Shot in just 26 days and released with little fan fare almost a year later, Super has become a cult hit thanks to its balance of comedy, drama and cartoonish violence. The most enjoyable aspect of Super is how joyously reminiscent it is of, and yet at the same time the very antithesis of, the Adam West Batman TV series; a colourful and campy dynamic duo dealing out totalitarian punishment under the misapprehension of justice
When Sarah, the recovering drug addict wife of bipolar Christian fundamentalist Frank Darrbo, absconds with local crime lord Jacques, Frank takes matters into his own hands after a vision of God informs him he must become something greater in order to rescue her. Adopting the pipe-wrench wielding persona of the Crimson Bolt, Frank cuts a bloody sway through the crime-addled city streets as he fights to end injustice and save Sarah from her captor-come- boyfriend. By now the snooker-loopy nature of the film is apparent, and it only gets more bat-crap bonkers as it progresses.
After a raid on Jacques mansion leave Frank wounded by a gunshot and unable to go to the hospital for fear of being discovered by the police as the masked vigilante now wanted for his violent crimes, he seeks out Libby; a comic book shop attendant and Crimson Bolt enthusiast. Reluctantly Frank adopts Libby as his side-kick, Boltie, however she proves to be a bigger threat to the public than the criminals and law abiding citizens they encounter; near killing a perp based on no evidence and crippling an assailant with total relish. Realising if he is to save his wife he must up his game, Frank arms himself to the extreme and he and Boltie lead a daring raid on Jacques’ home during a major drug deal that rapidly escalates into a war zone.
Although tackling a common theme explored by the bulk of costumed caper movies (the everyday man becoming a hero after a life altering event), what sets Super apart from similar films such as Kick-Ass and Batman is how grounded in reality its world, events and characters are. Excessive and over the top as it may be, Super’s cast are believable in their roles that announce to the audience “This is the kind of mind that it would take to be Batman, and it is not a healthy one.” Frank obsession for justice and love oscillates between do-gooder and unhinged sociopath, whilst Libby’s already tangible grasp on reality is totally undone when she is able to hide behind a mask and live her life through what she sees as the consequence-free pseudo-reality of a comic book character. Compared to Jacques – an affable and charming ne’er-do-well whose methods only become more extreme as the pressure of the drug deal increases -, Frank and Libby are little more than uncouth thugs meeting out excessive violence to those they deem deserving, with no due process of law. In particular, Libby, under the persona of Boltie, is able to act out on her increasingly psychotic and sexual fantasies as she slips ever further into her costumed ego – even going as far as to rape Frank. Yet despite this, these characters a fun and engrossing, and you actually have an emotional stake in their wellbeing.
The story moves along at a brisk place and after repeated viewings there seems nothing that could have been trimmed for the sake of pacing. Ellen Page is her lovably bubbly self as Libby, although I can understand how some would find her uncomfortable viewing as she becomes more unhinged, and Kevin Bacon is clearly having a lot of fun as the morally bankrupt yet charismatic Jacque. Fanboy favourite Nathan Fillion appears as a sin fighting Jesus, with Michael Rooker as Jacques’ laid back body guard – both making their trademark James Gunn film cameos. However it’s Rainn Wilson’s performance that carries the piece. Well known for his off-beat comedy role in The Office, Rainn exceeds in his characterising of Frank; a humourless, emotionally broken individual whose visions of “God” fuel his delusions that his extreme methods are divine in purpose. Normally it’d be hard to associate with such a protagonist, but Rainn brings heart and vulnerability to Frank that may otherwise have rendered the character unable to empathise with.
A mention must also go to the films’ costumes; Crimsons Bolts’ outfit is practical yet inexpensive, with a rough home-made look (unlike Spider-Man or Daredevil, you can believe someone made it in his spare time). Boltie on the other hand goes for the impractical comic book look, which lacks in all practicality but is fitting with her attention craving nature and love of comic book lore: in Libby’s worldview, kid-sidekicks need to be the colourful contrast to their brooding mentor and this is encapsulated wonderfully in her electric yellow spandex.
Brimming with imagination, this is a breath of fresh air in an age where costumed crusader movies are one of the most common subgenres in the mainstream market. At it’s core Super is a story of loss and acceptance, ending with Frank completing his character arch and becoming happy by sacrificing the life he thought was meant to bring him happiness, no mater how shallow and fleeting. More importantly, this is clearly a labour of love, made because James Gunn wanted people to see it, not to make money.
Wit, charm, imagination, zany comic book insanity, grounded emotions, memorable (if mentally unstable) characters, cartoonish violence and above all heart set this film apart from its contemporaries; a low budget labour of love that holds up a dark yet believable reflection of the superhero genre. As such, I dub it my number one superhero film of all time (sorry Avengers Assemble). “Shut up, crime!”