute young comic store clerk (Ellen Page) and the sewing machine and proceed to make "Crime Beware" in red spandex and shoulder-pads.

There is a lot of fun to be had in watching D'Arbo bust some petty crime before working his confidence up to take on Bacon and his collection of goons, mainly because he doesn't so much subdue the criminals, it is more like smashing them across the face with a pipe-wrench. It is bloody and ugly and gloriously petty. Yet the film really comes to life when Ellen Page joins the fray as "Boltie" in an act of cosplay gone too far. The actress has been featured too often playing precocious young women who talk and act beyond her years, so it is refreshing to see her play a bit of an unhinged (but enthusiastic) dolt. She dives into her role with such gusto, it almost runs the film off the rails, but ultimately is endearing precisely for its naughty excess and savvy against-type casting. Cameos from most of the cast of Gunn's previous directorial effort, the sadly under-seen Sliter fill in a lot of minor roles, along with Bubbles from The Wire. And look for the blink or you'll miss cameo from The Greatest American Hero, William Katt.

Make no mistake, Super is very rough around the edges (having Lloyd Kaufman show up instead of Stan Lee is a dead giveaway!), its musical cues are at times a bit obvious and blunt, and may be perceived as a low-rent Watchmen (which up to a point it is), but there is a solid and unconventional story of how to find your own form of personal happiness and enjoy a bad hand dealt your way. There are bound to be people out there that relate to its unconventional message of selflessness. And then there will people that think Rainn Wilson is looks funny when he cries.

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J HurtadoSeptember 11, 2010 12:21 PM

I've been following this film's progress on James Gunn's twitter feed and it has never really clicked from his descriptions, but the few reviews I've seen so far are really intriguing me.

SwarezSeptember 12, 2010 12:35 AM

The word of mouth from TIFF is that it's pretty great.

Sean "The Butcher" SmithsonMarch 12, 2011 5:38 PM

It looks mighty good. But it also looks incredibly like KICK-ASS, and I'm scratching my head as to why no one is mentioning that. I haven't seen the film yet either so...

Todd BrownMarch 12, 2011 7:16 PM

Super is much more grounded than Kick Ass. And much funnier. Kick Ass is more of an action film.

Michael GuillenApril 7, 2011 11:57 AM

Enjoyed reading your review, Kurt, now that I've finally had the chance to watch the film. I didn't even realize this played TIFF. Was it in Midnight Madness?

I had a really great time moderating the Q&A with Gunn after an opening weekend/WonderCon screening in San Francisco. A really nice, no-nonsense kind of guy. We talked some about how the initial critical response to the film has emphasized its tonal shifts as something that audiences will not be able to negotiate easily. I turned to the audience and asked: "Were the tonal shifts in this film hard for you to negotiate?" The answer was a visceral no. It's a strange criticism, less against the film than how it reveals what many critics think about audiences.

I was also intrigued by how the film's release dovetailed with the unfortunate headlines regarding Christian extremists inciting violence in the Mideast. Gunn said it was important for him to depict a narrative where the protagonist thinks he's talking to God but doesn't really know if it's actually God he thinks he's talking to. More importantly, underscoring even more the psychic schism in American culture, Gunn said that God and belief in God is something of a taboo in American film. Few films tackle it. In some ways, this is one of the most subversive elements of the film.

We also had a fun time talking about where on the hierarchy of evil we should place butting in line.

I enjoyed this film much more than KICK ASS. I felt much more with it.