Sunday, May 8, 2011

Super. (2011) James Gunn

With all the heart of the 2006 Michael Rapaport ordinary-guy cum super-hero Special and a wee bit of the thrillish gore from Kick-Ass, but surpassing both films and easily holding its own in the faux superhero film canon, Super gives us the first powerless hero that I can remember who receives his calling from a Christian Television show and a vision from no other source than God Himself. Whether our hero lives up to God's calling or simply falls into the well established genre pattern of redemptive violence (a term that describes a myth, the way of the gun that only works at the movies) is hard to say. The film, however, is thoroughly engaging, from the onscreen visuals to its thumping heart.

An entertaining hodgepodge that meshes corny comic pastiche with a spiritual need for a life's calling, Super comes off as a winner, something I wouldn't have believed going in. It's hard enough to believe in a new superhero film even when it takes itself seriously, but these "comedies" are even harder to put much stock in. Super is a film that won me over regardless of any bias I had going in.

The film's got some stars with staying power, too. When restaurant cook Frank (Rainn Wilson - Dwight from "The Office") loses his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) to a drug relapse, she ends up living with the seedy gangster Jacques (Kevin Bacon) who happily keeps her habit in supply in exchange for having her. Getting on his knees bedside to pray, Frank gets the vision that he's a child of God, chosen to take on the enemy in the streets. Soon he dons himself in red and he's transformed into the Crimson Bolt, out to fight crime if he can find it, which takes a little while for him to figure out. Every hero needs a sidekick, and Frank's been visiting the comic book store to learn more about his new trade. The store's cashier Libby (the ever-adorable Ellen Page) will be transformed into Boltie, and the two will track Sarah down at Jacques' remote and secured fortress.

Super is pastiche art, compilation filmmaking where much of what we see is borrowed from previous sources. Sometimes it lifts elements in a tongue-in-cheek way, cleverly amusing as it borrows from 60s Batman TV (BAM! POW!). In other moments it reminded me of Tarantino, Robocop and Sin City. Perhaps a lower budget Tarantino, Robocop and Sin City.

But the film wouldn't have won me over without that element that is front and center -- as I mentioned before, it's got great heart.

Crimson Bolt and Boltie are clearly sociopathic, and we witness them, especially early in their careers, quick to jump the gun and kick the shit out of even the smallest of criminal acts: a line jumper at the movies gets his brains bashed in, a fellow that might have keyed someone's car is nearly beaten to death. But my interest in where the film takes these characters is two-fold: 1.) The need for a calling, a vocation, which is seen in both characters as greater than the need for revenge, and 2.) The calling of God that is on them (or at least on Crimson Bolt), which is questionable at best, but then again, what Old Testament prophet wasn't seen as half-crazed or at least questionably psychotic? Ezekiel, tied in ropes to lie on his left side for over a year? The plagues of Moses? The fire of Elijah? The prophet Jonah who gave the world's shortest prophesy and got the greatest results of them all?

There is little doubt that the same God that sent a pestilence killing 70,000 men because King David took a census could use a confused sociopath who, separated from his wife, is lost in the world and will find life's meaning fighting crime. The finger of God that touched Frank's brain and throws him into vigilante justice very well could have been the Real Deal. To rule that out is claiming a knowledge of All. But more than likely, the vision Frank got he only received because his brain is already warped. He is interested in the law and finding all those who break it, but what happens to a few of the lawbreakers he finds can hardly be referred to as just.

The film knows this, though, and plays in the themes of Frank's head to perfection. When it's all said and done, the audience can decide whether the actions of Frank are of God, or are even just -- but the film is smart enough to give us a side to land on, it suggests that there's a decent explanation.

It's also a smart enough film to steer away from a sequel, which makes it desirable to go back and see again.

I guess we can refer to Frank as an anti-hero. He's in that Travis Bickle/Michael Douglas Falling Down kind of mould. But from the laughs in the film's beginning to the serious sense of closure that we get, this is an anti-hero that I think gets a chance to grow. I really do hope we never see a sequel. It would help me to think that Frank moves forward.

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