Movie Review: Super (2011)
“I’ve wondered all the time why no one’s ever stood up and become a real superhero.”
That’s Libby (Ellen Page), early in James Gunn’s low-budget, Troma-inspired “Super,” before she becomes Bolty, girl sidekick and sometime lover (or rapist) to the Crimson Bolt (Rainn Wilson). Anyone not caught up in a fantasy world, of course, knows the answer to this one, and it comes to Libby later in the movie. Too late, it turns out.
She and the Crimson Bolt are storming the palace of drug lord Jacques (Kevin Bacon, in an amused performance), until one of the bad guys shoots them both and they fall in the high grass. By this point, we know they’re wearing body armor so we’re not worried. And sure enough, Frank Darbo, the Crimson Bolt, groans, shakes his head and begins to get up. He shakes Bolt Girl, who is lying on her side away from him—c’mon, get up—and she rolls on her back and half her face is gone.
That’s the answer. That’s why no one’s ever stood up and become a real superhero. Because bullets don’t bounce off.
Credit “Super” for not imagining otherwise. “Kick Ass,” which was released a year earlier, and had a bigger budget and bigger stars, pretends a young girl with martial arts moves can take on a roomful of bad guys and not get injured. That movie feigns ironic indifference to the very thing it desperately wants: wish-fulfillment fantasy.
“Super” doesn’t. But it’s still an odd movie. It still sends mixed messages. It still gives us an improperly sweet ending.
Finger of God
Frank Darbo is a man for whom two good things happened in his life: he pointed out a thief to a cop (“He went in there, Officer!”), and a beautiful girl, Sarah (Liv Tyler), agreed to marry him. He draws pictures of both of these things and puts them on his wall. Then Sarah gets involved with drugs again and Frank is too weak to stop her. Then she leaves him for Jacques, the local, genial drug lord.
Jacques is so genial, in fact, and Frank so grotesquely, huffingly obstinate, it’s as if Frank is the villain. Frank goes to the cops, who tell him they can’t arrest Jacques for winning the girlfriend battle. Frank goes to Jacques, who remains good-natured even as Frank pounds on his car. But then Jacques’ men, including Michael Rooker, pound on Frank.
Why the superhero route? Because Frank comes across a TV show, “Holy Avenger,” in which the long-haired pot-bellied hero (Nathan Fillion) uses the power of Christ to defeat villains and keep the same two clean-cut teens on the straight and narrow. Apparently this show is based on some direct-to-video thing called “Bibleman,” starring Willie Aames, which is an odd thing to parody—something that’s barely made inroads into popular culture. Oh, and Frank also has a dream, or maybe a vision, in which his skull is cut open and his brain touched by the finger of God.
Despite God, his crime-fighting starts poorly. He hangs behind a garbage dumpster for a few days waiting for crime to happen. In his first encounter, a drug dealer pulls his mask down (“No fair! No fair!”) and Frank is forced to run. So he returns to the local comic book store, where Libby works, and asks a question: How do superheroes without superpowers get by? Libby shows him Batman, who has a utility belt, and the Green Arrow, who has his arrows, and Frank decides on a weapon: a pipe wrench. He clocks bad guys on the head with it then says his line: DON’T STEAL! DON’T MOLEST KIDS! DON’T DEAL DRUGS!
Is he too distracted? What does fighting crime have to do with rescuing Sarah? He gets further distracted waiting for a movie only to have a middle-aged couple butt in line. He speaks up; they sass back. Then he splits the guy’s head open. It’s actually kind of funny—the awfulness of what he does—but then Libby, guessing his identity, defends him to him. “I hate when people butt,” she says. That’s kind of funny, too.
Libby is there to make the wholly unreasonable Frank seem entirely reasonable. She insists on dressing up as his sidekick, all 5’ 1” of her, and taking out a smarmy dude who keyed her friend’s car. She crashes a glass vase over the dude’s head but afterwards reveals doubt about the crime. “Yeah, pretty sure it was him,” she says. She rams one bad guy into a wall with Frank’s car and revels in his pain:
That’s what you get for fucking with the Crimson Bolt and Boltie, cocksucker! Now your legs are gone! Ha ha ha ha ha! .... It’s called internal bleeding, fucker!
I assume we’re supposed to laugh and be horrified at the same time—that’s what I did anyway—I just can’t tell if there’s more going on or less. The goal of “Super” is to shock us with the consequences of violence, but to what end? To what alternative? And what to make of the sex?
Right, the sex. Libby comes on to Frank. She asks to make out with him. Later, she rapes him. If “no means no,” she rapes him. It never would have made it off the page, let alone on screen, if the genders had been reversed, but here it’s, I don’t know, horrific and funny again. And sexy? A bit.
Plus her action spurs Frank to action, to taking on what he’s been putting off. They attack Jacques’ place, and Libby sacrifices half her face, and her life, but the Crimson Bolt kills everyone else, and rescues Sarah, who’s a virtual prisoner by this point, a near rape victim herself. In a few months, we’re told in an afterword, she leaves Frank again to marry a better man. She has four kids with him. These kids call Frank “Uncle Frank”; and Frank, who began the movie with only two good memories, and who was too timid to even buy a rabbit for a pet, now holds his pet rabbit while gazing at a wall full of great memories he’s had from the adventures we’ve just watched, and his voiceover searches for a greater meaning to everything that’s happened.
Now I guess I’m doing that. I’m searching for greater meaning to everything that happened.
“Super” was written and directed by James Gunn, who also wrote “The Specials,” a lame superhero parody from 2000, but is this movie even a superhero parody? I like the scene where, in the mirror, a la Travis Bickle, the Crimson Bolt tries out his signature lines:
- Everybody give up!
- It’s me, the Crimson Bolt!
- You just made the biggest mistake of your life!
Before settling on one:
- Shut up, Crime! Here’s the Crimson Bolt ... Crime.
But the Crimson Bolt isn’t super. He knows no skill like Batman or Green Arrow or Zorro. If anything, the movie feels like a parody of vigilante movies or worm-turns movies than superhero movies. It’s a “true life” version of those genres. It reveals, via an imperfect, dangerous hero, the awful violence implicit in our stories. Gunn doesn’t clean it up; he doesn’t make it easy for us. We are revealed by what we want—even as he sometimes gives us what we want.
Overall “Super” gives us massive mixed feelings. When the Crimson Bolt stabs Jacques to death, he says the following:
You don’t butt in line! You don’t sell drugs! You don’t molest little children! You don’t profit off the misery of others! The rules were set a long time ago! They don’t CHANGE!
This is wrong twice over:
- The rules do change
- The rule that changes least is the one Frank is engaged in.
Would the movie have been better if it had not played up Jacques’ 11th-hour villainy—allowing Sarah, for example, to be nearly raped? If Jacques had remained fairly genial throughout? If Sarah had been watching TV when Frank burst in? Would it have been better without the semi-sweet ending, which allows Frank both epiphany and happiness? His epiphany involves self-sacrifice, in letting Sarah go, which is also how he finds happiness. Fine. But Libby is still dead, dozens have been wasted, and that couple in line still had their heads cracked. It gives us sweet when we needed a little more horror.