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Super (2011)

We Don't Need Another Antihero

Someone once said that the best way to deal with a bad movie is to make a good one.  Writer/director James Gunn seems to believe that the opposite is true.

Last year, I declared Kick-Ass to be the greatest superhero movie of all time.  While it may not have been everyone's cup of tea, I thought it did a fantastic job of commenting on the genre; delving into the psychological damage that might cause an ordinary citizen to become a vigilante; and, most importantly, providing an exciting moviegoing experience.  It had the polish of Superman Returns and the conflicted heart of Taxi Driver, and I thought to myself, "This is definitive.  There's nothing else left to say."

Unfortunately, strangely, we now have Super to contend with.  I don't know when this movie went into production--whether Gunn and co. worked in unknowing parallel to Kick-Ass, or if they saw Matthew Vaughn's film and figured they could one-up it.  Whatever the case, I watched an ugly, pointless and hopelessly derivative movie last night that unfolded like a theory in need of being proved wrong.

Rainn Wilson plays Frank, a chubby loser who flips burgers by day and draws kindergarten-quality pictures by night.  When his waitress wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), leaves him for a sharply dressed drug dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon), Frank descends further into self-loathing depression.  He wants to get her back, but is so socially awkward that he doesn't know where to begin (not surprising, given the level of cluelessness that drew him to Sarah in the first place).  One day, God reaches down from heaven and touches Frank's brain, imbuing him with the courage to become a costumed vigilante.  Frank figures he'll start by foiling small-time evil and work his way up to rescuing Sarah from Jacques' compound.

Inspired by a religious superhero named The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) that he sees on the religious-programming channel, and with the unknowing guidance of local comics-shop employee, Libby (Ellen Page), Frank becomes The Crimson Bolt.  He stitches together a flimsy red costume and takes to the streets to beat up drug dealers, child molesters and people who cut in line at movie theatres with a giant, red wrench.

The first cracked skull not only spews forth a good deal of blood, it also unleashes Super's biggest problem: A lack of distinct tone.  The first half-hour is an icky schadenfreude comedy, where the big laughs are supposed to come from how pathetic all of the characters are; it's a shaky premise aimed to please twenty-somethings' innate feelings of invincibility and superiority--which is fine, I guess, but there's nothing particularly original or even amusing going on.  In many ways, the beginning of Super is like the entirety of Juno (which also starred Page and featured Wilson): A movie so in love with its own indie cred and so over the notion of likable or engaging characters that all we're left with is ironic baby-talk (The Crimson Bolt's motto is "Shut up, Crime!") and 1960s-Batman-style sound-effects pop-ups in the style of home-room notebook doodles.

From the first wrench-blow on, Super becomes Natural Born Killers, minus the charismatic leads.  Libby joins Frank as his kid sidekick, Boltie.  Their first joint act of heroism: A home invasion where they beat a guy nearly to death because he keyed one of Libby's friends' car.  Ha, ha, ha, audience!  The joke's on you: Libby made the whole thing up because she got bored waiting around for crime to happen.

Wait, why aren't you laughing?  Squares.

Frank has doubts about his partner's mental state, but, damn, does she look hot in her little yellow-and-green costume! Given Page's petite, boyish frame, I'm not surprised Gunn made a point of calling out the fact that Libby is 22; even knowing that, there's a sick undercurrent of reverse-child-rape here--particularly in the scene where Libby forces herself on Frank in one of the lamest, most disgusting "No, no, I can't" sex scenes I've ever watched.

In addition to their budding sexual relationship, Frank and Libby become expert weapons-makers, trading in wrenches for knife-launching arm gauntlets, pipe bombs, and handguns (it's quite a turn-around for Frank, given his earlier inability to spell Jacques' name correctly and an apparent ignorance of/lack of access to the Internet).  Indeed, the climactic raid on Jacques' compound, during which Sarah is raped by a visiting drug lord in an upstairs bedroom (hugs!), The Crimson Bolt and Libby stab, explode, shotgun, and maim henchmen and inner-circle heavies with the relish of an eight-year-old pulling wings off a fly. There's absolutely no one to cheer for and nothing to anticipate, except the end credits.

Before we can get there, though, we must endure a bizarre and undeserved coda where we learn that Sara leaves Frank a couple of months after the daring rescue (which left everyone else--including Libby--dead).  She gets her life together and has four great kids with a swell guy.  Frank, meanwhile, is still just Frank; sitting on a bed, waiting patiently and dumbly for death--except now he's got a bit more self-esteem (I think).  The last three minutes are so antithetical to everything else in the film that it feels like a huge cop-out; this is largely due to the fact that we never figure out whether or not Sarah deserves to be happy.  For much of the film, she's strung out, and her other big development is leaving Frank for a drug dealer.  It's like the bullshit ending of Sucker Punch, where we learn that we weren't really watching Baby Doll's story; or the myth that New Jack City and Scarface are actually anti-drug movies.

Believe it or not, I think Super could have been a great film.  Had Gunn brought all of his sub-text to the surface and made a dark, bloody drama about mentally disturbed people fighting crime, he might have lived up to the one minute of greatness in his film (it's a fascinating mini-speech Frank gives to Jacques, right before stabbing him in the neck repeatedly).  Instead, he cloaks his message in the the pre-faded Misfits t-shirt of the indie comedy and relies on audience recognition of his wacky cast to carry him over his screenplay's morally dubious pitfalls.

I won't say too much about the cast--which seems to have been mostly drafted from a table reading of Gunn's first mainstream movie, Slither--but I can state, difinitively, that I never want to see Ellen Page in a movie ever again.  She's done, okay?  She made her mark playing a cloying teen in Juno.  She tried playing a grownup in Inception; didn't work.  She did the psycho-nympho thing here with results both laughable and terrifying.  Her shrill, shruggy, Jodie-Foster-with-Aspergers shtick has stunk up enough films that she just needs to take her corduroy-covered ball and go home.

Whew!  Sorry about that.  I feel better now.

The main difference between Super and Kick-Ass is that the latter's heroes were good-intentioned people who saw vigilantism as the only way to stick up for regular citizens oppressed by urban crime. Super is all about sad, unstable, and unlikable characters working out their issues through violence with the excuse that their actions are making a difference.  It could be argued that the Kick-Ass heroes do the same thing, but you have to dig deeper to find the evidence--whereas Super wears its illness on its blood-stained sleeve.

Kick-Ass also had a fun, comic-book-movie spirit to it.  Hit Girl's fight scenes were raucous rock videos of creative choreography and cartoonish violence.  Super goes for grit and realism, and winds up feeling more like a snuff film than a document of bravery.  It takes a deft storyteller to have it both ways, and Gunn is not gifted enough to pull it off (at least not here, which is surprising, because I loved Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake, which Gunn scripted).  With Super, Gunn goes back to his low-rent roots as a Troma Films writer; everything is exploitation and tits.  But I don't recall Troma films being this mean-spirited; they were low-budget splat-fests, sure, but their purpose was not to make the audience want to kill themselves.

Right now, I can't recall a bigger waste of talent, time, and limited resources as Super.  It's the kind of movie that, were it a comic book, would decry the corporate soullessness of the slick Marvel and DC rags, and bask in the credibility and charm of its own stained, crinkled, stapled-at-a-kitchen-table "realness".  But here are two things to keep in mind: There have been some inspired issues of Superman, and John Wayne Gacy used to work as a clown.

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