A film review by Craig J. Koban August 30, 2011

 

SUPER ½j
 

2011, no MPAA rating, 96 mins.

 

Frank/Crimson Bolt: Rainn Wilson / Libby/Boltie: Ellen Page / Sarah: Liv Tyler / Jacques: Kevin Bacon / The Holy Avenger: Nathan Fillion / Det. Felkner: Gregg Henry / Abe: Michael Rooker / Sgt. Fitzgibbon: William Katt / Voice of God: Rob Zombie

Written and directed by James Gunn.

Very few films have made me less happy and fulfilled in the aftermath of seeing them like SUPER.  It made me feel depressingly empty: the film is a wasteful, witless, self-indulgently unfunny, emotionally distancing, oftentimes offensive, and puerile and vacant attempt at sophisticated satire.  In terms of completely blindsiding audience expectations, SUPER is indeed a rousing success.  It worked on me, seeing as I certainly did not expect to see something so amateurishly appalling and lacking in any real redeeming qualities. 

The film – from James Gunn, writer/director of SLITHER – bares more than a fleeting resemblance to last year's monumentally better KICK-ASS.  That film - also involving low-rent super hero wannabes – worked well by devilishly playing against the conventions of comic book pulp fiction and it did so with an incendiary irony and subversive edge.  

The real problem with SUPER – outside of its sometimes plagiaristic similarities to KICK-ASS – is that the makers seem to have absolutely no clue whatsoever where to dig their satirical jabs.  Just what are they saying here?  Are they commenting on, as mentioned, the naiveté of viewer expectations, the nature of on-screen violence, the nature of religious fundamentalism as a devastatingly uncivilized force, the alluring pull of vigilant justice, or a combination of all of those?  SUPER seems thematically schizophrenic throughout.  There is no real discourse here in the film: it seems more interested in just being cheaply sensationalistic. 

Just consider the main “hero” (if you can call him that) of the story, Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson): Instead of being a sympathetic do-gooder that actually wants to aid people in need like the high school aged vigilante in KICK-ASS, he is – at face value – a religious zealot that believes that God has touched his soul and convinced him to be a costumed clad sadist.  This guy does not just want to catch criminals and thieves, he wants to brutally injure them or, in most cases, viscously murder them.  How on earth am I supposed to root for such a sick-minded degenerate?  He’s nothing more than a dweeby, anti-social, and dangerously unhinged Travis Bickle in spandex.   

At the beginning of the film Frank, in voiceover, goes out of his way to explain how his life has been a series of failures.  As a thirtysomething short order cook at a dilapidated local diner with no high career ambitions, Frank certainly is a schluby loser in adulthood.  He has, however, had two “perfect moments” in his existence: the first being when he pointed a cop in the direction of a fleeing criminal and the second being when he married his wife, Sarah (a very miscast and underused Liv Tyler), who is a recovering drug and alcohol addict.  Unfortunately for the perpetually down-on-his-luck Frank, Sarah hooks up with some old druggie buddies and finds herself seduced by Jacques (Kevin Bacon, looking unhealthily thin and haggard), a local strip club owner and drug enforcer.   

Frank, now alone, finds this all to be too much to bare.  He turns to God, habitually prays, and even watches an embarrassingly B-grade Christian-themed TV show that preaches spiritual platitudes with an unfiltered obviousness.  One of the super heroes in the programs (on the All-Jesus Network) is named The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) who almost seems to be speaking to Frank from the set.  Frank then begins to form a plan to become his own dirt bag-busting costumed crusader.  Later on his idea is given the motivational push it requires: In a vision, octopus-like tentacles grab and secure him, cuts off the top of his cranium, exposes his brain, whereby God is able to touch it with his finger to inspire him (I’m not making this up).   

Frank now has a calling, but he needs to do some research.  He attends a local comic shop and asks for assistance from Libby (Ellen Page) who gives him comics based on characters without super powers.  He then tries to come up with the best weapon that his heroic alter ego will wield; in his case, a pipe wrench.  Finally, he constructs a costume so pathetically cobbled together that it looks like it were made of rejected extra parts of worn-out clothing.  From the pits of despair emerges The Crimson Bolt, who goes on a one-man tear through his city, gleefully putting crooks into the hospital or six feet under.  Eventually, and while on pursuit of Jacques and his wife, he begrudgingly gets his own sidekick in Libby herself, who dubs herself Boltie and seems to share Frank’s taste for skull-cracking mayhem, but also has a deeply chilling proclivity to fulfill her sexual wish fulfillment fantasy of raping her partner, which Batman, to be fair, never had to deal with. 

 

 

SUPER does so many things so wrong that I grew dizzy pondering them, from its meanderingly episodic plot that flimsily looks for an overriding narrative, its queasy porn-film aesthetic and lethargic and flavorless direction, and the way it takes woefully easy, fish-in-a-barrel shots at organized religion and faith.  But the one thing that really, really perturbed me was how drearily unfunny the whole enterprise was, seeing as its balancing of laughs with dark pathos is ineptly handled.  The film is more perverse and disturbing than funny.  Last I checked, nightmares involving graphic anal prison rape are not funny, nor are scenes of its hero breaking up a child molester unzipping his pants in a car awaiting a child victim to perform oral sex on him.  Bacon’s villain, at one point, even drops an N-bomb for no other reason than to get a lame and disbelieving laugh.   

Perhaps even more unsettling is this film’s distasteful level of graphic violence.  I have read how Gunn stated that he is using the gratuitous gore in the film to comment on movie bloodletting in general.  SUPER never once convinced me that it was ironically commenting on its violence because it only seems to be really celebrating and using it as a sickening punch line to generate gasping chuckles.  The film’s savagery is merciless at times: people are disgustingly blown to bits; a man has his legs crushed by a car; genitals are stabbed by projectile weapons; a man’s skull is bashed repeatedly on a concrete slab until his brain matter spills out; half of a woman’s face and head are blown off with the camera lingering on the affect-effects in pornographic detail; and, in one vile scene, The Crimson Bolt gorges his wrench into the skull of an innocent man (albeit an inconsiderate asshole) whose crime is butting in line at a local ticket booth.  His girlfriend screams after Frank accosts the poor sap, during which Frank smashes her head in too for good measure.  Hardy-frickin’-har. 

Rainn Wilson is a funny performer, but his work as Frank is unsettlingly strange.  I’m not sure what he’s aiming for here, other than to play Frank as a freakish loose cannon and psychopathic creep that has all the nihilistic charm and crazed bloodlust of a serial killer.  He never once comes off as a person worth our sympathy or rooting interest.   Page fares a bit better as the spunky, if not a bit too histrionic, Libby/Boltie, who generates some of the film's very few (emphasis on few) laughs at the expense of her Hulk-sized libido and thirst for killing.  As much as I greatly admire Page, she tries a bit too hard here to produce sustained laughs and her performance comes off as too undisciplined and unhinged for its own good.

Some may question how I could possible hate SUPER while giving a passable grade to, for example, HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN.  That latter film was arguably just as toxically violent and vulgar, but at least it had its tongue-in-cheek and was a successful send-up of the hyper-violent eccentricities of grindhouse action fare from the 70’s: it was a vividly manic – but reasonable – facsimile of those films that never took itself seriously.  I ask, in comparison, what SUPER is trying to emulate?  What conventions are the film spoofing?  What are its targets?  What’s it trying to say in mocking those targets?  I don’t have any answers to those questions because the makers of SUPER don’t either.  Instead of intrepidly engaging in shrewd and razor sharp satire, SUPER is just content with allowing its numbing violence, chronic sadism, and ear-splitting vulgarity do the talking.  Its biggest sin is that it is in no way as hysterically or perceptively sly about its subject matter as it thinks it is, which makes the film that much more smugly off-putting.  

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